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Sex Offenders and Vigilantes: You can’t beat up a structural problem

A few weeks ago while on a bus going through Cabra I noticed some posters pinned to trees alerting locals to the fact there was an alleged rapist in the area. They included his photo. This kind of thing always reminds me of a media story a few years ago about a bunch of headers in England kicking in the door of a paediatrician mistakenly thinking that paediatrician has the same meaning as paedophile. An unfortunate mistake for all concerned. The thought occurred to me while travelling through Cabra, that it wouldn’t end well.

Last night I noticed something on facebook. Someone had liked a public status update from Cabra based city councillor. As it was public and I presume that this Councillor uses this to communicate to his constituents, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest he won’t mind me reposting this here (I have however, not included his name in order to prevent whining from The Left (™) that I’m criticising politicians for my own nefarious political ends):

 

Attack on House on Attracta Road

 

The disgraceful attack on the house on Attracta Road on Sunday night has completely undone the positives of the community uniting against the presence of serial rapist Trevor Byrne in our area. The female occupants of the house were once again terrified by people claiming to be against violence to women. Byrne hasn’t been positively identified in the area for almost a week and wasn’t in the house when the raiders burst in and searched it.

 

The peaceful community campaign appeared to be working as Byrne was keeping his distance. Local residents leafleting the houses in the area warning about his presence and putting up posters put real pressure on Byrne and the Gardai monitoring him. The rally on the Cabra Road on Saturday, while poorly attended, did keep the pressure on Byrne. Ironically, the occupants of the attacked house were at the rally supporting their community against Byrne only to find themselves attacked the very next day.

 

This attack has done untold damage to the community campaign to have the right to know about sex offenders in their areas. The Gardai and the local politicians will claim the attack as proof that working class communities could not be trusted with sensitive information about sex offenders.

I want to be really clear about this from the outset, and say that my sympathy does not lie with rapists and sex offenders.

Everyone’s priority should be keeping communities safe, so it’s completely understandable when a tight-knit community hears there’s a rapist in their midst that they will want to organise and protect one another. In saying that, I think it’s fair to ask what exactly the organisers of this rally thought was going to happen when they organised it.

The purpose of a rally is to engage people, give them something to do, demonstrate the importance of an issue and increase a level of solidarity. It would be absolutely foolish to think you could have a rally designed to highlight a rapist’s presence in an area without some kind of vigilantism potentially happening as a result. It is in no way “ironic” that “the occupants of the attacked house were at the rally supporting their community against Byrne only to find themselves attacked the very next day.” It was completely predictable. To write it off as ‘just one of those things’ is a little disingenuous.

The problem with this kind of vigilantism is that it creates exactly the level of hysteria in a community that leads to women in house cowering in fear as a bunch of men enter and demand to know where a rapist is because someone, somewhere along the line made a mistake as to the rapist’s whereabouts. And this Councillor is of course correct, it is the exactly the sort of thing that is listed by the Gardai, and politicians as a reason not to notify people when there are sex offenders living nearby. But he also leaves out that Barnardos, the NSPCC, and even the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland are against giving this sort of information to local communities in general too. Because it results in the doors – or worse, the heads – of the paediatrician and innocent bystanders being kicked in.

There are of course other problems with it. When the community focus is turned towards a convicted serial rapist that everyone knows about, it perpetuates the myth that women are more likely to be dragged down an alleyway in the dead of night by this particular man and viciously attacked. While there may be a risk of that happening, the fact is that women are far more likely to be raped by someone that they know. Over 80% of rapists are known to their victim. It is often someone that they trust. Children are more likely to be raped or abused by a family member or a friend than a stranger in the street. One in four women will be raped or assaulted in their lifetime and only one in ten of those rapes are ever reported. It’s a staggering statistic and it shows that abuse and assault is sadly embedded within our society, so when there’s a pursuit of one rapist, the vigilantism has a smack of “Don’t touch our women” about it. Because even when the motives are genuine and sincere, and those who act do so out of genuine love for, or solidarity with the women in their lives it really does leave a very big question as to where the regard or solidarity is for the women in the next community that the sex offender is pushed in to.

Communities taking justice into their own hands doesn’t always work out so well; Trayvon Martin was shot by a vigilante. However, there are situations where people cannot for one reason or another, engage with the police or gardai. When communities are abandoned by the state, and are used to fending for themselves, it is not unforeseeable that they will take matters into their own hands and such situations will arise where they will find and punish someone who has perpetuated an awful crime. When the justice system that exists will not address the needs of its constituents, they will find a way to seek their own justice. There are still ‘no-go areas’ in Dublin for the Gardai. But Cabra certainly isn’t one of them and this group was not comparable to the Gulabi Gang of India.

I am not qualified to assess whether there is a genuine risk to a community because of a convicted rapist’s presence, but the fact remains that even if he has been driven from Cabra, the 1 in 4 statistic tells us that there’s still a few more sex offenders in Dublin 7 whether they are known to the community or not. It probably would have been far better if this could have been used as an opportunity for a community conversation on sexual violence and how and where it usually happens, issues of consent and how to negotiate it, breaking down some of the myths around rape, and how we might prevent sexual violence from happening in the first place. It certainly would have been more productive than having a gang of blokes storming into a house to terrify the very women they purport to protect.  

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3 responses »

  1. Thank you for writing this. It’s a must read for every person in the country. I find it so hard to watch people on Prime Time discuss how the state should fund schools with a religious ethos. We seem to have learned nothing.

    Reply
  2. Your sympathies should lie with sex offenders. The greatest constituency for pedophilia is children, who are quite forthright in showing their attraction to the adults they like. To deprive children of their right to love is to seed society with more madness.

    Reply

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