Sexual violence casts long shadow on our doorstep

Pictured with the new brand identity at the launch of the Galway Rape Crisis Centre’s annual report are Dave Cunningham, GRCC Charity Patron; Cathy Connolly, GRCC Executive Director; Iggy O'Muircheartaigh, Chairman of the GRCC Board, and John Muldoon, GRCC Charity Patron.

The amount of sexual abuse, violence and rape in our society has been an eye-opener for Cathy Connolly, Executive Director of Galway Rape Crisis Centre (GRCC).

“What I didn’t realise, and what a lot of people don’t realise, is the extent of abuse. It’s so prevalent,” she says, 16 months in to her new role as head of the city-based non-governmental organisation.

“Most people will know somebody who was sexually abused, or raped, and they don’t know it, because an awful lot of people who have been sexually abused don’t want to say it because of all the stigma that’s attached to it.”

The subject matter is so shocking, people are often afraid to confide in their friends or family. And that’s where GRCC comes in.

“We offer help and a service to people who have suffered sextual trauma and sexual abuse, through non-judgemental counselling and through advocacy. If someone who was abused was homeless, for example, our counsellor would work as an advocate for them,” says Ms Connolly.

GRCC is the second biggest in the country after Dublin, and its remit includes North Clare and Roscommon. People are referred to the service by Gardaí, social workers, Sexual Assault Treatment Unit (SATU), by supporters like family or friends, or self-referrals.

Nobody is turned away, she insists.

“We’re non-political. I can’t stress it enough. We are for everybody, no matter what their sexual orientation is, no matter what their religion, colour, creed or gender. We don’t care who you are. We are here to serve the people that have been abused. It is a service for all,” she says.

The vast majority of cases are women, but the male taboo around the subject is beginning to be broken and more men who have been abused are coming forward for help.

“A total of 12% of our clients were male last year. There’s a perception that we’re just for women; we’re not just for women, we are for everybody. People are realising that now and we are getting more men in because they are no longer afraid to come in,” she says.

The majority of people who contact the centre at Forster Court are historic child sexual abuse cases. Whereas SATU deals with sexual assaults victims in the immediate aftermath, including for forensic evidence, GRCC offers a service in the medium to long term.

Counselling given by GRCC typically takes six to ten weeks for ‘new’ cases, but for historic cases it can be much longer.

“Evidence shows that if you are raped, and come fairly immediately for help, you recover easier, you recover quicker, because it’s a new trauma. But a trauma that’s embedded in a person for as long as they’re alive, is very difficult. If it’s taken them 30 years or 40 years or 50 years to come to us, it’s not going to disappear in six sessions,” she says.

Counselling isn’t forever but the sessions are designed to give people coping mechanisms for every day life.

“No-one is ever cured. There isn’t a cure. What our counsellors do is help people to understand things and to become at ease with themselves and to maybe live with what has happened to them, especially when it is people they know, or family members.

“That’s very hard, and it’s very complex. It could be your brother, or your father, or your sister that is abusing you. You love that person and yet this is going on. It’s to help the person understand all that and what’s going on, and to help them, not to go mad, I suppose. To come to terms with it.”

Ms Connolly’s belief about the prevalence of sexual abuse are backed-up by the figures. Though it is always changing, last week there were 22 on GRCC’s ‘priority’ waiting list, and 20 on the long-term list.

Three or four new people arrive looking for help every week. In a typical month, there are between 220 and 250 appointments.

There are 11 part-time counsellors working 2.5 whole time equivalent hours but Ms Connolly says the centre needs at least twice that number of counsellors. GRCC has an outreach centre in Ballinasloe, and there are plans to set one up in Tuam and possibly Gort and Connemara as well.

“The whole thing is to make them feel safe when they come to us, and they are listened to and they are believed, and they are helped and they are given skills and taught ways of coping. Your very inner being has been destroyed. It is just so personal the violation. I’ve always thought sex between two people is the most intimate thing. But the whole impact of people doing that to another human being against their will, is massive.

“It’s just awful and humiliating and they feel like a piece of dirt. To get them back up from there, to seeing that ‘no, this isn’t your fault, this is never your fault’, someone raping you is a crime and is always going to be a crime. People talking about drink and saying ‘sure she was pissed’. It doesn’t matter. She was only pissed. No-one has a right to rape somebody,” adds Ms Connolly.

You can call or text Galway Rape Crisis Centre free telephone helpline service 1800 355355