The Victim of Historical Child Sexual Abuse in the Irish Courts 1999–2006

AuthorSinéad Ring
Date01 October 2017
Published date01 October 2017
Subject MatterArticles
The Victim of Historical
Child Sexual Abuse in
the Irish Courts 1999–2006
´ad Ring
University of Kent, UK
In recent years, Ireland has been rocked by revelations of historical child sexual abuse.
This has led to a variety of state responses but one question remains particularly difficult
to answer: why did the sexual abuse of children go unrecognized as a societal problem
for so long? This article seeks answers by scrutinizing cases in which defendants sought
to have their trial prohibited because of the delayed reporting. It explores the legal test
used in the period 1999–2006, which focussed on the abuser’s ‘dominion’ over the
victim. The use of the notion of dominion elicited valuable information about the reasons
for the delay and how children were silenced. Uncovering these stories is essential to
understanding the dynamics of child sexual abuse. However, a critical reading of the delay
cases that draws on feminist critiques of battered woman’s syndrome and rape trauma
syndrome reveals law’s power to impose hegemonic discourses onto victims and to
produce new histories. Under the dominion paradigm, the courts distorted victims’
accounts of their experiences and sidelined stories that pointed towards a culture of
indifference to abuse. Thus, law is shown to occupy a paradoxical position in relation to
Ireland’s history of child sexual abuse.
Battered woman’s syndrome, feminism, historical child sexual abuse, Ireland, law and
history, rape trauma syndrome, victims
Corresponding author:
´ad Ring, Kent Law School, Eliot College, University of Kent, Canterbury CT2 7NS, UK.
Social & Legal Studies
2017, Vol. 26(5) 562–580
ªThe Author(s) 2017
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/0964663917694706
Like many other countries, Ireland has been rocked by reve lations of widespread
sexual abuse of children perpetrated decades ago. The heightened public awareness
around historical child sexual abuse has led to a variety of responses by the state,
including a formal apology by the Taoiseach, the establishment of statutory inquiries,
the provision of mechanisms of redress for victims and the institution of criminal
prosecutions for historical sexual abuse offences. However, one question remains
particularly difficult to answer: why did the sexual abuse of children go unrecognized
as a societal problem for so long? Some factors have been identified as important in
this regard, such as the state’s deferential attitude to the Catholic Church (Department
of Justice 2005; Commission of Investigation, 2010; Conway, 2014: 172; Commission
to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA), 2009; Ferriter, 2009a: 442–462), a lack of
accountability mechanisms within and between state and non-state bodies (Holohan,
2011: 18), and harmful constructions of childhood, child welfare and sexuality (Buck-
ley, 2013; Powell et al, 2013). It is also clear that some victims of clerical abuse did
not report due to a fear of not being believed (CICA, 2009). However, little consid-
eration has been given to the role of Irish society in maintaining the silence that
surrounded child sexual abuse for most of the twentieth century. This silence was not
necessarily due to an ignorance about the nature and harms of abuse. Rather, it seems
that for most of the last century child sexual abuse was well known, if not widely
admitted (Ferriter, 2009b: 21; CICA, 2009 Vol III: 114; O’Malley, 2009: 656;
Maguire, 2007: 86). Thus, it is important to ask: who was silencing abused children?
Specifically, how were children who were abused in families, residential institutions,
day schools, sports teams and other places kept silent? What did adults do when faced
with a child who was abused? How did victims – as children, and later as adults – try
to resist or cope with a culture of indifference? These questions are important in order
for Irish society to begin to understand its role in the dynamics of historical child
sexual abuse and to learn how it can better protect children from abuse in the present.
One place to begin look for answers to these important questions is law. From the
early to mid-1990s onwards, unprecedented numbers of adults reported to the police
(gardaı´) that they had been sexually abused as children (Ring, 2013). These cases
continue to feature frequently in work of the courts. They involve a much broader range
of abuse than that examined by the state inquiries; they include abuse by fathers, uncles,
teachers, coaches and school bus drivers, for example. The delay between the abuse and
the making of a formal complaint to the police is typically many decades. Defendants
charged with historical abuse offences may seek to have their trials prohibited on the
grounds that a fair trial is impossible due to the delayed reporting.
The High Court (and,
on appeal, the Supreme Court) must decide whether to allow the prospective trial take
place. From 1999 to 2006, the courts employed a legal test th at involved extensive
scrutiny of the reasons for the delay; in particular, whether the victim was suffering
under the ‘dominion’ of the abuser and was therefore unable to report sooner. If domin-
ion was found to have existed, the delay was held to be justified and the trial was usually
allowed to proceed. This test was replaced in 2006 with one that focusses on the unfair-
ness of the prospective trial.
Ring 563

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