By Orla O'Donnell - RTE News - 30.07.2023
In a month where five people who suffered sexual violence all allowed themselves to be publicly identified, RTÉ's Legal Affairs Correspondent Orla O’Donnell examines why survivors make the difficult decision to waive their right to anonymity and what happens when the spotlight moves on.
It has been an overwhelming week for 22-year-old Karen Harkin from Buncrana in Co Donegal.
Since waiving her anonymity on Monday and Tuesday as her father Michael Carter was jailed for ten-and-a-half years for raping and abusing her as a child, she has been inundated with requests for interviews from media organisations all around the country.
It is "very different territory" she says, from being silent for so long to being "out everywhere". So far, she has no regrets.
She says waiving her anonymity has helped her to release the feelings of guilt she had about the abuse and she says that even though it may take years for her to feel fully free, she wants other people to speak out and to know that they will get help and support. However, she realises that the emotion and the enormity of what has happened has not fully hit her.
"I feel like I’m sort of just watching it happen, at the minute," she explains.
Karen Harkin’s powerful words outside the Criminal Courts of Justice and in her interview with RTÉ News, came at the end of an extraordinary month during which at least five people who suffered sexual violence waived their legal right to remain anonymous so they could speak publicly or to allow the perpetrators to be named publicly.
It wasn’t a decision any of them made lightly, nor was there pressure put on them to make it.
Most of them proactively made contact with the media, either directly or through an intermediary, making it clear they wanted to be identified or to speak out and seeking guidance about how to do it.
The fact that Irene Cullen, Ken Grace, Ciara Mangan, Danielle Gallagher and Karen herself were all able to come forward this month, and speak about their separate ordeals, is thanks in no small part to the actions of one young woman more than 30 years ago.
Lavinia Kerwick rang up the Gerry Ryan Show in 1992 after the man who raped her as an 18-year-old the previous year was allowed to walk free from court. His sentencing was adjourned for a year and he subsequently received a suspended sentence. She didn’t make any attempt to hide her identity when she called the radio show and told Gerry Ryan to call her "Lavinia".
Now, she says, "without a shadow of a doubt," there have been moments in her life where she has "absolutely regretted" going public.
Lavinia says she faced a backlash in her hometown. The man who raped her, her former boyfriend, William Conroy, went back to his life, whereas there was an attitude towards her, she says, that she should stop "making a show of him" or "embarrassing" herself.
The nationwide reaction to her words however, led to the start of a process to allow victim impact statements to be heard in court and to a change in the law to allow the DPP to appeal the leniency of sentences.
That is quite a legacy, but Lavinia points out it involved a "huge sacrifice" on her part. She says she could never get her "foot back into the real world" afterwards. "That was gone," she says. She didn’t have a chance to heal and recover and ended up being defined by the crime committed against her. "I would love to have been an ordinary person to get married, get a mortgage, to be a normal person," she says.
She points out that a decision to go public often means that the victim’s name is the one that people remember, while the identity of the offender is forgotten.
Those who report the crime but don’t want to go public are equally brave, she says, and adds survivors should do what they need to do for themselves. "Get yourself right, get what you need and walk away."
Niamh Ní Dhomhnaill
Niamh Ní Dhomhnaill says no one around her wanted her to waive her anonymity. But the 36-year-old felt it was the only bargaining power she had left, after the man who raped her received a wholly suspended seven-year sentence in July 2015.
Magnus Meyer Hustveit had been her boyfriend but admitted raping her and sexually assaulting her as she slept. Niamh says she felt "picked apart" in court and by the end of the process, she felt "invisible".
She didn’t want the suspended sentence imposed on Hustveit to become a precedent and she believed waiving her anonymity was "the only shot" she had at drawing attention to it. The DPP successfully appealed the leniency of the sentence the following year and the Court of Appeal imposed a 15-month jail term on Hustveit.
Niamh says, like Karen Harkin, she felt freedom when she came forward and still feels it was worthwhile. But she points out that support for the survivor is vital. She urges people to think about what they want to achieve by going public.
Often, she says, they want to help other people but she wants them to remember that is not their job. It is exhausting when you speak publicly, she says, and when the intense media interest goes away, it can be difficult. Niamh, who now works as a clinical psychologist, says recovery is the best form of justice. She says victims need to recover and heal. "Don’t let it become your life’s mission," she says. "You have to try to find your way back to some previous version of yourself."
For Jason Clancy from Waterford, the decision to waive his anonymity initially had an unintended and a devastating consequence. He was abused by sports coach Bill Kenneally in Waterford and says he never intended to waive his anonymity at all. He first went to gardaí after finding out the man who abused him was on the committee of a basketball club.
