Just half of people attending one of the country’s busiest sexual assault treatment units (SATU) last year reported the crime to gardaí, while a fifth opted to have forensic samples retained before deciding whether to make a complaint.
Margo Noonan, head of the SATU based at the South Infirmary in Cork, also said there was a growing trend of Leaving Certificate students presenting to the unit having been raped or sexually assaulted at overseas “hotspots” popular with people celebrating the end of exams.
She said that, in those cases, the perpetrators appeared to be locals rather than peers, adding: “It’s like everywhere in life — if someone is vulnerable, the vultures are waiting to pick.”
Ms Noonan said the first cases involving retained samples — a model first introduced in 2017 — are likely to make it into courts this year. The Cork SATU dealt with 144 new cases last year, down from 165 in 2018, but with more daytime presentations than was the case in previous years.
Of those new cases, 71 (49%) had a Garda forensic exam kit with a garda in attendance when they presented. In another 38 cases (26%) there was no garda involvement, while 30 people (21%) availed of ‘option three’ — having their forensic samples stored for up to a year at the SATU. This allows them to consider their options regarding reporting the rape or sexual assault over that period.
Ms Noonan said that, since option three was introduced nationwide in 2017, the Cork SATU has retained 61 samples, of which seven have been collected with a view to progressing a prosecution.
Ms Noonan, advanced nurse practitioner in sexual assault forensic examination, said while reporting a rape at an early stage is better, the option allows people a chance to consider their options.
“This is not the best option you can have, but it’s better than no evidence,” she said, adding that delaying making a report of a rape did potentially make it more difficult to access supporting witness statements and other possible evidence such as CCTV.
“We explain to them that you probably will be asked why you did not come forward [earlier]. It will bring an extra level into it [court cases] but I am hoping it will go forward and show people that it does work.”
Ms Noonan stressed there is no time limit on reporting a rape or sexual assault and that some people without forensic samples can still do so. She said some people may find it particularly difficult to make a report, especially at an early stage, because the perpetrator could be a relative.
She said there was a lot of negativity around prosecuting rape cases, with huge levels of under-reporting in the first instance and a high attrition rate for cases that ultimately make it to trial.
As for assault victims returning from post-Leaving Certificate holidays, she said: “You can’t put it on the kids, it’s not fair. Rapists are not nice people. They are not there to look after the kids that are getting drunk.”