A FORMER judge is calling for anyone producing a sex offender's character reference to be named and subjected to cross-examination in court.
Former District Court judge Michael Pattwell's remarks follow comments made by Sexual Violence Centre founder, Mary Crilly on the subject.
The sexual abuse prevention advocate said that victims she has dealt with have felt distressed and extremely betrayed by the support for their abusers. She added that the number of people providing character references for abusers over the years has been highly disturbing. Ms Crilly voiced concern that although the majority of judges refused to be swayed by them, they are still a major concern. She is now appealing for the writers of these references to be identified in court.
Retired judge Michael Pattwell described why he feels the situation needs to change.
"People handed me letters of recommendations but I wouldn't read them," he said.
He spoke of one case from the start of his career that remains etched in his memory.
"Early on in my career, a character witness was called for someone who had sexually abused a child. He was speaking at length about what a good person he was and how great he was for helping out in the church and community. I asked him if he knew what the person was charged with and he replied 'no'.
Mr Pattwell explained why he has dismissed written character references in the past.
"People have handed me letters of recommendation but I never read them. If the person giving the character reference wanted to get into the witness box and give their evidence and be open to cross-examination that's fine. However, I'm not taking a letter that's not open to cross-examination.
To say that something is not within a person's character is a contradiction. They have committed this crime so it is clearly in their character."
He said that anyone submitting a character reference for a sex offender should give serious thought to their decision.
"They can give a character reference but let them stand over it in a witness box where the other side can question them. There is no law that allows someone to issue a character reference. It's up to the judge to accept it. You can write anything but stating it in a witness box is a completely different kettle of fish.'
The Cork man said the devastating effect of sexual abuse crimes should never be underestimated.
"The sexual assaults that I have dealt with in the past would have been considered minor. I hate even categorising them because what people might class as a minor sexual assault I don't feel is ever minor. I still find it hard."
Meanwhile, Mary Crilly said that those standing up for sex offenders should be prepared to be named.
"However, I'm not buying that as an excuse. The person just needs to stand back and say I'm keeping out of this. They should either be strong and say no or take the consequences of being named."
She added that those giving character references are generally well-known in the community.
“Very often it's employers or people involved in local organisations in the community,” she said.
“You are left asking yourself ‘who are you to have that power?’.
“It's time that people start being held accountable."