University of Limerick (UL) has received five reports of sexual assault and one report of sexual harassment on its campus in the past five years – with two reports of sexual assault in 2018 alone, Limerick Voice can reveal.
More than half of the 22 third level institutions that responded to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request said that they have had zero reports of sexual assault or harassment on campus in the past five years.
In refusing the FOI request, University College Cork (UCC) said while it is possible that allegations of sexual assault may have been reported to the Student Health Service or to the Student Counselling Service, the content of those files are confidential and the information cannot be released.
Cork Sexual Violence Centre’s Mary Crilly said in September that three female students at UCC and Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) students had contacted them to say they had been raped during Freshers’ Week.
Trinity College Dublin (TCD) declined to answer the request citing the need to protect individuals privacy and the disciplinary investigation process.
UL had the highest number of incidents in the country, accounting for six of the reports on college campuses nationwide.
However, UL Student Life Welfare Officer Lorcan O’Donnell said that official figures are not indicative of what is really happening on Irish campuses.
According to Mr O’Donnell, one in seven students will experience some type of unwarranted sexual contact during their college years.
“I would be very hesitant to say that UL is unique in that it has a sexual harassment or assault problem. I think there is a sexual harassment, sexual assault, problem in Irish universities.”
Chair of Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education Ireland (PCHEI) John Phillips said that recent court cases are having an effect on students who may wish to come forward about sexual assault.
“There is also the significant issue of disclosing one’s traumatic experience in what is often in a very public manner and the humiliation, embarrassment etc. which follows with recent trials being cited by clients.”
A Galway-based college student, who did not wish to be named, believes she may have “escaped something terrible” after the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) decided not to proceed with her rape allegation. “Seeing trials like the Cork trial and the rugby trial make me feel like I somehow escaped,” she said.
Student counselling services have a duty of care to report disclosures of sexual or physical violence on campus to the college authorities whilst retaining the anonymity of the victim, according to John Phillips.
However, he acknowledged that the process of collecting and categorising reports requires further development, which is something that the PCHEI is currently seeking funds for.
Currently student counselling services record incidences of sexual, psychological and physical abuse under the category of ‘abuse’ with no distinction made between current or historical.
Mr O’Donnell believes that Irish universities “need to have a really robust policy and procedure set in place so that when, no matter who it is, [someone] along the chain of command is told that someone has been sexually assaulted, sexually harassed, that there is a policy that kicks in,” he said.
Mr O’Donnell questioned whether the UL’s security staff are trained enough to deal with incidents of sexual assault or harassment.
UL Corporate Secretary Callista Bennis said that security are given formal training in dealing with assaults of all natures.
UL Vice President for Academic Affairs and Student Engagement Professor Kerstin Mey said: “We [UL] work closely with the Garda liasion officer, UL Student Life and PSU (Postgraduate Students’ Union) to ensure all correct measures are in place at UL to create an environment of support and guidance for any members of our community who are the victims of crime.”
A number of people also highlighted worries among assault victims that Gardaí would not act on allegations of assault and harassment.
Another student who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said she was sexually harassed in a nightclub when she was 17, but never reported her experience to the Gardaí because she didn’t “know how much of a difference it would make”.
“[I thought] I would give a statement and it would be thrown in a box somewhere,” she said.
Mr O’Donnell also said he fears that students are not reporting sexual crimes because they may think it is a ‘normal thing.’
“We need to say that this is not okay. It is not something you should just go along with and say it’s part of the growing up experience.”
The Galway-based student said that after she reported her rape she was satisfied with the treatment she received from Gardaí when making her statements, despite feeling “physically sick” during the process.
The DPP has not yet given her a reason as to why the case is not going to trial, she said, “I feel really let down by the people who are supposed to protect me.
“It’s just very hard to deal with the fact I went through all of that for nothing. His [the accused] ‘punishment’ was to take a half day to go to the station […] to give his statement. It makes me sick to think of the injustice of it all.”
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