The ultimate sentence may have been lenient, but was not outlandishly so, writes Michael Clifford
WHERE was all the anger when therapy services for abused children closed in Cork, Galway, and Tralee last year? Where is the public outrage that funding to conduct a comprehensive survey on the extent of child and adult sexual abuse has been withdrawn? (The last sexual assault and violence in Ireland (SAVI) report was compiled 15 years ago and another is long overdue.) Where is the political pressure to ramp up services for abused children to a level befitting an alleged civilised society?
These questions arise in a week in which there was a lot of anger across large parts of society at the sentence received by Tom Humphries for grooming and abusing a child.
Humphries, a former sports writer with The Irish Times, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court on Tuesday.
A widespread consensus, shared by this column, had it that the sentence was too lenient. Among the factors that Judge Karen O’Connor took into account were the character references handed in from sports writer David Walsh and former Cork hurler and coach Dónal Óg Cusack, both of them friends of Humphries.
The leniency was, in most quarters, perceived as showing disregard for the victim. To this end, many elements of the media and the public vented anger in a show of solidarity with a victim who was subjected to the kind of assault that often has life-long consequences. Many
commented that the judge appeared to be more empathetic to Humphries than his victim. While this was a distortion of the judge’s comments, it still got major purchase across all media, particularly on social media, where a huge cohort of society receives its news.
Sexual crimes against children are the worst kind of violation imaginable. While murder obviously has worse consequences for the victim, there are sometimes mitigating circumstances for that crime. Society at large can often reconcile itself to a murderer, while it can rarely do so to a child abuser.
So many found the Humphries sentence baffling, and most of this was expressed through anger. We have been here before. In other cases, involving other types of violent crime, when a sentence perceived as lenient has been handed down, everybody gets angry on behalf of the victim. Except that this solidarity with the victim manifests itself only when retribution is at issue.
The same solidarity is nowhere to be found when it comes to services for victims of violent or sexual crime which are designed to aid recovery.
Two outstanding issues arise from the Humphries case. The sentence does appear lenient, particularly considering the chilling and sustained grooming that was involved. But while politicians have reacted by surfing public anger, the law that they enacted allowed for a maximum sentence for the crimes in question of five years. In that context, with a guilty plea, remorse, and co-operation taken into account, the ultimate sentence may have been lenient, but was not outlandishly so.
In any event, Humphries’ sentence will persevere long after he leaves prison.
The crime he committed ensures that he will be treated as a social pariah, cast out from society most likely for the term of his natural life. He will find it extremely difficult, if not impossible to reintegrate. The abuser thus condemns himself to a life sentence in which the gap between incarceration and alleged freedom is relatively narrow. This “pariah” sentence is a reflection of the abhorrence with which society regards the crime, and particularly the vulnerability of victims.
Notwithstanding that, the case once more gives rise to questions over sentencing and training for judges. There is no reason why the latter could not be undertaken immediately.
Consistency in sentencing will only be achieved through a body such as the Sentencing Council which operates in England and Wales. This council dilutes judicial discretion by publishing a range of sentences for specific offences.
Judges are not confined to the range but must give a good reason for venturing outside.
The range of sentences is set by the council, which includes members of civic society, as well as the judiciary and lawyers. The council also goes out into the community to educate the public about sentencing and receive feedback.
In the UK, the Sentencing Council has an annual budget of around €2m, which sounds like great value.
If the body politic was more concerned with generating confidence in the criminal justice system — and sentencing in particular — it would get cracking.
But resistance from judges, and little political will to scratch beneath the angry veneer of society means that victims will continue to feel short-changed. And society at large will occasionally convulse in fits of righteous indignation in solidarity with the victim.
The other matter that arose last week was the character references provided by Walsh and Cusack. The two men were excoriated in some quarters for making what was just a bad judgement call. (Walsh’s case is more complicated as he gave a radio interview a few years back in which he went further than pledging to stand by his friend).
One headline during the week ran — ‘Humphries Walsh Cusack — The Shame Game.’ Did the pair deserve to have their poor judgement bracketed with their friend’s vile crime?
Much of the comment suggested that the practice of character references should be discontinued. But to what extent?
Should it be discontinued only for crimes of child sexual abuse? Or violent crime? Or all crime? The issue is more complicated than portrayed.
The reference provides a more rounded picture of the offender. For instance, should the court be informed if an offender was himself subjected to horrendous sexual abuse as a child? Should the sentencing judge regard the offence in complete isolation from the offender’s history? If that is to be the case there is an argument that any record of past offences shouldn’t be introduced, which would be an alarming departure.
All of these matters are complicated, and not solvable in a newspaper column, talk show or phone-in programme, or particularly on Twitter. They require detailed research and debate, long after the transient anger has dissipated.
The immediate reaction to sentencing in crimes of high emotion is understandable.
Violent crime, and particularly crimes of child sexual abuse, are a visceral business. Those who would inflict severe damage on other human beings elicit a base desire for retribution.
But that is going to do little or nothing to tackle issues like reporting the crime, identifying its prevalence, providing resources to heal victims, and treatment for offenders that might lessen the chances of re-offending.
These are the issues that a society which claims to stand in solidarity with victims should instead be getting angry about.
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