It was a shocking crime but its victim says she was let down by what happened afterwards ...
On the afternoon of 12 April 2008, I was violently assaulted and raped by a stranger while walking through Colin Glen Forest Park in Belfast. As a foreigner visiting Belfast, this was the last thing I had expected. But stranger yet was the subsequent whirl of local media coverage which I witnessed from afar.
In the surreal, hazy days after my assault, I would sit in my flat in London and curiously Google “rape Colin Glen West Belfast.” In between physical descriptions of myself and my attacker, I found a surprising amount of political commentary.
Sinn Fein organised a peace rally in Colin Glen Forest Park, a week after my attack. I was touched that 200 strangers I had never met would gather to show support for me.
Downloading the talk show Nolan on BBC Radio Ulster, I heard the then Lord Mayor of Belfast proclaiming that Belfast was still a safe city despite assaults like mine. He assured the talk show host that he would get in touch with me, the victim of this unfortunate crime, and send me his best wishes.
I never heard from him.
Of course, I didn't expect to hear from him. But while it is important for politicians to show concern over crimes like these, it's not enough to simply voice public outrage. They and the community must also take concrete steps to helping victims of violent crime and ensuring that the prosecution process is fulfilled to the best possible extent. Yes, news of brutal, random rapes can be shocking. But it also needs to be motivating.
My own experience seems to indicate that there is currently very little in the way of public institutions offering support for rape victims. And that the existing systems leave much to be desired.
Mere hours after my attack, the treatment I received at the A&E department of the Royal Victoria Hospital was laughable. Though fully aware of my rape, the male doctor saw me for less than five minutes, commenting only on the bruises on my neck and shoulders. The nurse advised me to “drink loads of tea” and “maybe a wee glass of wine” to de-stress. I was handed ibuprofen and sent back to my hotel.
The criminal justice process leading up to the trial was not much better from a victim's perspective. I did not hear from my prosecuting barristers until two weeks before the scheduled trial — leaving me to spend 11 months in confused anxiety about the prospect of testifying.
Would my attacker be in the same room as me when I testified? Would the trial be open to the public? These facts (so personal to a victim required to describe her rape in detail before a jury) were never fully explained to me until just before the trial. While the job of the Public Prosecution Service is to convict the accused, there is little sensitivity for the victim's situation, even though her testimony is the crucial part of the case.
No one told me that a service like Victim Support existed until a few weeks before my trial (and 10 months after my attack).
And even now, after my attacker has been convicted, I have been told by The Compensation Agency of Northern Ireland that I may need to wait another six months to a year before I can receive any financial compensation as a victim.
Thankfully, I did have a very positive experience working with the Rape Crime Unit of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
But that is only one aspect of the overall experience of being a rape victim. The NEXUS Institute seems to be the established organization in Northern Ireland for counseling rape and sexual violence victims.
But even they, according to their website, receive “limited government funding,” and are too understaffed to meet the demand from rape victims. The Rape Crisis Centre in Belfast is not a full-time operation, relying on donations in order to function. In London, I myself was on a six-month waiting list before I could even be assessed for NHS therapy — during which time I still had to work with the police and pay for expensive private counselling to tide me over.
How can rape victims be expected to assist the criminal justice system in convicting their attacker, when there isn't even a proper counselling service to help them through this very harrowing process? Surely, there could be better resources out there for rape victims?
In the public arena, people are all too willing to express sympathy and outrage, but few are willing to look at what can be done or |to address the issue of accountability. In particular, I have been paying close attention to the website of the Colin Glen Forest Park ( www.colinglentrust.org). The welcoming homepage, replete with calming images of nature (flowers, waterfalls, etc) proudly declares: “A green lung in the heart of Belfast City,” “Attracting over 240,000 visitors annually.” Any visitor to this website would expect a safe and peaceful oasis, not the scene of a violent rape, let alone a violent rape and murder (as was the sad fate of 16-year-old Megan McAlorum, found four years before me, in the same area where I was attacked).
