Calling out those calling out survivors

This opinion piece was published in the Irish Independent on the 16th of November 2017

We have experienced an extraordinary month of public disclosures about sexual harassment and assaults. What should happen now?

Suggestions range across questions such as, do we need to hear more from survivors of harassment in other institutions and not just the Gate Theatre and the Dáil for example? Do we need inquiries to hear survivors’ stories and should they be run by institutions or somehow independent? Who should hear these stories? Do we need to hear more from the men who are harassed?

In the face of stories from survivors, we say we want to hear more. Why? Have the stories already told not shown us how the powerful and entitled both used and were shielded by that power and how we were complicit, duped or turned a blind eye?

Those insights demand significant and painful work from us, this will include honest reflection on ourselves, our culture, our institutions and our certainties. Instead, responding to hearing survivor’s stories all too often we demand more survivors’ stories.

That is not a response – it is a delay tactic.

In rape crisis we are trained in listening because, despite the myths, we Irish are terrible listeners. We hear and see what we expect to hear and see, and that is often what is comfortable for us and not what we are being told. Survivor’s stories should make us uncomfortable, not just at the crimes of the perpetrators, but because of what they reveal about ourselves and our society.

Last week two amazing women, Amy Barrett and Melissa O’Keeffe, waived their anonymity and spoke about their father’s conviction for the years of abuse he perpetrated against them. What they led with in their statement was that it was not about the sentence for them, it was about his admission of wrongdoing, ensuring the protection of other children and closure.

They spoke about it being reported to the HSE in 1999, indeed one of the sisters had made a statement to the Guards much earlier when she was just a 16 year old child, only to withdraw it when she came under pressure from her family. The sisters, as part of their statement said that the HSE ‘could have done more’ back then and the case ‘petered out’.

In 2014 they had again reported their father and committed themselves to going through the criminal justice system and all that that demands of survivors and then last week they waived their anonymity so he could be named and they could tell us what happened in their case. We owe them a tremendous debt but it should not have been their burden.

Two decades since it was first reported these sisters spoke about finally have the peace of mind that their father cannot abuse other children. One of the sisters spoke of how she was finally free of the feeling of guilt and anxiety for other children’s safety; a guilt she knew did not belong to her but she had carried nonetheless.

The media reported their words giving them the voice they had been denied decades earlier. Their words were powerful, informative and insightful. But apart from reporting their words, what did the media do?

Did journalists ring the HSE or Tusla or question the process with the Guards? If policies and procedures were followed, does the Minister know if the current system is sufficient and effective? If a 16-year-old child makes such a statement to the guards today will we have to wait until 2040 before we can say that they and other children are safe from the named abuser? How many journalists asked searching questions about what happened in the two decades between first disclosures and the conviction? Few.

Instead, in a familiar rehash of a truism, many headlines read that the sisters had waived there anonymity in order to call on more survivors to come forward, or more strongly, urging them to report. These headlines presumably deriving from the sisters’ supportive statements such as that, it did not matter how long it took a victim to come forward – it was never too late. Survivors often do find it helpful to hear other survivors speak out, perhaps particularly when that is not a step they feel they can safely make themselves.

But the lesson, the media told us, was not that we needed to demand better from society and the responsible institutions when disclosures are made, but that we needed more survivors to come forward.

Survivors deserve a response that lifts the unjust burden from their shoulders; that carries the questions and lessons forward to challenge power. Otherwise survivors are left holding our burden. In this moment we must become better listeners. We have a responsibility to act when survivors speak their truth.

Clíona Saidléar, PhD, Executive Director, Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI)