Even though Mr. A, a convicted rapist, pulled his jacket over his head as he strolled out of a Dublin courtroom last week, a few dogged photographers managed to capture shots of his face. But the next day, every Irish newspaper that brandished his image had to blur out his features.
The 41-year-old, who gave half a dozen Bacardi Breezers and vodka shots to his daughter's 12-year-old friend during a sleepover three years ago, and had sex with her when she woke up to vomit during the night, could not be identified because he was an innocent man. Ireland's Supreme Court had ruled that a 71-year-old statutory rape law was unconstitutional, because it did not allow the accused to argue that he honestly believed the victim was above the age of consent.
The immediate result was that Mr. A walked, but the decision's effect rippled powerfully throughout the country. The Irish edition of the Sun, Britain's leading tabloid, called Ireland a pervert's paradise, and its rival the Mirror warned families to lock up their daughters. The government immediately appealed, and Parliament rushed to replace the defunct law, indeed to raise the age of consent for both genders to 17. Nevertheless, at a moment when much of Western Europe is scandalized over pedophilia, doubts now exist over the legal status of six other Irish men imprisoned for statutory rape who, as a judge pointed out last week, were being held for violating a law that no longer existed.
For their victims, who struggled through torturous legal processes over periods as long as 10 years, that is a horrifying prospect. "Somehow they walked away, battered and exhausted by it, but feeling like at least what happened had been acknowledged, that that person had been held accountable," says Colm O'Gorman, director of a sexual abuse support group called One in Four. "Now they're facing the possibility that what he did to them wasn't a crime. The emotional impacts of that are huge."
Mr. A's release sparked grassroots demonstrations by thousands of people across the country on Friday, which were loosely organized through heated call-in radio shows. Outside the Parliament in Dublin, demonstrators blocked traffic and held white flowers to show compassion for the victims of sexual abuse. But they also seethed with frustration. "It's ridiculous," said Moira Gorman, 35, from Dublin. "If it's finance, [the government] acts quickly. If it's children, they take their time."
The groundswell of outrage put pressure on the nine-year-old coalition led by Prime Minister Bertie Ahern. Later on Friday the Parliament passed the new statutory-rape law (whose age of consent, 17, fits uneasily with survey data placing the average start of sexual intercourse in Ireland at 15 1/2). Critics say the law should have been fixed years ago. Britain and Canada recently reformed their laws to include an "honest belief" defense for statutory rape, and the flaws in the Irish statute were highlighted by a government commission in 1990. Mr. A's release was "a case waiting to happen," says Ivana Bacik, a criminal-law professor at Trinity College, Dublin.
For O'Gorman, the demonstrations signify that at least people are capable of demanding protection when the legal system fails a dramatic change from the days when no one dared accuse, say, a priest of wrongdoing. "The more these scandals arise, the more informed the public," he says. "Nobody in Ireland would ever suggest anymore that sexual abuse doesn't happen, or that we shouldn't talk about it. That's the big shift." Just four hours after Friday's demonstrations, one extent of that shift became clear, when the Supreme Court ordered that Mr. A be rearrested to serve the rest of his term on the grounds, which were just as obvious when it had ordered his release, that the facts of his case precluded any "honest mistake" defense. It looked like a victory for people power. Even so, it has left people feeling uneasy that in an area this important, they had to protest at all.