Friday, May 1, 2009
An open letter to the press and public.
05/01/2009 To whom it may concern,
Due to the recent articles in the Irish press and tabloids, I feel the necessity to speak in defense of my daughter and to clarify the situation. The unfortunate events that transpired over a decade ago were a tragedy for two families, the Hannon’s and my own. I feel that my daughter and Feichin Hannon were both failed miserably by their families the Garda and the justice system.
My ex-husband purchased a piece of property in Connemara (against my will) even though our neighbors in Clifden informed him of a land war that was raging between the seller and the immediate neighbor. The next seven years of our lives were spent in a constant state of anxiety. We didn’t create the dispute but we landed right in the middle of it. I will not retell all the wrongs and seek to make any side look the worse. In truth, both were right and both were wrong. Sadly, our children were exposed to a never-ending cycle of violence and retribution, all of it over a thin strip of land between two fields. I must clarify here that Feichin , to the best of my recollection, never participated in any of the physical violence, the vast majority of which was between the fathers of both families.
Our family had two faces. One was shown to the public and another hidden from the view of all but a few close friends and relatives. My ex-husband was a man who could be amazingly charming and tender, but also brutal and manipulative. Una and I got the most of his attention but also bore the brunt of his anger. My ex-husband was emotionally, verbally and physically abusive to me in front of the children. He was also emotionally and physically abusive with Una. On many occasions during my marriage I was told to pack my bags and “Take that one with you.” He had little regard for the effect that statement would make on Una or her cowering little sisters. We would be forced to leave the house and walk toward town. He would eventually drive up in the car and force us back inside. This would be followed by hours or days of verbal and emotional abuse. When he was finally done he would tell us why it was our fault he was acting this way and “forgive” us. I am only disclosing this embarrassment now because it is relevant to Una’s fragile state of mind as a child.
The morning of the incident, Una left the house to walk down the hill to friends. There was thick fog and I lost sight of her at the end of the field. A short time later our neighbor’s daughter appeared and told us Una had had an accident and someone may have attacked her. My husband went down the hill and returned with Una a little while later and told me the neighbor said she was all wet and disoriented when she found her in the driveway. She and my ex thought they heard her mutter that someone had put his hand down her pants. She seemed dazed and confused and begged to take a bath. I told her we should wait, and my ex called the Gardai. When he got off the phone he broke down crying. He had a recent violent altercation with the Hannons and feared this was his fault. Some form of payback.
When the police were called to investigate I asked for a female Garda to talk to her. The Garda who showed (hours later) was male. He asked Una what happened and she timidly responded that she had somehow ended up in the well. No mention of assault. We asked for her to be physically examined by a doctor so we could rule out any assault. The officer said it would have to be arranged at a later time. This utterly astounded me. What hope was there of knowing what happened if no examination was done at the time? I put her clothes in a plastic bag and asked the officer to hold it as evidence. These clothes never appeared again and the official explanation was they were "lost.” It took days to get a female Garda to talk to her and longer for a physical examination to take place --way too long for conclusive evidence either way. I understand that the Gardai had been out to our house far too many times in the last few years due to altercations with the Hannons over the land and I’m sure they were weary of all this, but this made it impossible to see if a crime was committed or not. Meanwhile, Una wouldn’t go outside alone and checked the windows and doors several times each night to be sure they were locked.
The days dragged on before a woman finally interviewed Una. She said that she had been running down the hill in the heavy fog and thought she heard someone running behind her. When she looked back for a second she saw “a man with a long nose” and the next thing she knew she was in the well and thought someone had pushed her down or shoved her with a stick. A psychologist examined Una and said she had been traumatized in some way but wouldn’t, or couldn’t say what had happened to her. When she was asked to draw a picture of the man she saw behind her she drew a picture of a man with a long nose. Over the next few weeks, it would be suggested to her by many adults, that this picture bore a resemblance to Feichin Hannon. In fact, it bore a resemblance to half of Connemara. Una does not remember any of this.
The officer in charge of investigating this event read all the police reports about the troubles the Hannons had had with our family and others and decided to proceed with a full investigation. She interviewed Una in front of me in order to get a statement. In the U.S. there are rules about how to ask questions of children in these situations because they can be easily led and made to believe something happened by suggestion. Those rules were not observed in Ireland at the time and I sincerely hope that has changed. I stopped the interview four times to complain that the officer was literally leading Una to say that she saw Feichin, and that he had touched her. The officer said she was merely trying to make it easier for Una to say what had happened since children often find it difficult to articulate these events. I sincerely believe this was what she was attempting. I think this officer was an honorable and concerned individual trying to do the right thing with a confused child and an antiquated protocol for handling these situations. In the officer’s defense, she had recently returned from a long stint in another country where she had taken statements from the victims of war crimes where I’m sure this kind of interview technique was helpful and necessary. But this was different. It was not clear that any crime had been committed or by whom.
Una was led to say something and the details of the attack were entirely dramatized for full effect. When I expressed my concern I was told this statement would not be used in court. She said it needed to sound compelling to get the case treated seriously and this was how it was done in Ireland, so I should trust the system.
Una was so traumatized by all the procedures she begged to be sent back to the states. We agreed and sent her back to be with her grandmother for a year while we finished an unrelated court case involving the purchase of our home. When she returned to us we were informed Mr. Hannon had been charged and a trial would ensue. Una begged not to be put on the stand and pleaded with my husband to let the family return to the U.S . He firmly believed Feichin was guilty and said no. He insisted Una would need “closure”. My voice was, as usual, drowned out.
