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Sexual harassment ‘systemic’

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COURAGE Loretta McDonagh has praised Mayo native Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin for her courage in speaking out about her two year sexual harassment ordeal. Pic: Chris Bellew

Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin’s courage welcomed by director of Mayo Rape Crisis Centre

Áine Ryan

SEXUAL harassment is ‘a systemic issue’ that is ‘endemic’ in communities and companies across Co Mayo and not only a problem in big university campuses. That is the view of Ms Loretta McDonagh, the Director of Services at Mayo Rape Crisis Centre (MRCC), who has welcomed the courage of Carnacon native Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, who spoke out about her two-year ordeal of sexual harassment by a now former UCD colleague, Professor Hans-Benjamin Braun in an in-depth interview in Saturday’s Irish Times.
Speaking to The Mayo News yesterday (Monday), Ms McDonagh said: “As a service dealing with sexual harassment and violence the onus is on us – and, indeed, the general community – to make it safe to speak out about harrowing experiences.
“We need to guard against believing that what happened to Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin only happens on big campuses or in big institutions and corporations. Sexual harassment and violence is systemic in our communities. It happens where people are working or living together: the potential is everywhere and we need a cultural shift to stop it.”
Criticising the eleventh-hour apology by the President of UCD, Professor Andrew Deeks, she said: “Institutions have to be shamed into being accountable and responsive to such experiences by their staff. If this can happen to a woman who has some agency and profile in society, what can happen to a woman in poor working conditions where she has no job security?”
Ms McDonagh confirmed MRCC had first-hand experience of such cases.
“Aoibhinn’s case shows how subtle, pervasive and persistent sexual harassment can be. And, of course, we know this can happen to men too but the majority of cases are women. I think there is a culture still in our society that makes women afraid to come forward, and to even question and blame themselves. They are often still afraid they may have caused the behaviour in some way.”
Ms McDonagh argues that ‘the significant cultural shift’ in attitudes needs to be implemented fundamentally throughout our educational system.
She praised Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris’s plan to give more powers to the HEA (Higher Education Authority) by strengthening the frameworks it can implement regarding consent classes and a public awareness campaign. The minister said at the weekend it was time to adopt a ‘zero tolerance approach’ to sexual violence and harassment in third-level institutions.

MRCC busy
Meanwhile, Loretta McDonagh argues that: “We need to talk about consent, healthy sexuality and relations and improve our judicial system’s approach. There are already great changes happening in An Garda Síochána with the rollout of the Protective Services Unit.”
Asked about MRCC’s experience of the lockdown, she said that at the beginning, in March and April, the service was quiet.
“We moved online very quickly and became very busy since June. The traumatic impact of lockdown was triggering for survivors of abuse whilst abusers were able to take advantage of the vulnerability of their victims. Online predators also took advantage of so many younger people who took to social media,” Loretta McDonagh said.      
In the Irish Times interview, Dr Ní Shúilleabháin, an Assistant Professor in the School of Mathematics and Physics at UCD, revealed how Brawn (58) had repeatedly shown up in her office, asked her out on dates, persistently phoned her and in one incident followed her to a hotel in Cork where she was staying with friends.
Ultimately, he was issued with a court order in late 2019 barring him from contacting her for five years. He no longer works at UCD.