Justice system - Conviction rate for rape is pathetic

There were 16,331 calls made to the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre in 2005, according to the centre’s annual report published yesterday.

That was an increase of almost 2,000 calls on the previous year.

Some 46% of the calls involved the sexual abuse of children, which was up by 11% on 2004.

Ellen O’Malley-Dunlop, chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, attributed the rise in the number of child sex abuse calls largely to the Ferns Report. Many of the callers were adults.

They had been abused in their childhood, but had only just become confident enough to believe that they could speak about it without being ridiculed or disbelieved.

Some had suppressed the secret of their sordid abuse over decades, and were availing of the chance to unburden themselves by talking to somebody who would afford them a sympathetic ear. This would have been a significant relief to many on the basis of sharing their burden.

Strangers were responsible for just 3.4% of the child sexual abuse, which means that over 96% of the perpetrators were known to their victims. This would have made reporting the crime so much more difficult for the victims.

In its first year in 1979 the Rape Crisis Centre received only 78 calls.

The dramatic increase in calls since is the result of a combination of a rise in the number of sexual assaults and a growing confidence that people are developing in the services being provided by the Rape Crisis Centre. The centre offers a comprehensive counselling service to help victims.

The silence is gradually being broken, but a tremendous amount remains to be done.

The figures reveal a frightening lack of confidence in our system of justice. Of the 335 people who used the centre’s counselling services last year, only 95 reported their assaults to gardaí.

Almost two-thirds of the assailants were known to their adult victims, which made it particularly difficult for those people to report the crimes. But even of the 95 people who were brave enough to inform the gardaí, only five cases made it to court. One of those resulted in an acquittal, while the other four ended in convictions. It is a pathetic conviction rate in light of the overall figures.

Part of the problem is our adversarial system of justice. Following the trauma of their assault, many people find it difficult to endure the medical forensic examination necessary to gather evidence. This is especially true for people in vast areas of the country, as there are only four scattered Sexual Assault Treatment Units (SATU) to cover the whole country. These are in Dublin, Waterford, Cork and Letterkenny, with the result that the bulk of the west coast and the midlands are without proper coverage.

The problem was highlighted recently when a woman assaulted in Kerry had to travel to Waterford to be examined, as there was no one available to examine her in Cork. This necessitated the woman travelling from Kerry to Waterford without washing or changing her clothes in order to facilitate the forensic examination.

The Government has promised to provide two more SATU, but even that is not sufficient. It should also ensure, without further delay, that some local doctors are trained to gather the necessary evidence in more remote areas.

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