The recent sentencing of former Irish Times journalist Tom Humphries for child sexual abuse has brought the issue of sentencing for sex crimes into public debate again. The sentence was seen as unduly lenient given the gravity of his crimes. Unfortunately sexual abuse, especially of children, does not seem to result in sentences that fit the crime. I could be completely wrong about this but Judges seem to be stymied by precedent – a precedent set in an Ireland where children were treated even more badly than they are now. The controversy over providing references for convicted offenders seems to be one of the least important elements in the sentencing process.
The issues below seem to me to be the most important ones about sex abuse sentencing.
- Concurrent sentences: for some reason Ireland favours concurrent sentencing. If a man rapes his daughter 20 times he might be found guilty on all 20 counts but be sentenced concurrently – effectively only being sentenced for one of these crimes. The abuser gets a free pass after his first crime. Children are especially affected by this process. There have been cases of abusers sexually assaulting their children on an almost daily basis over the course of years. Yet if an abuser is convicted it as if he gets some kind of credit for not being caught or for abusing the same child. So if a child is raped dozens of times their abuser could end up with a lighter sentence than a man commits three separate crimes of rape against three women. Surely this is crazy? Irish legislation has strict rape laws – a person can get a life sentence for rape but I don’t know of a case where this has been applied.
- Sentence length: put simply sentences for sex crimes are too short, especially when compared to other crimes and the potential effects on the victims. If you read the judgments on courts.ie sentences for crimes of robbery, drug offences, and physical violence often seem to attract harsher sentences. There is no way to accidentally rape somebody. An argument can escalate into a fight and somebody gets injured or killed. The same escalation can’t happen with sex crimes – it is a depraved premeditated crime which deserves a suitable sentence. Rape should result in at least 10 years time being served for a first conviction, 15-20 for a second, and virtually no chance of release for a third conviction.
- Mitigation: Irish courts must take into account any mitigating or aggravating factors. Certain factors such as an early guilty plea deserve a level of mitigation (especially where sex crimes are so hard to convict). A lack of previous convictions shouldn’t be a mitigating factor but previous similar convictions should result in a substantial increase in sentencing. Being of “good character” should not be a factor – a convicted sex criminal is clearly not of good character. Expressions of regret by a convicted person should be treated with extreme caution – it is too easy to simulate regret especially when you know that you might get a reduced sentence. Conversely the effect of the crime on the victim should not result in a reduction of a sentence – just because a victim is managing to cope with the abuse they suffered does not mean that the crime should be reduced. Also the circumstances of the perpetrator should not be given much credit for serious crimes – I suspect that it is irrelevant to a victim if their rapist has come from a chaotic and abusive family background or was a farmer from a stable family background.
- Previous convictions: not enough weight is given to previous convictions. It is not uncommon to hear of somebody convicted of a sex crime who has a number of other convictions for similar crimes. There should be a a substantial increase in time served for previous sex crimes. Life sentencing for rape should be used in certain cases.
- References: references should not be allowed for crimes like sex abuse. A situation does not just escalate (like a fight for example) and end in sexual abuse. It is often the result of a period of grooming, of taking advantage of age and power gaps, and of the perpetrator’s deceit. In the Humphries case references that referred to his work with the GAA was crazy given that he used his position as a GAA coach to abuse his victim. It’s a bit like trying to give credit to Jimmy Savile for being good at entertaining children. It has been stated a number of times that Judges give very little weight to character references – then if there is no point to them they should not be allowed. The accused has plenty of opportunity to defend themselves during the trial – sentencing should not be an opportunity for a litany of praise for a guilty sex abuser rubbing salt into the wounds of the victim.
I am not one of the lock them up and throw away key brigade. I don’t believe that all sex criminals should never be released from prison. Nor do I believe that the names and addresses of people on the sex offenders’ register should be published – there is no evidence that this makes people safer.
In certain cases the use of electronic tagging could be used to monitor the movements of post-release abusers especially during any period of a suspended sentence. However, there are some sexual abusers, especially those who have several convictions that it really needs to be asked if it is safe to let these people into society again. Life, meaning life, must be seen as an option for the most extreme or repeat offenders.
Karl Ove Knausgaard
Vintage Classics (2017), 128 pages
Fatherhood is an extract from A Man in Love and details Knausgaard’s life as he struggles to cope with the strains of fatherhood. Fatherhood is excellent reading if you want to learn how not to be a father.
Knausgaard has it relatively easy as fatherhood goes – he spent the first few months after his first child’s birth writing his book (presumably while his wife was recovering from the physical pain of childbirth). He spends an hour a day in a café reading and smoking while his wife looks after the children.
