Limerick student's five year wait for justice after sexual assault while sleeping

David Hurley

Reporter:

David Hurley

Details of the sexual assault which happened at a house in the city almost five years ago emerged this week at Limerick Circuit Court

Details of the sexual assault which happened at a house in the city almost five years ago emerged this week at Limerick Circuit Court

A LIMERICK student who woke up to find a stranger “trying to have sex” with her has described how her life was “ripped to shreds” by what happened.

Details of the sexual assault which happened at a house in the city almost five years ago emerged this week after a young man pleaded guilty to charges relating the incident.

During a sentencing hearing, Limerick Circuit Court heard the victim – now aged 24 – was asleep in a bedroom having gone to the home of another student following a night out.

The investigating garda told John O’Sullivan BL, prosecuting, there were a number of other people in the house on the night and that a considerable amount of alcohol had been consumed.

The court heard the incident happened sometime after the victim had consensual sex with the student she went home with.

The investigating garda said the accused man, who is aged 29, entered the bedroom in the early hours of the morning and got into the bed with the woman while she slept.

The woman described how she initially thought it was the man she had slept with (earlier) and did not react but that she “freaked out” when he climbed on top of her and she realised he was a stranger.

After the other people in the house became aware of the commotion, the woman returned home and gardai were alerted.

The defendant was asleep in an attic bedroom with his boxer shorts on “inside out” when gardai arrived a number of hours later.

He admitted entering the bedroom and ‘spooning’ and cuddling the woman before engaging in foreplay.

He told gardai “she wasn’t pushing me away” and  that he believed she was “well into it”.

The man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, agreed the woman screamed and ran out of the room when she saw him after he climbed on top of her.

The court was told a file was prepared for the Director of Public Prosecutions who subsequently directed that the man be charged with sexual assault.

However, due to a number of factors including the investigating garda going on maternity leave and the accused man travelling to Australia and New Zealand he was not charged until last year.

In a victim impact statement (published below), the woman criticised the delays relating to the case.

“Little did I know that the nerve-wracking and painfully drawn-out process of getting a sexual assault case to court would last almost five years, five years in which I have been stuck in a miserable limbo, waiting for judgement day and unable to move on with my life,” she said.

The woman described how being the victim of a sexual assault “continues to colour almost every aspect of my life” and that the defendant had stolen the best years of her life from her.

“My early twenties, a time that is usually carefree and full of excitement and adventure,” she said.

Judge O’Donnell was told the victim did not know the defendant and that there was nothing to indicate “flirting or anything of that sort” prior to the incident.

“There were no exchanges between them prior to the accused going into the bedroom,” said Mr O’Sullivan.

Lorcan Connolly BL, defending said his client accepts his behaviour was “entirely unacceptable” and that it was very distressing for the young woman.

He told the court the apprentice electrician has no previous convictions and has not come to the attention of gardai since the incident.

“He did one very wrong thing five years ago”, he said adding there are no difficulties with alcohol or drugs in the background.

Adjourning the matter, Judge O’Donnell noted a “substantial period of time” has elapsed since the offence happened.

He said he has certain responsibilitiesas a judge and that he has to balance the aggravating factors and the mitigating factors in determining the appropriate sentence.

He directed that none of the parties be identified at this stage.

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‘Regardless of what his excuses might be, the fact is that he decided to violate my dignity and bodily integrity as I slept’: Victim Impact Statement

It is difficult to put into words how catastrophic and utterly life changing it is to be sexually assaulted. I am still grappling to come to terms with the consequences of that night, which has had an untoward effect on my mental health, my personality and the course of my life.

When I arrived home to my college house late that night, sobbing and shivering, I told my friends that I could not go to the gardaí because I was going abroad for my internship a few weeks afterwards and so would not be around to follow through with the case. Little did I know that the nerve-wracking and painfully drawn-out process of getting a sexual assault case to court would last almost five years, five years in which I have been stuck in a miserable limbo, waiting for judgement day and unable to move on with my life. The girls convinced me otherwise and have been by my side all the way through the ordeal.