According to the website, the park's centre boasts an exhibition hall, gift shop, public toilet, café. But the Saturday afternoon I visited, it was a closed, with no staff member in sight. And, of course, there is no mention of any violent attacks near the park, or of the 200-plus person peace rally by Sinn Fein, or of any attempts to improve security.
Instead, you will learn that at a gala dinner three months after my assault, the park received the Green Flag Award from the Civic Trust, “for being welcoming, well maintained and driving the support and involvement [sic] of the local community.”
I am not saying that the park is responsible for my attack — certainly not. But in order for safety to be established, surely there must first be some honesty in the public arena. Visiting this website makes me sick to my stomach, not because it necessarily conjures flashbacks of my assault (therapy has helped with that), but because it is this false brand of optimistic PR which glosses over the very harsh reality of violent crime and how to deal with it.
Can Belfast really be considered a safe city if crimes like these continue, and yet the public institutions fail to fully address them?
Growing up in suburban America in the 80s, I remember my mother said the most dangerous places in the world to visit were the Middle East and Northern Ireland.
Later, when I came to visit Belfast shortly after the peace process, I was told that the violence in Northern Ireland was never directed towards foreigners, but only “towards each other.”
Of course, that was a different kind of violence they were talking about, not the kind of sexual violence I experienced, which can happen in any city, town, or village in the world.
I would like to think that Belfast can be a safe, welcoming place for foreigners to visit, but my experience now tells me otherwise.
While Belfast's sectarian violence may be largely gone now, another kind of violence remains. And this kind of violence cannot be paid lip service in the public arena and then forgotten about. Because it happens every day and every night in private homes, hotels, alleyways, and parks. To tourists and to people you know.
In the Press surrounding my assault, many people who did not know me lamented my plight. “This poor girl, her life is ruined,” someone said on BBC Radio Ulster. I'd like to think it hasn't been, but then again, perhaps I can't blame my sympathisers if all they see and hear of rape is the horrific, sensationalised newsflash.
Rape is more than just shock value. For all its horror, the experience contains the potential for re-growth and recovery, the way a broken bone mends itself to become even stronger.
So it can be for both individuals and cities in the wake of violence. For me, since my attacker's conviction, it has been a slow process of re-building my life. I am coming to the end of my NHS therapy, wondering how to re-establish my career, facing the prospect of dating again.
My life has taken a strange and unexpected detour the past 16 months, but I am hoping to bring it back to something I can call my own. Yet I can only do that by coming to terms with the truth.
Similarly, for a city like Belfast, progress can only happen by dealing with the sad reality of sexual violence. No peace accord between political parties will solve the problem. No glossy PR campaign will do its work unless real policy and funding decisions are made. Only honesty and open dialogue about these crimes will bring about the changes necessary in the existing system. I can't help but think that if crimes like rape were spoken about more openly — not broken in a newsflash and then pushed under the carpet as something too terrible to mention —then the entire process could be understood more fully.
For a crime that happens all too frequently, there are far too few victims who report their assaults, let alone make it through to prosecutions.
Even when cases do end up in court, less than 6% of reported rapes in Northern Ireland result in a conviction.
But if the public arena was more honest and more encouraging for victims, perhaps those upsetting statistics could be changed.
Ultimately, the safety of a city should be measured not by how many positive press statements are issued by politicians, or by how many pat-on-the-back municipal awards are given out to local parks — but by real facts, by the smooth functioning of public systems to help rape victims, convict the perpetrators, and hopefully prevent crimes like these from happening again.
A youth, who was aged 15 at the time of the attack, was jailed for eight years on May 8 this year after admitting raping the woman. He will also spend two years on probation when he is released. He had given himself up to police. The teenager threatened the woman at knifepoint and raped her twice. Doctors who examined her found she had 39 separate injuries.