Later, he decided to go public because of his unhappiness with the garda investigation into allegations against Kenneally. However, after he gave his evidence in court and described how Kenneally told him he would never be believed if he reported the abuse, a mix-up by a media organisation meant Jason was named in an online article as the perpetrator, instead of Kenneally.
This mistake went all over the internet, he says, and "devastated" him and it wouldn’t have happened, he points out, if he hadn’t waived his right to anonymity. Despite this however, he says he would not change anything about his actions.
Four other men also went public at the time about their abuse by Kenneally and he says the public pressure they put on politicians forced the Government to establish a commission of investigation into the allegations and how they were dealt with.
"It was hugely unusual," Jason says, "for five grown men to be in the newspapers talking about how they had been abused as kids." He says previously it had all been very "hush-hush". He says going public was very hard and "like coming out of a closet".
Previously, he says, if you had googled his name, you would have seen articles about his business, but after waiving his anonymity, his name was linked online with a paedophile and with being a victim. However, he says he was aware in advance that this would be the case.
He says there were positives to his decision. At least two other paedophiles in Waterford are behind bars now, he says, because other people saw what the men in his case did and went after their own perpetrators. He’s angry though at the lack of support for victims. He says he and the others abused by Kenneally were never offered any counselling.
He paid for counselling himself after gardaí gave them some numbers to call. While it’s hoped the commission of investigation will finish its work this year, Jason says Kenneally’s victims shouldn’t have had to "put themselves out there" to get it established in the first place.
Mick Finnegan is also angry about the lack of support for victims of abuse. He has described being raped as a boy by a then senior member of the St John's Ambulance organisation.
Despite an investigation, the man has never been prosecuted and Mick doesn’t believe going public was of any benefit to him.
"Since I did it, I’ve been hit with stigma and marginalisation," he says. He has seen the support some survivors are surrounded by, but he says he himself has no one and admits he is "struggling".
Mick thinks it's more common for boys who report abuse not to be believed and he says they get a lot of abuse online. He believes as a society we don’t want to know about sexual crimes committed against men and he thinks this stops men talking about how they feel.
Ken Grace, who saw his abuser, former school principal Paul Hendrick jailed for three-and-a-half years earlier this month, agrees this is a concern. Ken says he had a worry that when people found out what had happened to him, they would perceive him as "weak" and would question how he had let the abuse continue.
Although he has not spoken at length publicly about the abuse he suffered, due to ongoing legal proceedings, he says he waived his anonymity because he wanted to get his story out there and encourage others to come forward and report abuse they too had suffered. He also wanted people to know what Hendrick had done, he says and what such abuse does to a person’s life.
Ken says his emotional development stopped when the abuse started at the age of 12 or 13.
He believes a part of himself was missing and by waiving his anonymity he felt he was able to reconnect with his 12-year-old self and get some closure. Ken says a decision on whether or not to go public depends on the person involved. "It was the right choice for me," he says. "If I can help one person come forward, get rid of their demons and get some justice, my job is done."
Chief Executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre Noeline Blackwell says those survivors who speak out are performing a great service. Although, like Lavinia, she too points out that those who don’t want to do so are also brave. She says many do it for the sake of other people, but she warns it can come at a big emotional cost. People need to make themselves aware of what the consequences could be, she says and should not speak out on impulse.
The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre has a website called wespeak.ie where survivors can share their stories without any pressure to make a report to gardaí or identify themselves in any way.
This is a safe space, Noeline says, for people to give an account of themselves without having to do anything else.
She likens rape to a chronic injury that can flare up if too much pressure is put on it, even if someone feels they have empowered themselves and can manage it. She stresses also that there is more to do in terms of how the media deal with the victims of sexual crimes. They need to be treated respectfully, she says, and shouldn’t be treated as "freakish".
Lavinia Kerwick says she doesn’t know if she will ever be at peace with what happened to her.
She thinks it’s a different world for survivors now and doesn’t want them to feel the "isolation, loneliness and hatred" she felt. Lavinia sits on an advisory committee for the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and often expresses her support for survivors who have gone public in social media posts, as well as speaking to them personally behind the scenes.
She says she wants for them, what she was never given, the opportunity to walk back into their lives and go on to live "good, happy" lives. Lavinia stresses that survivors are not standing outside court because of something they themselves have done. She says it’s important to remind people that these men and women are not standing up publicly because they want to be there. "They’re there because a crime has been committed against them," she says. "They’ve been subpoenaed because their body is a crime scene." The adrenalin will go when the attention goes away, Lavinia says. She adds they need to be able to answer the question: "What will I do after that?"
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can contact Dignity4Patients, whose helpline is open Monday to Thursday 10am to 4pm.