This morning the three  major  broadsheets  carry news of a trial in Tralee concerning Danny Foley, a bouncer who was sentenced to seven years in prison for the sexual assault of a young woman in Listowel. There are two particularly attention-grabbing facts about the case:
- That the accused’s parish priest, Fr Sean Sheehy of Castlegregory, had provided a character reference saying the defendant “always had the height of respect for women” and that there was “not an abusive bone in his body”, a statement later heavily criticised by the judge, and
- That, before the judge delivered the sentence, a group of fifty people – anecdotally, mostly male – queued up to shake the defendant’s hand and hug him, in some cases with tears in their eyes.
Now, rightfully, when people began sharing links to the story on Twitter  this morning, most people were fairly appalled at the idea of a convicted sexual offender being party to such evident public support. However, it didn’t take long – probably because the victim was accompanied by representatives from the Kerry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre – for people to start immediately referring to the convicted man as a ‘rapist’.
The man has not been convicted of rape. The man was convicted of a sexual assault.
Elsewhere in the same papers today, we have the news that a boy was taking a Supreme Court case  to challenge the quick-fix  Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2006, because it deemed him to be a statutory rapist having slept consentually with a 14-year-old girl when he himself was 15, while she was portrayed as a “comely maiden” under the same act. Surely this is a reminder to us all that there are degrees of sexual offence – including, evidently, an offence that isn’t an offence at all.
Now, I can’t claim to have heard the defendant’s girlfriend on 2FM this morning – I believe she tried to portray a questionable picture of the nature of “circumstantial evidence” produced at her boyfriend’s hearing – and there’s a fair chance that she may have dug her partner into an even bigger hole depending on the merit with which she presented her thoughts.
But it seems that people are quick to condemn the man, and the people of Listowel, for such an unprecedented move in the courtroom, blithely assuming that those who queued to embrace him were endorsing the offence, and not the person itself.
One action does not, and cannot, give a complete reflection of a person’s character. Clearly, Danny Foley must have been a reasonably popular man in his hometown; any social outcast who is later found to have perpetrated a sexual assault (which, in case there’s any equivocation about this, I totally condemn) would probably have been assaulted himself a number of times in the fortnight between being found guilty and being summoned for sentencing. Obviously Danny Foley was held in great esteem by his friends, and thus must have been of reasonable standing and of seeming good nature to have won this kind of affection from his peers.
Nor does consoling a man who is about to be locked up for seven years – albeit deservedly, it would seem – a total endorsement of his actions and an expression of association with them. I know very few people who haven’t done something they’ve regretted; even if they had carried out transgressions (sadly a dirty word since Tiger-gate) I’d still like to try and see the bigger picture.
Of course seeing a display like this is a gruesome experience for the innocent victim of Foley’s crime. But it’s an enormous leap of faith to condemn the people of Listowel for standing by a friend, especially when they have the right to feel that his conviction is open to question (as his girlfriend clearly does, given her comments on the radio), and especially so to take the easy leap by pointing the finger at a priest who quite clearly wasn’t going to give a false statement.
Everyone’s entitled to their opinion.
(Edit: I’ve seen on RTE News tonight that Fr Sheehy was one of the people who queued to shake hands with Foley before his sentencing. That’s reprehensible and Fr Sheehy deserves the bollocking he’s gotten from the Bishop of Kerry as a result. Whatever about the intentions of the other people who shook Foley’s hand, a priest should have been far more conscious of the symbolism to the victim.)