STEPPING ASIDE?Ruth McNeely (on right), retired Director of Services, is pictured with Loretta McDonagh, Acting Director of Services at Mayo Rape Crisis Centre.?Pic: Conor McKeown
Mayo’s safe haven for victims and survivors of sexual abuse
Áine Ryan hears from the long time Director of the Mayo Rape Crisis Centre, Ruth McNeely, after her recent retirement
IF the recently retired Director of Mayo Rape Crisis Centre (MRCC), Ruth McNeely, could speak directly to An Taoiseach Enda Kenny, she would say: “Taoiseach, do not expect a child-protection service that is world-class, if you are not going to pay for it. Government has decimated the resources available to our services and has absolutely paralysed us with legislation and bureaucracy. This legislation is about protecting the system, not the victims and survivors.”
In December 2011, Ms McNeely praised the Archbishop of Tuam, Dr Michael Neary, for always being ‘efficient, careful and considerate of victims of sexual abuse’. She was speaking after the publication of a report on a diocesan audit by the National Board Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church.
However, she didn’t demur from saying: “It does not ever take away from the fact that it can take most people years to speak about what has happened to them and indeed the vast majority of victims keep their experience to themselves. The reporting procedure itself can be daunting whether to religious or civil authorities.”
Fourteen months later, in a two-part Mayo News exclusive about an adult survivor of incest, Ms McNeely observed that, notwithstanding all the reports and media commentary, it was ‘as difficult now as it was in the past to disclose abuse if it is within the family’.
Shockingly, she revealed that MRCC was ‘now working with the third generation of abuse within some families from both urban and rural backgrounds’.
There is a serious problem in our society, she said.
Clearly, the sordid and complex problem of sexual abuse has not been resolved just because a series of reports about a horrific culture of abuse in some Church and State-run institutions have exposed layers of systemic abuse in Irish society. This insidious abuse of power can have tentacles anywhere: in schools, churches, family homes, asylum centres, and in back streets or bedrooms late at night when the concept of ‘consent’ can become confused in a cloud of alcohol or drugs.
JUST days after her retirement this month, The Mayo News met Ruth McNeely and her successor, Acting Director of MRCC, Loretta McDonagh, in a room in the discreet town house in Castlebar where the crisis centre is based. Ms McNeely and McDonagh have worked together for almost two decades and their compatibility, professionalism and passion for their work is palpable. At the outset, they explain that it is important to recognise that there ‘is a real subtle difference between going for counselling and engaging with a rape crisis centre’.
“People only come to a rape crisis centre because something has happened, they go to counselling for numerous reasons. We can catch the depth and breadth of the impact of the abuse on the whole of their being,” says Loretta.
Abuse has an impact on every aspect of a victim (and survivor’s) life, they emphasise. And while, generally, the profile hasn’t changed much over the years, they have noted a concerning trend.
“Since 2002 we have been seeing more female asylum-seekers and more teenage girls than ever, particularly in the last four or five years,” Ruth says. “The centre is regularly confronted with the reality of the prevalence of sexual violence among teenagers in every town and village in the county.”
Both women emphasise how this age-group is ‘so vulnerable to sexual assault by acquaintances’ partly because there is ‘huge confusion about consent’.
“They don’t feel, for example, they have a right to ask to use a condom in case the romance is taken out of the interaction. Effectively, they are afraid to negotiate ‘consent’,” says Ruth.
Both herself and Loretta stress that ‘adolescence’ per se is ‘a vulnerable time’.
They refer to a recent report, commissioned by the RCNI (Rape Crisis Network of Ireland), entitled ‘Young People, Alcohol and Sex: What’s Consent Got To Do With It?’
While alcohol can diminish boundaries, there is also sometimes a feeling of pressure to engage in sexual acts.
The report, which was a qualitative study of a sample of university students, concluded that: “Gender expectations were, along with beliefs about alcohol use, used to frame consenting sexual activity as a script in which progressive levels of intimacy take place. There were numerous ways in which this process could become problematic – due to the overriding nature of male agency, female passivity, unspoken consent, and impaired decision making due to intoxication.”
On a positive and progressive note, both women have been ‘blown away’ by the level of support that adolescent and young adult friends offer the victims (subsequently ‘survivors’) of assault in recent years.
Loretta observes: “We are also seeing a shift in parents accepting their children’s stories and a deeper understanding of the impact of what has happened.”
YOUNG women in Direct Provision Hostels are very vulnerable too, says Ruth, who confirmed that MRCC has developed long-term relationships with some of these women.
“It is only a matter of time before we will have to have an inquiry into how children are being treated in Direct Provision Hostels. The circumstances of the vulnerable young people have been largely ignored, particularly since the recession,” says Loretta.
MRCC also supports men who are about 11 per cent of the service’s clientele down through the years.
Loretta adds that the problem of isolation is a reality for a rape crisis centre in a rural county like Mayo where some clients neither have a phone nor transport. In a bid to rectify this, the centre has expanded its services to Ballina and Belmullet.
The Child and Family Agency was established on January 1, 2014 and is now the dedicated State agency responsible for improving wellbeing and outcomes for children. It represents the most comprehensive reform of child protection, early intervention and family support services ever undertaken in Ireland. It offers these services: Child Protection and Welfare; Alternative Care; Family and Community Support; Educational Welfare Services; Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence.
Excerpts from Ruth McNeely’s retirement speech
“The mission of MRCC to believe and give witness to the worst that can be done by human beings has also allowed us to see the strength, the courage and the hope that each act of breaking silence can achieve.
Down through twenty years of sitting with victims of gender based violence, child sexual abuse and sexual violence has taught me to aspire to hope, not to despair, to aspire to love, not to hate, and to aspire to wait out the story, the wound, and the eventual music of healing.
“The profound courage and the profound loneliness of the survivor who can tell no one that they are seeking help, who cannot speak their hurt, who cannot tell that something has happened to them. Every act of breaking the silence around sexual violence releases an energy I believe of healing and of hope. It is not an easy road. It is still today an act of defiance and an act of revolution. And an act which all of us must be grateful for. I say to victims: say it somewhere. Find a safe person and a safe place. They are everywhere.”