Fr Sean Sheehy: told the court Foley hadn't an abusive bone in his body

The show of solidarity for a violent offender in Tralee courthouse last Wednesday was not unique. The procession of mainly males who filed up and shook the hand of Danny Foley had one thing in common. All of them believed in his innocence.

Last year, a similar show unfolded in the Central Criminal Court in Dublin, where Brian Kearney was accused of murdering his wife, Siobhán. From the first day of the hearing on 18 February 2008, a succession of family members and friends lined up beside Kearney in the court, directly opposite the jury. The message was clear. Each and every one of these supporters did not believe that their friend and loved one could have strangled his wife.

After Kearney was convicted, many among them broke down. Their distress was not about the dead woman, but the court of law that, in their eyes, got it wrong. Brian was not capable of murdering a woman.

Last week's scenes in Tralee circuit court have been attributed to something called small-town Ireland. In fact, the fall-out from Foley's sentencing hearing for sexual assault has far more to do with deep-rooted problems in the Irish psyche concerning violence against women and, to a lesser extent, the role played by alcohol.

Danny Foley's innocence is not in doubt among those around him. His brother Tim referred on Newstalk to the "so-called victim" in the case. Foley's girlfriend, Michelle O'Sullivan told the same station: "I personally don't believe there was enough evidence to come back with a conviction."

Again on Newstalk, Fr Sean Sheehy, who told the court Foley was "respectful" of women and "hadn't an abusive bone in his body", referred to the "alleged assault". The priest claims to know Foley well. He arrived in Kerry from the USA a month after the assault occurred. (Sheehy, in common with members of the hierarchy in recent times, obviously has scant regard for the law of the land when it is in conflict with his own superior knowledge of the affairs of man and God.)

These friends and relatives, and others close to Foley, testify to his sweet character, his inability to harm anybody, his compulsion to help whomever he can. All of this may well be accurate. But it does not imply that such a character is incapable of being violent towards women, or that he would not attempt to invoke power by sexually assaulting a woman rendered incapable by drink.

The Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (SAVI) report in 2002 estimated that one in five women has experienced some form of sexual assault as an adult. Assuming that the perpetrators were exclusively male, that makes for a lot of men who have been capable of sexual assault. And you can bet your bottom dollar that plenty of the same men are as sweet as pie in other areas of their lives.

So it goes with violence against women. So it goes with sexual assault. So it goes with the murder of a partner or wife. Men like Brian Kearney who have murdered their wives are quite capable of being loving fathers and loyal and caring friends in other areas of their lives.

The results suggest there is a small minority of men for whom a beast within can be awoken and set upon a member of the opposite sex under certain circumstances. The nature of the violence can often make its existence quite unbelievable to anybody who hasn't experienced or witnessed it.

Danny Foley's friends and relatives are obviously experiencing difficulty in believing he did it. Their belief in his innocence allows them to disregard the initial lies he told about finding "your wan" on the ground in the Listowel car park when he went behind a skip to relieve himself.

His family and friends have found the wherewithal to ignore the medical evidence of bruising to the woman's wrists, where she claims he held her down. They accept his story that he engaged in consensual sexual acts with a woman whom two gardaí described as semi-conscious when they happened across the pair. As far as Danny's friends are concerned, he was incapable of doing it, whatever the facts might say.

As a result, they see their loved one as the victim, the woman as the "so-called victim" who has used the law to attack poor Danny.

Yet a jury who looked coldly at the facts, to the exclusion of everything else, found the evidence merited a guilty verdict beyond reasonable doubt. The judge's comments suggest he was entirely in agreement with the verdict, and he found Foley had told lie after lie to the court. There has been no suggestion any evidence was suppressed, or ignored, or that the trial took place in the kind of fevered atmosphere in which a miscarriage of justice can occur.

The guilty verdict happened in a society where it is extremely difficult to secure a conviction in cases of sexual assault or rape. A report by the Rape Crisis Network earlier this month found that only seven out of every hundred complaints made to the gardaí were processed through the system to the point of conviction. Yet the jury in Tralee were in little doubt. They returned a unanimous verdict.

The circumstances of the case also fed into dangerous characterisations of men and women and the role of alcohol. The woman was drunk leaving the nightclub. She left with Foley – albeit, according to the CCTV footage, in such a state that he had to carry her.

What did she expect would happen, getting drunk and leaving a club with a man? So goes the refrain from those who wish to view rape and sexual assault through the prism of times when the role of the respective sexes was strictly defined, usually to the detriment of women. In these eyes, if a woman doesn't want it, she is obliged to stay sober and accompany a man only if she has designs on becoming more intimate.

It's an offensive image of the role of the sexes, but it is not the only outdated one that still persists. While a criminal case was concluding in Tralee last week, a High Court action in Dublin was examining the so called 'Romeo and Juliet' law, permitting prosecution of a boy for allegedly having sex with a 14-year-old girl when he was 15.

The law, senior counsel Gerard Hogan argued before the court, was enacted on the patronising view that girls must be protected from boys, who are the guilty parties. The law was enacted three years ago. Daft notions about the role of the sexes are as likely to be found in Leinster House as in the most Neanderthal minds in the country.

The unfortunate outcome of the Listowel affair is that any attempt at an enlightened approach to reporting sexual assault or rape has been set back. What woman would want to bring upon herself the spotlight that has been shone on the victim in this case? The recent Rape and Justice in Ireland report from the Rape Crisis Network found that one-third of women who claimed to have been raped never reported it to the gardaí.

"Concerns about the criminal justice system figured prominently, but the single most commonly stated reason was that the victim did not want others to know what had happened," it stated.

The Listowel woman has been applauded for her bravery, but it will take many more like her to change the prevailing culture of under-reporting. Scenes like those witnessed in Tralee last Wednesday do little to help the effort to shine a light into a dark corner of society.