That was the system

The distinguished English writer, G.K. Chesterton, said that it was interesting the significantly different view one could get of St. Paul’s Cathedral if one stood on one’s head to look at that beautiful Christopher Wren building.

The distinguished English writer, G.K. Chesterton, said that it was interesting the significantly different view one could get of St. Paul’s Cathedral if one stood on one’s head to look at that beautiful Christopher Wren building.

He was talking about perspective; about the way we chose to look at something; about the stances we take; the interpretations we favour; our agendas. In the current very angry debate, Cardinal Seán Brady was wrong in not informing the parents of abused children, whose experiences he recorded, as a note-taker, 37 years ago. He has said that he then viewed his role from a perspective of deference. That perspective was the conviction that the Canon Law of an authoritarian church was superior to the laws of the State.

The perspective from which the State itself dealt, through its courts, with the victims of such abuse, up to the late 1960s, is also interesting, even if one has to stand on one’s head for that backward glance. The courts were cold, formal, intimidating places for people, whether adult or child, already traumatised by the experiences which brought them there.

These were never, of course, meant to be comfortable or accommodating places, since their sole function was, and is, the pursuit of facts, of truth and ultimately of justice. But for the victim of rape (usually a woman) in the decades before very modest reforms, a court appearance, both as a victim and a witness, was isolating at best and even terrifying.

She would have found herself in an all-male milieu; an all-male jury; an all-male legal profession; a male judge. Although the introduction of ban-gardai did make some difference, she would, in all probability, have been interrogated by a male-garda.

While today, the examination and cross-examination of any woman making the serious allegation of rape, is no less rigorous than in decades past, nor should it be, in modern court hearings she will be allowed the comfort of a family member or a friend, in comparison to the isolation of the former system. And at least half of the legal representation, and maybe a judge, will be female. Many women still see the necessity of a full exploration of the minutiae of the assault as an abuse in itself. Nevertheless while it is necessary, the general climate has marginally changed for the better.

The process of abused children through the courts was no better, except that the majority of these abuses occurred in the family, and usually the defendant made a plea of guilty, and so saved the child from a recital of the details. However, where such a plea was not made, the effects on the children can only be imagined.

I particularly recall one little girl aged nine (and a rather immature nine!) who left her home one sunny Sunday afternoon to walk to the village shop, a few hundred yards, down a country road, to buy her weekly treat of sweets. She was waylaid and sexually assaulted and the accused entered a non-guilty plea, so the case had to proceed to a full hearing.

When the little girl was called into the witness-box, she was obviously bewildered. She did not understand anatomical descriptions. Her voice was small and rumbling. Though her mother was allowed to accompany her to the court, she was alone in the witness-box, surrounded by serious unsmiling men, all dressed in peculiar clothes and wigs.

Because her replies could not be heard, she was taken to the Judge’s bench where she sat beside him, and he relayed the questions to her, and in turn he relayed her answers to the court. There was no other route in the pursuit of justice, but the legacy of the assault, and the subsequent challenge of the court hearing, is ultimately known only to the girl herself and her family. But that was the system.

The system also imposed an embargo on the actual reporting of such cases, so there was little or no public knowledge either of the crimes or of the consequences. The hearings were always held in camera; everybody, except the relevant witnesses, being excluded from the court-room.

Restrictions on reporting were lifted in the mid-1970s, though still circumscribed. The sentences and the names of the accused, where these did not reveal the identity of victims, could be published. It was not until more detailed content reportage was allowed, that the public became aware of the extent of this type of crime.

In fact, the actual reporting of these cases uncovered a hitherto unrevealed horror in society, where victims realised, for the first time, that they were not alone, and that there was some redress. This brought an increased flow of cases into the court system.

But the Women’s Movement, and the formation of Rape Counselling groups, were the catalysts which brought the hitherto nightmare of sexual abuse into the cold light of day; an nightmare which could be frankly discussed in society. Concurrent with this opening up, studies in the United States confirmed that paedophilia was not just a temporary aberration, which could be cured by removal from the alleged source of “the temptation,” but that it was an inherent and toxic character flaw, which had to be managed. This study then became part of the expert evidence in the courts.

The Irish public has made a long journey from then to now: from a system of controls operated by the institutions of church and state which covered up, even accommodated, abuse.

It was a system which imposed oaths of secrecy on little boys, restricted open access to our court hearings, circumscribed newspaper reportage, and which has left in its trail so many victims, including the institutions themselves.