'People talk about rape when it hits the headlines but we should talk about it on an ongoing basis'

Cathy Connolly, director of Galway Rape Crisis Centre

Cathy Connolly. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

Cathy Connolly. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

For more than 30 years, the Galway Rape Crisis Centre has been offering vital support to victims of sexual violence and abuse. Founded in 1984, the centre is the second largest in the country, after Dublin, and facilitates nearly as many client appointments as its capital counterpart while operating on half the budget.

Over an illuminating afternoon chat at the centre’s premises in the Lodge, Forster Court, executive director Cathy Connolly outlined both the range of services which GRCC provides and areas where social awareness of issues around rape and sex abuse needs to improve.

“Our clients are the focus of all our work here and everything we do is intended to help them and to improve their lot,” Cathy begins. “We have 18 part-time counsellors and 20 volunteers. We’re funded by TUSLA, who provide almost €400,000 per annum, which is about half of what we need, and last year we raised €100,000. We still don’t have enough money to see everybody promptly, and when somebody is brave enough to come here and ask for help it’s hard if we have to tell them they can’t be seen by a counsellor immediately.”

It can be especially hard where the client is reporting an assault that occurred years earlier, as Cathy explains: “Say someone was raped tonight and they went to the guards. They would be brought to the Sexual Assault Treatment Unit where forensic evidence would be taken, not necessarily for them to pursue it legally, but it gives them a choice. If someone comes 40 years later, they don’t have that opportunity, so you are dealing with one person’s word against another unless somebody witnessed the crime.

'Kids’ awareness of self-care and minding your body and consideration toward other people, whether that be a boy or a girl, all gets distorted because of what they can see on the internet'

"When people come to us after years of waiting to talk to somebody they sometimes just want to have it acknowledged because it has impacted their lives in everything they do, how they work, how they are with their partner, or perhaps they never had a partner because of it, how they are sexually, how they are with their kids. It is a constant thing in their heads. Some people can function by putting the memory out of their heads but it never goes away, and then something might trigger it, reading something in the paper, hearing someone on the radio, seeing something on TV, and that will prompt them to decide ‘I have to deal with this now’.

"Once they start opening up it might take them weeks before they can say what happened. The counsellors will help them to deal with their feelings. Very often people feel badly about themselves, they feel ashamed, they feel they were responsible but they never are, it is a crime to abuse a child and they have to know that.”

'If young people come, they can be more resilient, they might need 10 weeks of counselling but if it is someone who has held this inside them for years, when they come it will take much longer to process the whole trauma'

“Nobody is ever ‘cured’ of having been raped,” Cathy continues. “People learn to process it, to accept it, to deal with their emotions and to know that if certain triggers happen how to react to those. We give them the skills to cope with the stresses. Nobody can change what happened but you can learn how to deal with it in your own way. Some manage better than others, some need more time. If young people come, they can be more resilient, they might need 10 weeks of counselling but if it is someone who has held this inside them for years, when they come it will take much longer to process the whole trauma. Over 90 per cent of sexual violence and abuse is perpetrated by someone known to the victim and can include members of their own family. It’s very difficult when a victim is telling their story and it involves other people in the family.”

The pernicious influence of the internet on attitudes toward sex, especially among teens, is another issue that Cathy highlights; “One of the things I have a real bugbear about is online pornography. Kids’ awareness of self-care and minding your body and consideration toward other people, whether that be a boy or a girl, all gets distorted because of what they can see on the internet.”

'It can be tough to go to court. There are a lot of sympathetic legal people there but I’d like ongoing discussions for people to be educated to understand things better'

To counter this, GRCC runs sexual awareness classes for transition year students as part of a programme funded by the EU and TUSLA. The programme was developed by all 16 of Ireland’s rape crisis centres in partnership with the Manuela Riedo Foundation. “That programme has been going amazingly well,” Cathy states proudly. “It is a six week programme of double classes so they get plenty of time. They are very explicit in discussing the subject but in a way that is age-appropriate – and we get parental permission beforehand.

"It works really well in a mixed class. I have gone to some of those classes just to observe and it is fascinating to see the openness that develops between the boys and the girls. Maybe there is some giggling at the start but they want to know the facts and the skills to deal with situations. It is great to hear the girls saying ‘Now the guys know what we think of this’ and the relief they all experience because it is out there and it is open; they are discussing something that otherwise they feel they can’t ask anyone about. They also give us feedback at the end of the programme; the kids are so resilient, and bright, and open and willing to engage with it.”

As well as sex education for teens, the victim-blaming seen in an Irish court last week suggests classes could usefully be extended to lawyers. “There could be more education for the legal profession,” Cathy agrees. “We work with the Director of Public Prosecution’s office to provide support for victims who proceed to court. It is important to realise that the DPP argues a case on behalf of the State, not the survivor, and that is difficult for the survivor to understand. It can be tough to go to court. There are a lot of sympathetic legal people there but I’d like ongoing discussions for people to be educated to understand things better.”

'I do think it is harder for men to come in and they are very brave to come. I think the amount of men we get is only scratching the surface'

Cathy compliments the skill set of the gardaí in Galway in dealing with sexual assault cases. “We are very lucky here because we have a dedicated unit," she says. "If one of our clients are taking a case they will use a room we have here and the guards, who are sensitive, will come not in a squad car but will walk up to the premises in plain clothes. They’ll meet the client here and take their statement. They are very co-operative around taking the report and dealing with it going forward. The Garda team here have the skills to deal with it.”

While the majority of GRCC’s clients are women, Cathy emphasises the centre is also available for men. “Last year about 11 per cent of our clients were men, the previous year it was 16 per cent. One of the things we want to make clear is that we are here for everybody regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or whatever. I do think it is harder for men to come in and they are very brave to come. I think the amount of men we get is only scratching the surface. There are a lot of men who have been abused and don’t come forward because they are afraid that they won’t be believed. We’re not seeing enough men and I’d like to get it out there to come in you will be treated with respect, confidentiality, and kindness the same as we treat the ladies.”

As well as the classes in secondary schools GRCC also provides disclosure training classes in third level colleges and workplaces which teaches how to respond to a friend confiding details of an assault. A further area of expertise is in dealing with refugees who may have come here from war-torn countries where sexual violence was rife or grew up in patriarchal cultures where it is taboo for women to speak out about rape.

“What I would love is for people to know not to be afraid to come,” Cathy concludes. “People talk about sex abuse and rape when it hits the headlines but it is something we should talk about on an ongoing basis to raise awareness around it so that we can effect changes in society around it. If it’s only spoken about when something major happens it’s quickly forgotten. We need to talk about it so people will recognise the signs and know where to send someone who is looking for help and remove the shame element from victims of abuse.”

GRCC’s helpline number is 1800 355 355.

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