'The legal system breaks you, I want to change that' – childhood abuse survivor on helping others

A WOMAN who was raped as a child has said that the Irish courts system “broke her a bit” and she is now determined to help other abuse survivors to get their voice back.

Leona O’Callaghan (37) endured a lengthy legal process before Patrick O’Dea (52) was jailed for 17 years last November for repeatedly sexually assaulting and raping her from when she was just 13-years-old.

O’Dea, also known as ‘Whacker’, of Pike Avenue, Limerick, pleaded guilty on the second day of his trial to charges of sexual assault and rape on dates in 1994 and 1995.

His 42 previous convictions include a single sexual assault on another girl aged under 10. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison for multiple rape and sexual assaults of a girl over a six-year period between 1998 and 2004. He continues to maintain his innocence of these charges.

Ms O’Callaghan has bravely waived her right to anonymity and is calling for changes to the legal process of rape trials in Ireland, saying that she “barely made it through.”

She said that she has struggled for years after her abuse and has attempted to end her own life several times.

The mother-of-two told Independent.ie it’s a weight of her shoulders to know that O’Dea’s trial is over and that he pleaded gulty.

“It’s such a relief to know it’s behind me, you’re bracing yourself for so long, not knowing how you’ll cope or what could happen.

“I feel so much better knowing that the court case is behind me, I feel like I’m going from strength-to-strength now.

“It’s all mind games and stays with you, I just wanted him to know that I don’t love him or care for him but I have had to accept his version of reality is so different to ours so there’s no point in even trying to understand him.

“He was already serving a prison sentence but it’s definitely a huge help to know he’ll be there longer and I won’t have to worry about him,” she said.

Ms O’Callaghan, who lives in Askeaton, Co Limerick, set up Survivor Support Anonymous (SSA), which is based on a 12 steps programme and is focused on helping survivors of sexual, physical or emotional abuse to cope with trauma and begin to move forward.

She explained: “We try to be more solution focused than problem focused, we don’t actually talk about what happened specifically to people as that could be a trigger for others.

“Although we do advise that people do go to counselling so that they can be supported and grounded in a way that only one-on-one counselling can do.

“Each week we take a task to improve our wellness, for some members that might be as simple as to take your medicine every day, for others it might to sleep properly and for others it could be to find something fun to do for yourself.

“I can see the difference in people already after just two-and-a-half-months, I can see people who were ashamed feeling like they can speak, it’s very powerful to watch.

“We want to help claim back our lives and to get out of survival mode and start to move forward.”

This week SSA marked their official launch with an Exhibition in Limerick called Clothes Don’t Rape People, Rapists Rape.

They displayed clothes similar to ones people wore when they were sexually assaulted in.

She said: “It shows the insignificance of clothes, there’s short skirts, red underwear, a boy’s Communion Day outfit, a little girl’s princess nightgown and boxers to represent a man who was raped by a male friend.

“It’s so broad and we want to show it has nothing to do with the clothes, you’re always asked what were you wearing when you were raped and that shouldn’t be allowed as a defence.

“The only common thread between all of these different items of clothing is that they are similar to what people were wearing when they were raped, clothing doesn’t cause rape.”

Determined Leona said she wants to use her experiences to make the legal process easier for other survivors of sexual abuse.

She notes: “I had so many questions throughout the trial and I only really had my investigating garda to ask, then they’re so busy that you don’t want to feel like you’re bothering them.

“All the way through it was quite lonely, I really felt like that was what was missing for me, there were support groups but there weren’t boundaries for what people could talk about and I found that quite triggering.

“I needed a safe space with people who would completely understand it.

“The legal process was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done – I barely made it through, there were parts where I was very suicidal, you lose yourself in it at times.

“I think that’s why I’m so passionate about making changes in the current system, it does break you a bit on top of what you’ve already been through, it shouldn’t be like that,” she said.

“Resources need to be given to be given to the guards and DPP to bring cases to a close more quickly, overall the system needs to be a lot more sensitive and there should be restrictions on what the defence can throw at you, such as commenting on what you wore, what threw me was when O’Dea was described as not violent in court but what could be more violent than raping a child?

“Sometimes you feel like the morals and ethics of being a good person can be left outside the door of the court when it comes to questioning victims.

“I think there are ways of improving the process, I would like to be able to look other victims in the eyes and say if they come forward it’ll be a safe path because at the moment I can’t do that, I barely made it through it.”

Ms O’Callaghan said that she is now determined to embrace the future with her two teenage children.

She said: “We had the most amazing Christmas, I brought the kids to New York, it was good just to get them away from it all.

“There was so much more exposure from the case than I could have imagined, it was good to get O’Dea’s face out there and I was delighted everyone will know what he is and hopefully that will protect others.
“At the same time when you’re in the middle of that it can be quite hard and triggering, it raised a lot of questions for the kids and it was a hard time.

“I wanted them to know it’s over after this big struggle throughout the last few years, I wanted them to see the world is a good place and just to put smiles on their faces again.”

  • For more information about Survivor support Anonymous please call 085 1492977 or visit www.survivorsupportanon.org
  • If you have been affected by any of the issue raised in this article you can contact the Rape Crisis Centre on their 24 Hour Helpline on 1800 778888 or visit www.rapecrisishelp.ie

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