“Do you want to go to the Police Ombudsman about this? Or do you want us to deal with it internally?”

He knew, instinctively, from the way the question was phrased, what was really being said. Who are you going to tell about this?

“It’s not up for me to make that decision,” he replied, hastily. “That’s your decision. I’m just passing on what I’ve been told.”

“Okay. Let me talk to him and I’ll let you know what happens.”

The next day, the cop called him back. He’d taken the officer, who was under his command, aside and put the allegations to him. “He asked who had made the allegation and I told him you,” he said, “He broke down and confessed to everything.”

Later that day, another ex-colleague called him. He, too, knew the offender; he’d once been his commanding officer. “I can’t believe he’d be so fucking stupid,” he said. “I mean, we’re talking rape here, boy.”

“I know,” he’d replied. Two days before, when the woman had approached him, he’d told her that too.

She’d turned up at his house one night. He didn’t know her well. They’d interacted, briefly, at community meetings. She knew him well enough to know he was an ex-cop. But most of the community workers in the area knew that.

It wasn’t information you shared lightly in Northern Ireland, even in peacetime, but when something went wrong, they ran to him. That, he presumed, was what had led her to his door.

Before she even began to speak, though, he knew what was coming. Call it intuition. Maybe it was pattern recognition, the look in her eyes one he’d seen before in the faces of countless women. He just knew.

She’d met a police officer, she said, Joe*, the same way she’d met him, the ex-cop; through community work. One day, they’d been discussing her son. In and out of trouble, he was known to the local officers. Maybe, Joe said, there was something he could do to help.

What he’d meant by “help”, she didn’t say. Get charges dropped? Have a stern word in the boy’s ear? Whatever it meant, it had been enough for her to believe she should give in to his demand for sex. It had become a regular thing.

“Did you want to be there?” the ex-cop asked her.

She started to cry. “No, I didn’t.”

“I’m sorry to tell you this,” he said, “But if you didn’t want to be there, that means you were there under duress. And that is rape. He raped you.”

The next day, he told her, he would have to ring Joe’s commanding officer and tell him what she’d told him.

He didn’t know what to expect when he made the call. But he’d seen cops fired for much less. He expected that much, at least.

So when the text from his son came, three weeks later, it was a shock. “Dad”, it read, “Know that cop you were talking about? He’s in our school, with another cop.”

The Women

The room they’d meet in was perched on the upper floors of an old Victorian mill, hidden beyond a maze of stairs and corridors. When searching for it, mentally-noted landmarks – a sign for a recording studio, an elaborately decorated door with a Celtic Cross – seemed to shift and disappear as you realised that, somehow, you’d ended up in another part of the building.

Maybe that was why they felt safe meeting there. Like a protective mother, the building did not give away their location easily, even to those summoned to it. Lost visitors would usually call one of them, requesting a rescuer.

They were known as The Women – at least, in the absence of an official group name, that was what Padraigin Drinan had come to call them. A retired human rights lawyer, she’d spent two decades working as the solicitor for Northern Ireland’s only Rape Crisis Centre, balancing the work alongside her practice in Belfast City Centre.

Clients loved her, it was joked, because she was the only solicitor who didn’t bill by the hour. If clients in need were entitled to legal aid, she’d claim it. If not, she represented them for free.

“I went home really nervous after my first meeting with her because I was expecting a big bill in the post,” said Donna Devlin, an ex-client and later an employee, told me as we stood in the mill one day. “But the bill never came.”

It was through her work with the Centre that The Women found her. They’d turn up at her office, make a cup of tea, and tell her their stories. Often, she was the first person to hear the tale.

Most of them – but not all – had grown up in care. All of the Centre’s clients had a horror story to tell, usually of being violated by a man, but The Women’s stories were different. Their stories didn’t involve just one man.

Their abuse began with brothers and fathers and uncles and continued on, through carers and priests and ministers and, later, husbands.

For confidentiality reasons, she hadn’t told them about each other, as much as she’d wanted to say, “You’re not alone. This didn’t just happen to you. There are others.”

Until, one day, they’d accidentally converged in her office at the same time and started talking. It bonded them. Some came from Catholic backgrounds, others from Protestant – normally a cause for division in Northern Ireland. Yet the experiences that had shaped them the most had been the same.

One day, during a group meeting, one of the Catholics confessed that she had been sexually assaulted by a police officer. Before Northern Ireland’s police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), had been disbanded and replaced by the Police Service Northern Ireland, the perception amongst the Catholic population – often correct – was that the Protestants had been the RUC’s favoured group.

Yet few rapists and paedophiles cared what religion their victims were.

“Oh, they didn’t just do that to you [Catholics]”, one of the Protestants, a tiny, frail woman in her sixties, had replied. “They did it to us [Protestants] too.”

And so more shared experiences, of what happened to you if you had the misfortune to be picked up by the wrong cop, began to emerge.

