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Case a Salutary Reminder of Need To Be Rigorous

Irish Times April 28, 2009

ANALYSIS: The Hannon case raises disturbing questions for the conduct of sexual assault trials, writes CAROL COULTER, Legal Affairs Editor

THERE ARE few crimes that carry as much social opprobrium as the sexual assault of a child. Yet that is what Michael Feichín Hannon was convicted of 10 years ago, following allegations made by his neighbour, a girl of 10.

We now know that the allegation was a total fabrication, that the girl had had no dealings whatsoever with Mr Hannon and that the allegation had been made up out of “misguided loyalty” to her family with whom he and his family were in dispute over land.

The finding yesterday of a miscarriage of justice in this case follows more than two decades in which the courts have had to deal with a deluge of cases involving the sexual abuse of children.

These cases have involved a steep learning curve for all those in the legal system and for the public at large.

We went from a situation where children’s allegations of sexual abuse were often not believed, to one where it was argued that children, because of their normal ignorance of sexual matters, had to be telling the truth when they described in detail a sexual assault upon them.

The Hannon case is the second known miscarriage of justice case in which people were convicted of the sexual assault of a child on the word of the victim.

The first was the conviction for rape of Nora Wall, a former nun who was sentenced to life imprisonment for her alleged participation in the alleged rape of a girl in her care. The purported victim and a friend gave detailed evidence of the alleged crime.

It later emerged that the DPP had decided not to call the friend to give evidence, but she had been called inadvertently.

She was alleged to have made a false allegation of sexual assault against another man. In the High Court, the judge had remarked he was “not impressed by their [the girls’] evidence” in that case.

The DPP applied to have the conviction set aside and did not oppose Ms Wall’s certificate of a miscarriage of justice.

It is a disturbing possibility that there are other cases out there where a person, almost certainly a man, has been wrongly convicted on the uncorroborated word of a purported victim.

Yet we also know that sexual offences are seriously under-reported and that many such crimes go undetected. When prosecutions do take place, they are not assured of success.

If corroboration was to be sought for all cases where the sexual abuse of a child was alleged, it would be virtually impossible to secure any convictions, and abusers could remain at large and a danger to children.

The courts are faced with the difficult task of finding a balance between the right of an accused to be presumed innocent until guilt has been proved beyond reasonable doubt, the difficulty of obtaining reliable evidence of such guilt, especially when the event happened a long time ago, and the need to prosecute crime and protect the public.

Such cases inevitably involve the word of one person against another. Memories can blur.

When a number of victims are involved and where they are in contact with each other, they can become confused as to which incident happened to whom, and when it happened.

And, as the Wall and Hannon cases show, people do tell lies. We do not fully know what motivated Mr Hannon’s accuser, or Regina Walsh, who accused Nora Wall.

These cases though are salutary reminders of the need always to be rigorous both in the investigation and prosecution of crimes, ensuring as far as possible that the evidence is solid.

Such rigour is equally required in upholding the rights of those accused of crimes which carry particular social opprobrium.