Knausgaard is extremely self-absorbed. Almost every interaction with his children seems to cause him pain or distress. He finds attending a music class with his children actually humiliating. He sulks like a teenager and seems to feel sorry for himself that he is in such a horrible position in life. The misery is relentless with very little beauty – he seems to experience almost no enjoyment from his children. The only moment of true happiness he writes about is when he buys some books in a second hand book shop.
It makes you wonder if he is really so miserable or could it partly be an act – like a sulky teenager who feigns hatred of his family in public but deep down really loves them. This extract from A Man in Love seems to focus on a man in love only with himself.
1 – Moving goods in Addis Ababa.
2 – Street performer Addis Ababa. A crowd of about 30 people had gathered to watch this guy show off his football skills. He seemed to be making a reasonable amount in tips too.
3 – After reaching camp in the Simien Mountains I went for a walk. I climbed up a rocky hill and found these two lads sitting on a rock watching their goats on the plain below. I’m not sure who was more surprised by the encounter. Like many Ethiopian children they were trained to ask for pens, money, and whatever they could get. I didn’t have anything to give them (and tried not to encourage a begging culture). They seemed happy enough to watch themselves on a couple of videos and photos I took. I let them take a couple of photos themselves and they were delighted to look at their skills. Unfortunately it’s hard to know what kind of future they will have. Child labour accounts for a large amount of the agricultural workforce. The tiny mountain village where these two boys lived was slated to be be demolished with the villagers moved to a town. Hopefully there might be an opportunity for them to go to school there.
4 – My hotel was across the road from the Bus Station market and near one of the gates into the ancient Old City. For some reason it seems to be only women who carry items on their heads. They must have very strong necks – I saw some women struggle to lift some bags but then plonk them on their head and saunter off.
5 – Market day in Lalibela. Lalibela market is down from the town with an avenue of stalls and shops leading into a big bowl filled with cattle, goats, and donkeys.
6 – This passenger bus was ferrying passengers through the Simien Mountains.
7 – On a Sunday the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are filled with worshippers and pilgrims. As far as I know the men and women worship separately.
Okay basically this post (and possibly the next one) is because I’ve built up a pile of books I have to post reviews of but have been short of time. If I get time I might expand on some of them at a later date (highly unlikely!). So here is a selection of short reviews.
Seek – Denis Johnson – 9/10
This is a wide-ranging collection of essays by author and poet Johnson. The writing is beautifully fluid and the events captivating. The extraordinary and sometimes horrific events in Africa (“The Civil War in Hell” and “An Anarchist’s Guide to Somalia”) are stand-out pieces.
Enemies, A History of the FBI – Tim Weiner – 8/10
An engrossing history of the FBI which demonstrates that US intelligence agencies have been crossing breaking laws and encroaching on civil rights from their earliest days. Understandably the Hoover years take up a large chunk of this book as he sought to impose his unscrupulous character on the organisation he dominated. The reader is left wondering if the FBI’s successes outweigh its failings.
The Battle – Paul O’Connell – 7/10
Paul O’Connell’s autobiography follows his career from his early days as a swimmer and golfer to his huge successes as a rugby player. While the victories are retold in vivid detail the violence, injuries, and heavy drinking leave a slightly empty feeling. A book that would discourage many a parent from sending their kids to a rugby playing school.
House of Bush, House of Saud – Craig Unger – 7/10
This book provides a good overview of US and Saudi relations during the period around the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Unger rightly points out the corrosive effects of oil interests on Bush (senior and junior) policies. However he is on shakier ground trying to link these policies directly to 9/11 (Saudi Wahhabist ideology taken to its ultimate nihilistic conclusion was the real culprit). Unger almost veers into conspiracy theory mode in his descriptions of Bin Laden family members leaving the US immediately after 9/11.
The Rás – Tom Daly – 8/10
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book about Ireland’s premier cycle race turned but it turned out to be an unexpected pleasure. Starting in 1953 the Rás offered Irish riders a chance to get tour experience. The organisation was basic to put it mildly with the mostly amateur riders requiring unbelievable toughness to complete the race. Their is also political intrigue (and sometimes violence) as the all-Ireland Rás competed with the 26 county Irish Cycling Federation.
Bridges of Dublin – Annette Black and Michael Barry – 8/10
This book does exactly as it says – it describes the history of all of the Dublin bridges that cross the river Liffey. This book is also full of interesting photos including one showing that the Richmond Tower at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham was once situated by the Liffey but was moved to its present location brick by brick to widen the south quays.
Inside Team Sky – David Walsh – 8/10
Walsh, the journalist who played a crucial role in exposing Lance Armstrong’s cheating, spent a season embedded with Team Sky. Walsh’s time gives a fascinating look into how the world’s top cycling team operates. However Walsh’s conclusion that Team Sky are free from doping has been called into question by subsequent revelations.