Drinan wasn’t surprised. Years earlier, she’d represented a client who’d claimed that a police officer had sexually assaulted her. She’d been impressed with the Police Ombudsman’s office – then led by Nuala O’Loan – who had taken the complaint extremely seriously, bumping it up the queue amidst a backlog of other cases requiring investigation.

Such cases, she’d thought, seemed to be a priority for them. It had left her with the impression that it was an allegation Ombudsman investigators heard somewhat frequently.

She was right. Between 2010 and 2015, the Police Ombudsman’s office has revealed, there were 185 allegations of sexual assault associated with 186 officers and civilian employees (more than one officer/civilian can be associated with a single complaint).

Some critics may suggest the figures are so high because women (and, possibly, some men), in an attempt to evade criminal charges, are fabricating tales of sexual assault.

Yet eleven of the officers and civilians accused have been questioned about complaints of sexual assault at least once before. One has been accused of sexual assault four times; another was accused three times.

“All of the complaints associated with these eleven police officers/designated civilians were closed due to complainant non co-operation, being withdrawn or not being substantiated”, said an Ombudsman spokesman. None of the complaints against the eleven, the Ombudsman’s office confirmed, were linked.

Of the 25 allegations of sexual assault associated with the eleven officers and civilians, 14 were said to have happened inside a police station, with the remainder in other locations, like police vehicles, on the street or at a domestic residence.

Of the overall 185 complaints, just 58 alleged that a sexual assault had taken place inside a police station, with the remainder again alleged to have happened elsewhere.

Only one complaint, out of 185, was upheld. That matter is currently with the PSNI.

In terms of the overall complaints investigated by the Ombudsman, the Ombudsman found “no evidence” to support the allegations that had been made in 76 cases.

In 73 of those cases, Ombudsman investigators were unable to progress the matter because the person who made the complaint “did not cooperate fully”.

In 19 cases, the person who made the complaint later withdrew it and 16 cases were closed for “other” reasons.

The Ombudsman said: “These would include issues such as we judged that the matter was not one for the Police Ombudsman.”

There’s not a senior cop left who would talk to you

“You know exactly why I’m not speaking to you,” he snapped. “Over the Joe* affair.”

For three months, since he’d got the text from his son, the ex-cop had been trying to reach Joe’s commanding officer. It seemed they hadn’t even suspended him, just put him on different duties – that included delivering a workshop to a bunch of schoolkids. After receiving the text, the first thing he did was ring the school.

“You know there’s two cops in today, visiting the boys?” he’d asked the Vice Principal.

“Yes, I do.”

“Well, I’m ringing to let you know that there’s an allegation of rape hanging over one of them.”

The Vice Principal was furious. The PSNI hadn’t seen fit to mention that. His first course of action, he said, would be to remove both officers from the school immediately.

He wasn’t sure if the school had made a formal complaint over the matter. His own emails and countless messages left for the Commanding Officer had gone unanswered. Finally, he’d gotten through.

“He was accused of rape and you covered it up,” he said. “You just switched his duties round and you let him go to a school – my son’s school?”

“You know,” the CO replied, “There’s not a senior cop left who would talk to you.”

Four years later, that comment still rankled with him. He was sitting in his car, in a car park overlooking Belfast Lough, with a reporter scribbling notes in the seat beside him. Even now, he bristled at the memory of the conversation.

“I said to another senior officer, ‘What does that mean? Is he telling me that if my house is attacked or I’m attacked, they’re going to take an extra five minutes to get there?”

After the conversation with the CO, he approached a friend, a journalist, who wrote up a story. He also made a complaint to the Police Ombudsman. They found in his favour and said that disciplinary action would be taken against Joe*. Yet last he’d heard, Joe was still working for the force. They’d just moved him to another department.

Contrast that with how he’d been treated.

Even junior constables, when they saw him in the street, turned their backs on him. “They expected me to say nothing,” he said. “They thought just because I didn’t wear the uniform anymore, that I was still part of the brotherhood, so I wouldn’t say anything.

“They expected me to cover up rape. Maybe if it was just thieving, I could have bent the rules a bit. But not this.” He sounded exasperated. “I can’t cover up rape.”

Later, other officers told him that it wasn’t rape, that it had been an affair and that when Joe had tried to call it off, the woman had retaliated by making up a story.

But consent was the defence of every rapist. He couldn’t say whether sex had been consensual or not.

The Ombudsman’s office had categorized it as a case of ‘sexual impropriety’ instead of sexual assault, recommending discipline against the officer. He disagreed. If she didn’t want to be there and was only doing so to save her son, it was rape. If she said she’d been violated, he believed her.

Certainly, when he’d reported it to the commanding officer, it had been an allegation of rape. So why they’d let Joe come into contact with school children, he didn’t know.

A systemic problem?

