Supporting survivors of rape and sexual assault since 1995

By AMY LEWIS

Published 08/12/2015 | 00:00

Catherine Murphy (counsellor) and Clare Williams (manager) at the Wexford centre.
Catherine Murphy (counsellor) and Clare Williams (manager) at the Wexford centre.

The Wexford Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Service marks its 20th anniversary this year and for those involved in the vital service, this calls for a celebration.

Last Tuesday, a candlelit vigil in the Bullring shone a light on the support that the service has provided over the last two decades. Most importantly, it was a tribute to the many people who have had the courage to pick up the phone and seek help.

'We want to acknowledge all of the people who have taken that step to come here,' said Catherine Murphy, a counsellor at the centre. 'That is the reason why we are still here. Because people are still coming.'

The service was first established in Wexford town in 1995 as an indirect response to the Kilkenny Incest Investigation. Though there was little support available in Wexford for victims of sexual abuse before this, the initial response that it received highlighted the need for such a service.

'The Kilkenny investigation had brought up a lot of questions from people here who had also been abused. The publicity around that made people in the county more open. They wanted to come out and share their stories and look for help and support,' explained Catherine.

Since then, the service has come a long way. The need for support services outside of Wexford town was soon met as outreach centres were established in Gorey, Enniscorthy and New Ross. Staff numbers have also increased over the years. There is currently a staff team of three counsellors who work with manager Clare Williams, while several self-employed counsellors are dispersed around the county. This year, the centre also took on two Polish-speaking counsellors to open themselves up to the Polish community of Wexford. The centre also offers Garda accompaniment for those who need emotional support in court and support for family members and friends of those who have been abused.

However, despite the growth and changes over the years, the core focus of the Wexford Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Service remains the same.

'Survivors needs are at the heart of what we do,' explained Catherine.

These needs are established from the initial contact with the service, which Clare refers to as the first step.

'It starts with the person themselves picking up the phone. Once they do, I think we're very good at responding very effectively and very quickly to someone's request because we know how important that initial contact is,' she explained. 'So really, the minute that they call we would respond very quickly and go to meet them in their nearest town. There I will do an initial assessment to gather basic information about what they're looking for.'

The clients needs remain the focus throughout, with each counselling session tailored to the individual client. According to Catherine, these needs can vary greatly from person to person.

'We bring our various approaches to the counselling room. The relationship between the client and the counsellor is core to our work and everything is completely confidential,' she said. 'The client has to come in and put his or her trust in the counsellor. They want to be able to disclose information without being judged. Our service is about supporting them in a non-judgemental way.'

Of the clients who avail of the services, 85 per cent are victims of childhood sexual abuse. The remaining 15 per cent have experienced some form of recent sexual violence, assault or rape. The clients range from aged 16 and above and approximately 15 per cent of these are men. The Wexford centre currently provides services to 50 people, which is 40 per cent higher than the same time last year. Clare and Catherine attribute this rise to a change in attitudes towards sexual abuse and rape.

'People are becoming more confident in coming forward. It's not the stigma that it once was,' explained Catherine.

Publications that exposed historical child sex abuse such as the Cloyne, Ferns and Murphy reports have been key in reducing this stigma.

'The conversation is definitely opening up,' said Clare. 'People are realising that the abuse wasn't their fault.'

'This is very important,' agreed Catherine. 'Particularly in cases of historical abuse, you see people in their thirties and forties who have carried the burden of the blame of the abuser when it wasn't theirs to be carrying. People now understand that they didn't cause this and they are not responsible for it.'

Education is also a vital part of changing attitudes towards sexual violence. Along with offering support services to victims, the Wexford Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Service are dedicated to educating the public through various initiatives. For example, their six-week secondary school programmes for 15 and 16-year-old students in Wexford have been educating young people about sexual violence for almost 15 years. By teaching people about this subject from a young age, it is hoped that incidences of sexual violence can be reduced.

'The more that young people realise what consent is between people, the more understanding they have of that. This will hopefully go towards minimising sexual violence,' explained Clare.

Another strand of their work with young people involves research projects. Earlier this year, the group conducted their second piece of research: 'Young People in Wexford Talking About Sex'. This research report explored the sexual attitudes and behaviours of young people in the county.

'It was really ground-breaking. It was the first ever study of its kind done in Wexford and one of the very few nationally,' said Clare.

'Young people said that they want more sex education in general. They want it to start earlier and to be more in-depth in terms of the emotional side of things. We all get the science part of it.'

Following 20 years of support and education, the people behind the Wexford Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Service are now looking towards the future. However, like any agency that relies on funding, they are faced with a 'continuous struggle'.

'We are funded by TUSLA and about 8 years ago, we had our funding cut,' explained Clare. 'Outside of that, once someone has done ten sessions, we ask them if they have a donation to put towards the service. However, we don't earn a huge amount from that.'

Although the future of funding for the service is uncertain, Clare said they are all 'quite confident that it is going to stay'. She attributes a large part of their success to date to the many volunteers who give up their time, particularly the nine board members.

'The board members are hugely skilled in terms of legal and business backgrounds. Their help and assistance is vital,' she explained.

With research suggesting that the majority of those who are affected by rape or sexual violence do not seek help, those at the Wexford Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre know that more work is needed. As they set their sights on the years ahead, they hope that they continue to encourage victims to turn to them so that they can help them to resume a normal life.

'It's very individual but many come through it very well and go on to lead productive and successful lives,' said Catherine.

Wexford People

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