If crimes are ever scaled on the amount of horror and anger they provoke, then the sexual assault of children is one that is often near the top. There are few offences that cause this sort of outrage in a community, that go to the heart of every family, that cause such division. It is the fear of such an allegation that has sadly led to a reluctance by many people to become involved in activities that bring them into contact with children in intimate situations, for fear that such an allegation may be made in these increasingly litigious times.
Coaches of football teams, of swimming teams, leaders of Boy Scout and Girl Guides activities are becoming harder to source because of this fear. It is sad, but necessary that increased vetting is necessary in order to ensure that such roles are filled by trustworthy decent people and not by predators.
With this in mind, you can imagine the horror that befell Michael Feichin Hannon a decade ago when he was accused of sexually assaulting a neighbour’s child in a remote Connemara village, ironically the same village that last week in this column I was sympathising with after the tragic drownings there. You can imagine the helplessness he felt as he struggled to defend himself against the word of his accuser, a ten-year-old girl. And so it was that he was tried and convicted — he would have gone to his grave with the stain of the alleged offence on his character, were it not for a chance encounter between his sister and the defendant many years later. In this meeting, the now adult victim told of her desire to set the record straight and of how she had made up the allegations in some sort of misguided loyalty to her family who were engaged in an ongoing feud with Mr Hannon’s family. Were it not for this chance encounter, none of this would have ever come to light and Mr Hannon’s ‘guilt’ would have been presumed by all, leading to a life of isolation and shunning by all who abhor such crimes.
However, thankfully, the record has been set straight and he can now go back to reclaiming his life and claiming whatever compensation he feels he is due as a result of this miscarriage of justice.
One hopes that this case will not do damage to those genuine cases where actual abuse does occur.
Ireland has one of the highest rates of false rape allegations in Europe and cases like this week will do little to aid the prosecution rate. Research carried out by Trinity College Dublin and London Metropolitan University has found that nine percent of all rape allegations made here were false. One would hope that this has nothing to do with another finding of the report that Ireland's conviction rate for rape cases is one of the lowest in Europe.
So what can be done to counter this? Often, the word of a solitary child is all that a prosecutor has to go on, as predatory child abusers are clever, manipulative people who do not leave themselves open to having their crimes witnessed or corroborated by other witnesses.
If corroboration was to be sought for all cases where the sexual abuse of a child was alleged, it would be virtually impossible to secure any convictions, and abusers could remain at large and a danger to children.
A balance has to be found to ensure that real abusers are brought to justice and innocent men like Mr Hannon do not suffer as he did.