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'Between the justice system and the rapist, they both tore my life to shreds': Lavinia Kerwick

Rape survivor Lavinia Kerwick, who made legal history as a teenager in 1992 when she waived her anonymity to speak publicly about her rape ordeal and appalling experience in court, made an emotional address a gathering at the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre today.

The conference audience included Garda Commissioner Drew Harris and Irish Examiner reporter, Caroline O'Doherty, was on hand to recount what she had to say in full.

Rape survivor Lavinia Kerwick at the launch of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre Annual Report at the headquarters in 70 Leeson Street Lower, Dublin 2. Picture: Rollingnews.ie

The justice system broke me

"It was a horrific rape, a horrific rape trial and it resulted in a guilty plea but a suspended sentence. I suffered from a near life-ending eating disorder. Can I tell you that in all honesty, the justice system broke me and I will tell you why.

Between the justice system and the rapist, they both tore my life to shreds. They both left me with nothing and nowhere to go. Victims sit in that courtroom hidden away in a corner so you're somewhat invisible and there is no eye contact with the judge. It very nearly killed me. You're not you anymore. So I went public and suppose in many ways I exposed the court system for the very first time and how that system treated victims.

I knew at 19 years of age if I didn't expose it then rape would remain silent. But rape isn't silent. It's brutal, it's violent and it hurts and you are quite simply left battered, bruised and hoping that somehow you escape and don't end up dead.

Rapists have nothing to lose when they go to court. They already know the system is flawed. They have everyone lined up - barristers, solicitors, character witnesses and they will defend themselves by saying it's the clothes that were worn, the underwear and sure, you were up for it.

And that justice system will let this happen and all the while the victim is sitting there alone and wondering why she ever reported this in the first place.

So I went public and I demanded change. The justice system left me no choice, very like I had no choice on the night I was raped. And let me tell you very clearly - going on the Gerry Ryan show and speaking about being raped was devastating. I shouldn't have had to do that. No rape victim wants to have to feel that to get justice they have to go public. That's the justice system's job.

I'm very proud to say as a result of what I did, two new parts of legislation were introduced within a year. They are the victim impact statements and appealing a lenient sentence. They still work to this day 25 years later.

Looking back now I was brave and that's now what I need you to be Commissioner. We are now at a crossroads and victims are crying out for change. I'm going to now hand you back my bravery and ask you to go to the Minister for Justice, the judicial system, the rape crisis centres, victims and survivors and say let's work together, let's be brave and let's never hear the words as the victim leaves the court: he might as well have raped me again in court.

We as survivors and victims deserve to be able to live our lives and heal. To do that, victims need to trust the system and when reporting a rape, victims need to know that they have done the right thing. It takes all our courage. I can only speak from my experience and say I was treated with compassion and was kept informed of every step by the Gardai. Unfortunately, that's where it ends because when a rape case goes to court it begins to unravel.

There is no legal representation for victims and that now needs to be addressed. Stop talking about what we wore. Rape is rape, we said no, and what we wore should be no excuse for rape. We will always remember what the rapist wore - it is ingrained in our memory forever and by that I mean belts to restrain you, gloves to put in your mouth so you can't scream, jeans to carry a knife or threaten you with.

It's as clear as day the system isn't working and the last thing everyone here today wants is to go back to the old Ireland - sweep rape under the carpet and pretend it isn't happening. It's happening and someone will be raped in Ireland and wonder is this rape worth reporting when the system is stacked against them. Listen to the voices of survivors and victims - we have a fountain of knowledge.

Finally, can I leave you with this word - consent, a seven letter word and one of the most important words we can teach our young people. However uncomfortable that conversation is to have. It will be a lot more difficult to stand beside that young person in court at a rape case."

Lavinia Kerwick at the launch of a book on her life in 1997