Bloomsbury (2016), 320 pages
Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zátopek is a great biography of one of the world’s greatest distance runners. Endurance’s strength lies not only in Broadbent’s retelling of Zátopek’s life story but also in the author’s painting of the historical and personal background to the great runner’s life.
Zátopek lived through World War II and the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Zátopek was a socialist and his ability to train as an athlete while a member of the army helped his progress. Broadbent also shows the dark side of communism as many Czech individuals suffered as badly under communist rule as they did under Nazi occupation. For most of his career Zátopek trained without a coach and was one of the first athletes to use interval training on a regular basis. Zátopek’s gregarious and generous personality was seen as an antidote to the enigmatic “Flying Finn” Paavo Nurmi and the more restrained upper class British runners. Zátopek’s presentation of one of his Olympic gold medals to the Australian runner Ron Clarke is perhaps the best well known example of his generosity.
Zátopek’s use of (often brutal) interval training methods set him apart from his contemporaries. He seemed to be in tune with his body at a time when some top athletes engaged in dangerous (and in modern terms almost comical) pre-race practices such as not drinking water or eating enough. Tactically Zátopek knew when to pace himself and when to put the hammer down.
Broadbent does raise the moral ambiguity of Zátopek’s relationship with his only coach Jan Haluza. Haluza was jailed by the StB (the Czechoslovakian secret police) and it is possible that Zátopek could have done more to help his former mentor. However, Zátopek, although a socialist, was not a mindless ideologue. His value to Czechoslovakia on the international stage enabled him to resist overt meddling in athletics by the State. During the Prague Spring in 1968 Zátopek actively opposed the Soviet invasion and made anti-Soviet broadcasts for a resistance radio station. It is easy to be critical of Zátopek but he was faced with political and moral dilemmas that most modern athletes (or indeed most people) never have to grapple with.
Of course Zátopek’s times are slower than contemporary athletes but his physical strength (at 72kg he was a lot heavier than the modern African runner), mental toughness, unique training methods, and ultimately, his moral character set him apart from most athletes. Zátopek is the only person to win the 5,000m, 10,000m, and the marathon in the same Olympics – a feat that will possibly never be equalled. He also broke 18 world records (including eight in the space of six weeks in 1951!) and won a total of nine major athletics medals.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Fourth Estate (2009 – first published 2006), 448 pages
Charity Shop, €1
Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction Winner 2007
Half of a Yellow Sun is an extraordinary novel. The book manages to explore the clash between different visions of society whilst still maintaining a fast-paced plot. Adichie explores urban and rural divides, tribal and national clashes, pan-African nationalism and localism, colonial and post-colonial tensions, gender issues, and class conflicts. Despite the depth of Adichie’s vision it never feels forced. This is because she can see multiple sides to people. Her characters are fully formed individuals not simply one-dimensional types created to promote an ideological point of view. Some of her most sympathetic characters end up doing terrible things. Adichie never justifies such acts but the horrific events that culminated in the doomed Biafran War make the reader question how they would act if their lives were torn apart by such brutal violence.
Misrule by elite sections of Nigerian society is a running theme in Half of a Yellow Sun. From the oppression of British colonial rule, to the corruption of independent Nigeria’s rulers, the brutality of the Nigerian military during its 1966 coup and support of the murderous pogroms against the Igbo people, to the callousness of the Biafran military leadership in the final months of the war. The dreams of a bright independent future were dashed by the desire for money, political control, and military power.
History Ireland – The Forgotten War. An Irish perspective on the Biafran War.
Khaled Hosseini خالد حسینی
Bloomsbury (2007), 432 pages
Charity Shop, €1
A Thousand Splendid Suns is a comprehensive journey through modern Afghan history from the end of monarchy, through Communist dictatorship, the anarchy of the warlords, and the brutal rule of the Taliban. It is the personal lives of Mariam and Laila, and where they intertwine that takes centre stage in A Thousand Splendid Suns. There is hope and love in the novel but there is also great violence and brutality. Misrule by men leads to horrific abuses of the Afghan people. It is women who suffer most. Even women who are not directly caught up in the martial violence fall victim to the creation of a culture where women can become the property of men and be forced under their physical, economic, and sexual control (and in some cases women are complicit in this oppression). The real fight in A Thousand Splendid Suns is for the most basic women’s rights. Despite the decreasing freedoms of Mariam and Laila they create as much autonomy as they can through acts of rebellion, their imagination, and the love for each other and their children. Hosseini’s novel shows that a person’s life is not defined its end but how it is lived.