THERE was a palpable anger on the streets of Cork yesterday as several hundred people gathered on Patrick Street at lunchtime to protest about the handling of sexual assault cases in the Irish justice system.
‘We have to make a stand’ and ‘we need change’ were the phrases that came up again and again as people discussed their reasons for attending the rally, many of whom held up underwear or carried signs about consent.
There was such a large and vocal turnout that a decision was made to walk to Anglesea Street, where underwear and signs were left on the courthouse steps.
The demonstration was prompted by comments, made in a Cork court last week, which have gained attention around the globe.
In the closing address of a case where a 27-year-old man was found not guilty of raping a 17-year-old, the defence barrister told jurors they should have regard for the underwear the teenage complainant wore on the night.
“You have to look at the way she was dressed,” the barrister said.
“She was wearing a thong with a lace front.”
There has been no suggestion that the jury’s verdict was wrong or that consideration of the girl’s underwear played a part in their reaching the verdict but the comments have caused widespread anger.
The issue was raised in the Dáil this week and has led to widespread calls for judicial reform.
Rally organiser, Fiona Ryan, said the case was indicative of the Irish courts’ handling of sexual assault cases.
“Once more we have been reminded by the judicial system that what you wear, what you do, where you go and who you look at can be used against you in a court of law,” she said.
Activist Mary Crilly, of the Cork Sexual Violence Centre, said the hundreds who turned out on Patrick Street also stood for many more who could not.
“There are a lot of women who have been abused and raped who aren’t here,” she said.
“They could not bring themselves to come today because it is too close to them. But they have been ringing in and saying that they really appreciate that this is happening.
“From my point of view, I feel like saying ‘here we f***ing go again’.”
Ms Crilly said this was broader than the comments from any one individual, it was about the overall culture in the courts.
“We need to reform the courts and get guidelines in place,” she said.
“There is no reason why guidelines can’t be introduced to say this isn’t appropriate.
“When you go to court everything is up for grabs. The victim could be on the stand for a few days, the accused doesn’t have to go on the stand at all.
“He’s not asked what underwear he was wearing or was he wearing any? It is totally unfair.”
She said her decades working with victims has proved to her that clothing does not make a difference.
“What do they want, young girls to go around in chastity belts?” she asked.
“I have met women in their 80s who have been raped, I‘ve met 14-year-olds who have been raped, they wore jeans and everything else.”