The first hurdles facing a sexual assault victim deciding to file a complaint are the necessary but nonetheless traumatic procedures of going to the hospital to provide DNA samples and undergo testing for STIs, as well as going to the garda station to provide a statement. The hospital visit involves the uncomfortable procedure of a woman sticking a cold instrument into the most intimate part of your body, a part that already feels detached from you, like it doesn’t belong to you anymore, the part of me that still burns with clawing shame every time I happen to be sitting through a scene in a film or TV show that depicts sexual assault. The lonely journey into the garda station to provide my statement was conducted on my birthday.

Next comes possibly the worst part of the waiting process: waiting to hear back from the DPP regarding their decision to prosecute or not. I have to count myself lucky as mine was one of the cases where it was felt there was enough evidence to proceed.

Although I am hugely grateful to the garda for taking care of my case, I have to admit I was extremely frustrated at the lack of support from An Garda Síochána for victims looking for information on their cases. I was told that (the garda dealing with the case) was on maternity leave, and nobody seemed to be dealing with my emails in the meantime. It was only when I returned to UL, when I was able to go to the garda station in person and had the inevitable breakdown explaining my situation to a garda, that I was put in contact with by (the garda dealing with her case) through her personal number, as she was still on leave and nobody else seemed to know anything about my case.

A few months later I got the call from her bearing the good news that the DPP had decided to go ahead with the prosecution. This was a huge relief and it was only at this stage, more than a year after it had happened, that I felt able to tell my family. It was the most difficult conversation of my life having to tell my mother that I was sexually assaulted.

The news from the DPP brought with it a new kind of waiting: waiting for (the garda) to arrest (the accused), a step which he made exceedingly difficult. I will never forget receiving the call from (the garda) telling me that she had been at the airport ready to arrest him before he boarded a flight to Australia, but that he had gotten the boat instead and fled that way – lengthening my sentence in purgatory and making the process even more nightmarish, as we now had to face the prospect of extradition. That was the summer that I started on anti-depressants; “to take the edge off” as my mother put it.

I started counselling, trying to face the demons that I had spent almost two years trying to suppress. It was during this semester that my friends told me that I should seriously consider giving up drinking. Since the assault happened I could barely have a night out without ending up in the bathroom crying. Alcohol brings down the barriers your sober self is able to maintain, but once they come down it is a seemingly endless flow of grief that comes rushing out. I described it to one counsellor as trying to hold back a great waterfall with a bucket.

Being a sexual assault victim continues to colour almost every aspect of my life. It remains the omnipresent elephant in the room that has to be addressed with any romantic partners, as I attempt to deal with flashbacks which flare up in direct correlation with the developments of this court case.

It is a horrible irony that a crime that has nothing to do with sex – rather power and control – will continue to affect the victim in this most private aspect of their life long after the crime was committed.

I don’t know if (the accused) believes what he did was wrong or if he regrets it. Regardless of what his excuses might be, the fact is that he decided to violate my dignity and bodily integrity as I slept. I don’t care that he stopped when I woke up. It was not my fault because I was drunk that night or because I chose to go home with a guy that I barely knew.

I chose to do those things, as is any adult’s right. He did not give me any choice in what he did to me or in what was to come afterward.

He deserves to pay for what he did. My whole world was ripped to shreds that night, and he made picking up the pieces infinitely more difficult for denying it, for evading arrest and for running away to Australia. I feel like he has stolen the best years of my life away from me; my early 20s, a time that is usually carefree and full of excitement and adventure. I told a counsellor in college that he ruined my life. I’m trying my best to make that statement untrue, to unlock the power that he holds over my life.

I wrote the above statement before I knew that (the accused) was going to plead guilty. When (the garda) called me the day before it was due to go ahead to tell me about the plea, I felt what can only be described as pure and utter relief. It felt like the pressures and stress of the years of waiting had been lifted.

The ironic thing in all of this is that I felt grateful to (the accused) for changing his plea, for sparing me the ordeal of a trial and for finally owning up to what he did. It is a strange thing to feel gratitude towards the individual who reduced you to a person that was at times nothing more than a shell, to the person who changed the entire course of your life without your consent.

I don’t care how much time (the accused) gets. I have a life sentence as a ‘survivor of sexual assault’, a term that is supposed to give me some sort of agency in a crime that I had no agency in. What I needed was a guilty verdict or plea. Now that I have it I can go back and try to start the healing process again.

The above is an edited version of the victim impact statement