The Ferret spoke to various public representatives and sexual violence campaigners about the number of police officers accused of sexual assault – and how some officers have been accused two to four times.

The reaction was one of shock. Even those working with survivors of sexual abuse were surprised that the figures were so high – and there were officers and designated civilians with multiple allegations of sexual assault against them.

“It is a core element of our society that the PSNI and the wider criminal justice system can be trusted and relied upon by all who come into contact with it,” said Pam Cameron, DUP MLA for South Antrim.

Helena Bracken, operations manager at Nexus NI, a charity that offers counseling and support to survivors of sexual violence, said: “For the victims involved in these allegations, and indeed any victim, we would encourage them to help break the cycle of sexual violence and continue to speak out.”

“How can women be expected to report sexual assaults to the police when police officers may have committed these crimes themselves? This will be a huge deterrent,” said Eamonn McCann, People Before Profit MLA for Foyle.

Feminist commentator Adrianne Peltz said: “We need action from all authorities involved who must re-examine their internal processes to deal with such crimes, and improve support services to encourage victims to safely come forward by investing in front-line services for victims of sexual violence.”

If there are indications of a systemic problem the oversight mechanisms should look at a thematic investigation into the issue Daniel Holder, Committee on the Administration of Justice

Daniel Holder, deputy director of Belfast-based human rights NGO the Committee on the Administration of Justice, said: “If there are indications of a systemic problem the oversight mechanisms should look at a thematic investigation into the issue.”

It’s not clear how many complaints Ombudsman’s investigators disproved, as opposed to just couldn’t substantiate – a key distinction in sexual assault trials which, in the absence of DNA evidence, often turn into cases of “he said, she said”, making it notoriously difficult to reach a definitive conclusion about whether the accused is guilty or innocent.

In one case from 2010, the Ombudsman concluded that an officer was innocent, regarding an accusation of sexual assault made against him.

“Having reviewed all the evidence, the Police Ombudsman concluded that Officer A’s dealings with Witness A on 4 and 16 June 2010 had been entirely appropriate, and determined that the evidence did not support either criminal or misconduct action against him,” the Ombudsman’s report said.

Yet the PSNI settled out of court with one alleged victim, even though the Ombudsman investigation into her complaint cleared the officer she’d accused of sexually assaulting her. In hindsight, a source close to her said, they were buying her silence. “She signed a confidentiality agreement. If she couldn’t talk about it, they could make it go away.”

The Ferret has seen a copy of the legal settlement that was negotiated by lawyers acting on behalf of the PSNI. It includes a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

The alleged victim herself, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the NDA, said she regretted settling out of court.

“I wanted it to go to court but I have a history of mental health issues and the PSNI said they would bring that up during the trial,” she said. “I didn’t want that.”

She said she later learned, from another police officer she was friendly with, that the officer who had allegedly assaulted her had been moved to another station. (The Ferret was unable to confirm this.)

“If you had a cast-iron case, you wouldn’t settle at all,” said one retired barrister who has both prosecuted sexual assault cases and acted for those accused.

The most likely people to be sexually assaulted, in this context, are those who are vulnerable . And then when they do make a complaint, those vulnerabilities and issues all become ammunition for the defence to say, ‘Well, can you really believe this person at all?’ It’s a powerful weapon.”

When asked to confirm how many financial settlements they had agreed to in relation to complaints of sexual assault against their officers, the PSNI said retrieving such information would exceed the cost threshold of Freedom of Information legislation.

PSNI’s Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton insisted that the police were committed to protecting the public and robustly investigated all sexual crime allegations. “The same rigour applies to any accusations made against officers or staff, as we do not tolerate inappropriate or criminal sexual behaviour,” he said.

“The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland investigated all of these allegations of sexual assault against police officers and designated civilians and none of these were substantiated. The incident in which PONI recommended disciplining an officer relates to excessive use of force and oppressive behaviour and not sexual assault.”

Hamilton added: “The investigation into a serious sexual assault reported by a retired officer found that no crime took place, however an officer was disciplined for inappropriate conduct while on duty.

“We expect all our officers and staff to treat the public with the highest standard of professionalism, respect and fairness and where conduct falls short of these high standards, they will be subject to an impartial, rigorous enquiry by the Police Ombudsman’s Office.”

***

Meanwhile, victims say that like the Victorian concept of the “deserving poor” and the “undeserving poor”, survivors of sexual violence come in two categories: those middle-class enough to be believed and those who aren’t. The latter make perfect victims because even if they do report what happened to them, they will rarely be taken seriously.

Over lunch, one of The Women recalled being 15 years old, standing in front of a judge. She’d been in and out of trouble with the police for running away from home. “Why are you such a bad girl, always running away?” the judge had asked.

“Because,” she wanted to scream back, “My brother-in-law is raping me.” But she said nothing, fearing he wouldn’t believe her.

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