As I feared, Una was surreptitiously handed a copy of the official dramatic statement to review minutes before giving testimony in court. We were told to say nothing about it. She simply repeated what she had just read. Feichin was found guilty and when the judge asked us what we wanted done, my ex (to his credit) even though he believed Feichin was guilty, asked for leniency. He was given a suspended sentence.
I didn’t know how I would do it but I made a vow to get myself and the children out of Ireland and away from danger. My chance came when my niece was getting married and my mother (who hadn’t seen us in a long time) bought tickets for the children and I to go home for the wedding. When I arrived, I asked my mother for shelter and she said yes. Now that I had put an ocean between us, I gathered my courage. I got a job and started making arrangements. I informed my husband at the end of my planned stay that I wasn’t coming back and I was filing for a divorce. When Una had been safely back in the States for a year she told me Feichin had never attacked her. She had simply gone along with what everyone was saying because she thought it was what she was supposed to do. Now that she was living in a safe place she could reflect on what had happened and she was convinced Feichin did nothing. She was horrified and wanted to set it right. My ex-husband was, and remains, convinced this was simply post-traumatic stress. He refused to let me bring her back to Ireland and I was prohibited from doing so without his permission by law. I contacted a solicitor in Ireland and explained the situation. He said Una would have to appear in person and swear out statements. I asked if she could swear out a notarized statement in the US and he said no. I told him she wouldn’t be able to go to Ireland until she could do so without her fathers permission and to pass on the information to whoever needed to know it.
Contrary to many reports, we were never rich. Not even comfortable. My ex-husband’s acting jobs were few and far between. I taught yoga through the western Health Board to make ends meet. What little money I was able to make when I returned to the US and opened a small business with a loan from my mother, was eaten up in my divorce. In her first year of college Una was old enough to go to Ireland on her own but I couldn’t afford to buy tickets to Ireland and couldn’t get a loan due to bankruptcy. I still owe an Irish friend of mine I leaned on heavily at the time a significant sum from that disaster. Una decided to take out an extra loan so she could use the semester abroad program as the opportunity to go to Ireland and swear out the papers. She knew she was going to bring the spotlight on herself if she returned and swore out a statement. She knew it could mean the loss of any job prospects in her field and possible financial ruin due to the loans she was carrying for her education. She knew all this and yet she chose to go. She chose to go alone so she could take all the blame on herself. When they questioned her about why she had lied, she didn’t know what to say because she had so little memory of the events, so she said she lied out of revenge or misplaced loyalty to her family. She was not yet 10 when the event happened and was 20 when she chose to take the entire responsibility for this mess on her own shoulders. Which is not surprising. She spent her entire childhood being told that when bad things happened to her they were her fault. She didn’t blame the justice system or the Gardai. She didn’t blame the parents who brought violence into her life or the one who failed to protect her. She blamed herself. She was a child who had something happen to her only to have something much worse unleashed upon her by the adults who should have been safeguarding her.
In answer to those who have written articles mocking her work for human rights, especially her work with refugees and immigrants, I can only say that Una knows all too well what it means to be in a foreign country and be afraid, and to feel powerless and alone and not know where to turn when those around you can’t or won’t protect you. I do not want anyone else to suffer over this heinous situation. I wish to state again that I believe the Gardai and the Judiciary were trying to do the best with an awful situation that was clouded by previous experience and a confused and frightened child, but the system was terribly flawed. I pray the state will use this opportunity to change the methods it’s uses to handle cases involving children. I know it must have been sheer hell for Feichin to live with the shadow of that conviction and for that, I cannot express how profoundly sorry Una and I are. We have always worried that his conviction would receive huge coverage and his exoneration just a footnote. We are happy for him that this is not so. It is my most fervent prayer that someday Feichin and Una will find it in their hearts to forgive us all.
p.s. Needless to say, there are many reasons why we have waited to send out this statement. Not the least of which is fear of backlash from the Gardai and the Judiciary, not to mention my ex-husband. I know by releasing this statement I am bringing my family under further scrutiny but I choose to do so rather than let Una bear the burden for something out of her control. I couldn’t protect my daughter when she was a child and now that I am stronger I will not stand idly by and see her victimized again.
For those who will question why I didn’t ask for help with the abuse, the answer is, I did. I had him arrested in L.A. shortly after the birth of my second child. He was out the next day and my situation was worse. I asked for help at the Garda station in Clifden. I was told they could go out to Aughris and hava a chat with him. He couldn’t be arrested because they hadn’t seen him harm me. Any woman who has been abused knows if you say something and he isn’t put away you are in for twice what you got in the first place. After awhile you stop trying, until you can escape. The restraining orders I had to take out against him during the divorce will speak volumes about his capacity. I feel it necessary to state that my ex-husband has become a significantly better father to his younger two children than he ever was to Una and now enjoys a close relationship with both. Our youngest daughter was an infant when all this happened and has had no knowledge of these events at all until now.
Some of what I’ve stated is part of the public record. Some, obviously not, but easily substantiated by talking to those who have known us. I am hampered in my recounting of exact details by time, and trauma and ask that those who read this to overlook the minor inaccuracies and look for the broader truth.