The sentencing last week of Stephen “Rossi” Walsh for the sexual assault of a seven-year-old girl some 20 years ago is simply one of the dozens of crimes against women that pass through the Central Criminal Court each year.
62-year-old Dubliner, Walsh hit the headlines because of his long and glittering career as a criminal and arsonist. This week, the papers pointed out that this was the man who won prisoners the right to vote from jail, picking over the juicy details of a long and varied career as a manipulative thug. He received 15 years in 1993 for torching a pub but this week he received a mere three for simulating sex on a little girl. During the trial last month, he actually handled the cross-examination of his victim himself, asking her why it had taken her so long to come forward.
He’s already serving a 10-year sentence for the rape of a 9-year-old girl in the 1990s.
His case makes me angry, but sadly it’s not particularly unusual. Every day the Central Criminal Court deals with similar trials. Working there, you see a constant procession of crimes against women – murder, rape, abuse. The official figures might show a drop in rape trials passing through the courts, but it’s hard to see that on the ground. In the court list for this Monday – which includes both trials due to start and cases that have not yet come to trial but need to be raised before the judge for any number of reasons – nine out of 12 cases are crimes against women.
Most of these cases will not be reported. Rapes do not make headline-grabbing copy. Both accused and alleged victim have the right to anonymity until a verdict, so any reports must take care not to identify either. In practice, this means being vague about locations and using a lot of pronouns. When the case is one of incest, then the accused cannot be identified even after conviction, for the sake of his victims. This is only right, but as a journalist I can see the value in naming and shaming. I genuinely think that the public has a right to see the faces of these dangerous men and to see what they are capable of.
I can understand the view of victims who want to move on with their lives and would like to forget what happened to them; who would rather the case sank into obscurity. The French student viciously raped by murderer Gerald Barry made a strong case in her victim impact statement against the media coverage her case would receive. But less than two months after he had raped her, Barry had gone on to kill, and possibly also sexually assault, Swiss language student Manuela Riedo. The likes of Gerald Barry and Larry Murphy may generate hysterical headlines but there are other cases that can never be reported. Men just as vicious, just as brutal, just as manipulative and dangerous, who will never be known.
Covering the Central Criminal Court, you see the shattered lives of numerous women. The childhoods crushed and blighted, the fumbling, terrifying attacks, false imprisonment, manipulation, men who think of women as a lesser species. In the worst cases we hear of lives snuffed out. Husbands unable to deal with the breakdown of a relationship or unable to cope with a strong woman as a wife after a coddled youth. Men unable to let go. Even when it’s a woman in the dock, the story is often of a wife striking out after years of abuse. The courts give you an in-depth view of the darker side of the relationships and a real sense of how much further there is to go for women in this country.
When sentences for rape are generally less than a decade and abuse cases usually end with sentences of less than half that, it’s no wonder violence against women doesn’t show any real sign of letting up. According to the Rape Crisis Centre, a tiny proportion of rapes ever make it to court and it’s not hard to see why. Stephen Walsh’s questioning of his victim was unusual, but there would be nothing to stop it happening again. Until the moment the accused is convicted, he is an innocent man in the eyes of the law and perfectly entitled to act in his own defence.
As we’ve seen in the case of Dan Foley from Listowel, who had his hand shaken by dozens of men as he awaited a sentence for the rape of a local woman, even public attitudes can be shockingly biased against the victim. It takes a very brave woman to take the stand in a rape case, but thank goodness some do.
When their attacker is subsequently handed a sentence less than five years, few women feel it’s worth all the pain. Stephen Walsh got 15 years for arson, for destroying the bricks and mortar of a pub. For destroying the childhoods of his two victims he got a total of 13 years. Drug offences can carry a minimum sentence of 15 years, but rape can result in a suspended sentence. Judges here cannot even opt to run sentences consecutively if they relate to the same series of charges. The maximum the convicted man will serve is the longest sentence handed down. Then every prisoner in an Irish jail has an automatic right to a quarter off their sentence. A carrot to ensure good behaviour in jail, but surely not one that’s appropriate in every case. When he was sentencing Gerald Barry, Mr. Justice Paul Carney pointed out that there are some who do not deserve this light at the end of the tunnel, but he was not in a position to do anything about it.
Judges often make comments about the lengths of sentences they are permitted to impose, but nothing ever seems to change. Until the Government introduces a sentencing structure for sex crimes that is a proper deterrent, it’s unlikely things will improve. There are more female barristers graduating every year and the media based full-time in the courts are predominately women. It’s a shame that the system doesn’t show equal evolution and start treating crimes against women as seriously as they should be treated. Surely we’ve come that far?