To sympathise with the groomer is to fall prey

We should not feel sympathy for Tom Humphries. One expert says we need to realise nothing happened to him, that it’s entirely of his own design, reports Joyce Fegan

THE groomer doesn’t just manipulate their victim, but everyone around them.

They build relationships through the careful cultivation of trust. They use their status to protect themselves. Then, when they fall from grace, because they’re supposedly just like us, they elicit our sympathy.

But to feel sympathy for the likes of convicted sex offenders, such as Tom Humphries, is to wholly misunderstand the purposeful, premeditated, and intricately planned nature of grooming.

“What we often find is that when a perpetrator identifies and targets someone to groom, they’ll groom everyone around them. They work to set up that silence. In domestic violence, for example, the abuser is often the most upstanding member of society,” says Cliona Saidléar, director of the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland.

She believes the outpouring of sympathy in cases such as Humphries stems from a range of complex things.

“We want to believe that the perpetrator is someone who will stand out, they are someone who does not do good things. But they do, and these good deeds are designed to be part of the cover-up. We want to know we will recognise these monsters among us, but most predators and perpetrators that walk amongst us you won’t recognise,” says Ms Saidléar.

She believes it is absolutely essential that we pull apart the issue of responsibility when dealing with perpetrators of sexual abuse.

“In relation to the judge’s [Judge Karen O’Connor] comments around sympathy [for Humphries] and what has happened to him, we need to realise that nothing happened to him. This is entirely of his own design. Nothing befell him. We must not take the responsibility away from him. He is responsible for what is happening to him. He created this,” she says.

Child and adolescent psychotherapist Joanna Fortune has worked with victims of grooming and sexual abuse. She explains the dynamics of this so-called relationship: “The groomer is doing what they do in order to make a connection, in order to build trust, in order to sexually exploit — this is the endgame.

“The young person cannot control this. They think they can’t tell anyone. They may have sent a picture or a message. This is the nastiest part — the victim is made to feel as if they were complicit.”

In relation to the Humphries case and the commentary of sympathy that surrounded him, she believes it is because people can relate to him.

“They too were hoodwinked. They didn’t know this version of him. We minimise and say, ‘He did good things’,” Ms Fortune says.

In the Humphries trial, he received two character references, one from former hurler Dónal Óg Cusack and another from sports journalist David Walsh.

While these letters are a normal part of any criminal trial, it is not every defendant who has access to such publicly trusted individuals.

Ms Saidléar believes that, just like Humphries’ well-thought-out grooming, these references were specifically acquired.

“He massively fed into his status. He couldn’t have picked more iconic figures to write character references for him. He tapped into his status to protect himself,” she says.

“To see him as broken by this is wrong. He is the author of his own downfall.”

The epic downfall of a sex abuser, from the top echelons of society to unemployed and ostracised loner, can also be a powerful way in which the public’s sympathy is evoked.

In the case of Humphries, he fell from being a father, husband, friend, and “acclaimed journalist”. However, if we are to vindicate abusers’ victims and hold perpetrators to account, justice must not discriminate depending on wealth or status.

“It’s got to be the same justice for all. Say the perpetrator is someone who is estranged from their wife, long-term unemployed, and has a daughter, and that relationship is all they’ve got. You can argue that this a lot to lose compared with a job in the public eye,” says Ms Saidléar.

“No matter what your role, you lose something, we cannot have a hierarchy of losses. Justice needs to be evenhanded. You can’t say, ‘Oh they fell from grace and lost that job and that should be enough punishment for them’.”

Ms Saidléar points out that when friends and family decide to stand by a perpetrator, it is best done by holding them accountable for their actions, not minimising their crimes and celebrating their unrelated achievements.

Humphries’ daughter was the one who discovered explicit messages on his phone.

“In relation to those who stand around perpetrators — that is precisely what his (Humphries’) estranged wife and daughter did for him. He is still her father and she held him accountable. These are the people who risked it all,” says Ms Saidléar.

Maeve Lewis, the director of sexual abuse charity One in Four, runs the Phoenix programme, which provides group therapy to non-convicted sex offenders as part of a prevention strategy.

“What we have learned is that they use minimisation, they lack knowledge of the grave harm they have caused, and they have distorted thinking in relation to how they came to cause such harm. They say the act was a spontaneous thing, it was outside of their control, when it was, in fact, a very purposeful act,” she says.

Ms Lewis describes the group therapy, where two therapists are always present, as a long and challenging process.

Speaking specifically about the Humphries case, she says that she has heard far more about what he has gone through and “very little” about the victim’s experience.

“The perpetrator is thinking he needs sympathy and support rather than focusing on the harm done to the victim,” she says.

Both Ms Saidléar and Ms Fortune talk about the legacy left by grooming and sexual abuse, how it shatters our most fundamental of instincts as a human being, our capacity to trust, and not just others but ourselves as well.

“It fundamentally gets in at your relationship with yourself. You’ve been gaslighted. You’ve been convinced you can’t trust yourself,” says Ms Saidléar.

Ms Fortune says that from her own professional experience, “repair is possible” and it comes down to attuning to your gut instincts and learning to trust them.

However, what is most difficult for victims of grooming she says, is to come to the understanding that what happened to them was abuse.

What they most need to hear is: “This is not your fault. You did nothing wrong.”

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