Character references and courtroom displays of support for convicted sex offenders are worthless, and serve no other purpose than to re-traumatise victims.

They queued up to shake Danny Foley’s hand, that day in the Circuit Criminal Court in Tralee, dozens of people, most of them men.

It was December 2009, and Danny Foley, from Meen, Listowel, had been convicted of sexually assaulting a young woman a year earlier in a Listowel nightclub, and was awaiting sentencing.

Later, Catherine Shanahan, writing in the Irish Examiner, described the scene as “a group of 50 people, mainly men, trooped into the courtroom and marched up to the accused, in single file. Each man shook his hand, some hugged him, with tears in their eyes.

“The show of support was witnessed by the 24-year-old victim who sat in the front seat of the public gallery flanked by a female garda, a counsellor from the Kerry Rape Crisis Centre and a friend.”

One of those who embraced Danny Foley was Father Sean Sheehy, then Castlegregory parish priest, who stood as a character witness for Foley, and who said afterward “I just wanted to support him, just let him know he was not alone”.

On the night of the assault, Foley, then employed as a bouncer, had been celebrating his 34th birthday, and he had met his victim, who had known him for nine years, in the nightclub. Foley bought her a drink, and she became incapacitated after drinking it. She would later remember trying to stop Foley from removing her clothing.

When two patrolling gardai chanced upon the scene, the victim was lying beside a skip in a car park, semi-conscious and covered in cuts and bruises, and naked from the waist down, with Danny Foley crouching over her. 

Foley claimed “I came around here for a slash and I found your wan lying on the ground”.

When CCTV footage revealed that Foley had carried his victim across the car park, he changed his story, claiming that she had taken off her trousers and asked for sex.

The jury of ten men and two women unanimously convicted Foley and, sentencing him to seven years in prison with the final two years suspended, Judge Donagh McDonagh said Foley’s allegations about mutual sexual acts were designed “to add insult to injury” and “to demean and denigrate her further in the eyes of the jury and the public”.

Speaking after the sentencing, the woman said the sight of so many people supporting Foley, some of them giving her 'dirty looks', had made her want 'to crawl into a ball'.

Weeping and shaking, she said “I felt like the courtroom was full of people who supported him and were against me, as if I was on trial and I was the guilty person.”

Fr Sheehy denounced what he saw as “an extremely harsh sentence”, telling Claire Byrne on Newstalk that Foley was the victim of a 'miscarriage of justice', and that the only wrongdoing was that Foley and his victim had engaged in a sexual act outside of marriage, something Fr Sheehy said was immoral. Following censure from the then Bishop of Kerry, Bill Murphy, Sheehy resigned from duties in Castlegregory.

The victim’s aunt would subsequently say that her niece had been refused service in shops in Listowel, and had been shunned on the street by Foley’s supporters.

In 2010, the victim reported that her front door had been kicked in, and she received a death threat over the phone.

Fr Sheehy stayed in contact with Foley, who remained unrepentant. Prior to Foley’s release from prison, Sheehy spoke to media, saying of Foley’s victim: “I don’t want to make any judgment on her at all, but obviously the whole situation must have been embarrassing, for the police to happen upon them and what-not. She’s the mother of a young child as well and, you know, that in itself doesn’t look great.”

Danny Foley was released from Arbor Hill in September 2013, having served less than four years.

It was impossible two weeks ago not to be reminded of the Listowel case, when a slew of character references was presented in the Central Criminal Court to Ms Justice Mary Rose Gearty in the case of convicted rapist Conor Quaid (26) of Monaree, Dingle, Co Kerry.

Quaid had pleaded not guilty to a charge of raping a young woman as she slept in her own bedroom on 10 June, 2018. Quaid, who had been drinking in a nearby town, had gone to his victim’s home, where he was a trusted family friend, the prosecution said, knowing that the victim would be alone as her family was away on holiday.

After a seven-day trial, the jury found Quaid guilty by a majority verdict of 10-1.

In her impact statement, Quaid’s victim told him: “You did whatever you liked. I had no choice on that night. You made me feel like I was worthless”.

Describing herself as previously 'a happy outgoing person', she said she now struggles with ongoing panic attacks, guilt and shame. She had tried to return to her third level studies, but could not concentrate and has since dropped out of college. She said everybody in the locality knew about the rape.

“I know some people held me responsible and that is difficult when I am the victim.”

Among the character references presented to the court were glowing testimonials from a senior GAA official in Dingle, a retired garda sergeant, and a publican who described Quaid as 'very honest' and 'the best employee I had in 25 years in business'.

Noting that Quaid had shown no remorse, Ms Justice Gearty sentenced him to eight years in prison, with the final 18 months suspended.

The victim’s family wrote to RTÉ’s Joe Duffy last week, and their letter was searing in its honesty and upset at the testimonials read out in court.

“The rapist expressed no remorse. It was very difficult for us to come forward in a small town. It has been a very tough few years. We went to Dublin on Thursday for the sentencing. We thought that it would be an impact statement and a few references from the prison. We were very upset and appalled to hear two prominent businessmen from the town had lodged glowing references, to try and reduce the sentence of the convicted rapist that shows no remorse.

“It is well-known in the town that we have had an awful time coping the last few years. A local publican has said he is ‘the best employee ever’. I’m getting panic attacks knowing that people who support the rapist publicly are living so close to me.

“I believe in this day and age that the local big boys’ club should not be allowed lodge testimonials in court.”

As noted here last year, the current Ceann Comhairle, Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl, in 2006 wrote a letter of reference for convicted rapist Joseph Dempsey (then 61). Dempsey had been convicted of raping his nephew Shane when Shane was a small boy, and of 15 counts of indecent and sexual assaults against Shane.

When Shane saw his local Fianna Fáil and Government TD support his abuser in a letter to the court, he said he was left feeling that Official Ireland was siding with his uncle against him.   

Last year I asked the main political parties for their policy on representatives giving character references for sex offenders. Fianna Fáil, Sinn Fein, Labour, and the Social Democrats all said they would strongly advise their representatives against giving such references. Fine Gael declined to comment, perhaps because of the then-current political pressure on the Ceann Comhairle over his reference for Shane Dempsey’s rapist. The Green Party and People Before Profit did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

On Liveline last week, Vera O’Leary, director of the Kerry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre, told Joe Duffy that she is hopeful that Rape Crisis Network Ireland will be able to make a submission to the Minister for Justice and ask that guidelines be put in place around the issue of court references.

It is generally accepted in legal circles that character references are almost worthless, and have little or no effect on the sentences imposed by judges.

Just the same as queuing up to shake the hand of a convicted sex offender, writing court references for rapists and sex offenders serves no purpose besides re-traumatising and intimidating victims, and making them feel disbelieved and threatened in their own communities.

Legislation on court references is long overdue, and outlawing them completely would surely be at this point a sensible decision.

Anyway, as Bernie Linnane put it on Twitter, “When a person is convicted of a sexual crime their character has already been established.

“References are irrelevant.”

The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre National Helpline is available free of charge, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, on 1800 778888.