'In court I thought: I am not that child any more, you have to listen to me now'Added on July 31, 2012
INTERVIEW: MICHELLE HILL Dixon is unusual in one respect. The sentence served on her childhood abuser is of no concern to her: “That’s because it could never match what he took from my life.”
On another point, however, she is unshakeable: that he should be photographed and publicly named. Her anonymity is a price she is prepared to pay. “I want others to take courage from it and come forward. I think people should know about him, know exactly who he is.”
In February, while she was finally facing him across a courtroom during an eight-day trial, media attention was focused on another defendant accused of fathering his 14-year-old daughter’s child.
Dixon’s story was almost tame by comparison. The charge sheet referred to indecent assault on a female, under section 10 of the Criminal Law (Rape) Act 1981, at various addresses in or around Stamullen, Co Meath, in 1986 and 1987. The “female” however, was a little girl aged between eight and 10 and the defendant was Breffni O’Rourke, her music teacher.
Dixon comes across as a confident, personable 34-year-old, a successful photographer in her adopted city of Kilkenny.
Yet it took her 18 years to verbalise fully what had happened to her. It took another nine to see her abuser convicted of assaulting her, in his home.
His actions have shaped more than 25 years of her life. In her victim impact statement, she describes how the abuse crippled her self-esteem and her efforts to build relationships. It interfered with her career development and damaged her relationship with her husband. “I spent long periods wishing I was dead. I contemplated suicide on several occasions and I attempted it once. I have suffered countless paralysing panic attacks. I still do.”
Above all, she feels “robbed” of a complete relationship with her little boy. She finds it unbearable to see anyone else tickling him, because that is how O’Rourke began his abuse, when she took music lessons from him: “It started out with tickling.”
In his home, he separated her from others and brought her to his bedroom. “He would take all my clothes off, would fondle me, lick my body, kiss me all over, press his penis against my vagina and would keep going until he climaxed. Then he would flop down on top of me with his full weight and lie there while I struggled and told him I couldn’t breathe.
“I would ask him to stop what he was doing and he’d say, ‘What am I doing? What am I doing?’
“And I’d say, ‘You’re tickling me,’ and he’d go, ‘Sure, what’s wrong with that?’ How do you try and explain to someone, ‘He was tickling me,’” she says, her voice thickening with distress.
She remembers lying on his bed, staring at the bars on the windows, wishing it was over. The overriding feeling, in her childish innocence, was shame.
“I think it’s because you’re naked. You feel you had your clothes off when you shouldn’t have had your clothes off. It’s that shame of your being dirty.”
Silenced by her “shame”, confused by his manipulative answers, unsure if what was happening was wrong, but intuiting that her parents’ world would “crumble” once they knew, she would run to the village phone-box at every opportunity to ring Childline but never got a reply. She was 14 before she told the story to her English teacher, a strict but fair woman who could be relied on “to say either ‘get up and get on with it’ or ‘oh my God, that was terrible’. She was very shocked when I told her.”
During role-play sessions with an Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children social worker in Drogheda, where she was at school, she remembers holding hands with her teacher while the social worker pretended to be O’Rourke. “The teacher turned round and said, ‘oh look, there’s Breffni’. All I remember next is they were pulling me from under the table.”
Still, she felt unable to disclose any details. At 23, she walked into a Garda station but became so distressed, the female garda told her to find a counsellor.
She travelled widely, got married and moved to Kilkenny but the images persisted. “I always had horrific nightmares. I would be screaming, getting ‘flop sweats’ where I would be soaking wet, struggling, running away, getting caught – and this sense of a weight on me in the nightmare, of having him on top of me, a grown man on top of an eight or nine-year-old.”
Eventually, she contacted the Rape Crisis Centre in Waterford and, after 18 hard months, finally gave a full statement.
“Afterwards, it felt like the first time I could actually take a full breath since I was eight.”
Even then, it took nine years to get to a full trial and there were numerous false starts: the defendant – on legal aid – repeatedly sacked his legal teams; on two occasions the process had to be begun again from scratch; and there were long delays because defence witnesses were apparently unfit to give evidence (ultimately he was the only defence witness to take the stand).
In the meantime, neighbours reported that he had called with photographs of her, looking for her current address. “The guards could do nothing. I’m trying to run a business but I worked for months with the door locked.”
She does not understate the difficulty of coming forward but feels strongly that it is worth the risk. “It helps to look at it in stages and, while each stage comes with its risk of disappointment, it can also come with a victory.”
In the end, O’Rourke was found guilty on one of the four counts – of indecent assault at his home (he was sentenced to two years in prison, one suspended).
“I remember looking at him in court while giving evidence and thinking, I am not that small child any more, you have to listen to me now. Then I walked down from the stand, feeling about two feet taller.”