Let’s talk about…Crotty’s sentencing

Crotty’s sentencing: a gender issue, or a justice system issue?

When a male soldier pleads guilty to beating a woman unconscious in a street full of witnesses, and receives no prison time for it – what type of injustice is it? Is it an issue of the court’s preferential treatment? Of gender-based violence? Is it a problem with the justice system generally, irrespective of gender or a defendant’s career?

It’s a question that’s been explored a lot this week, following Judge Tom O’Donnell’s suspended sentencing of army private Cathal Crotty, who pleaded guilty to assaulting Natasha O’Brien during a night out in Limerick. Crotty initially claimed O’Brien had instigated the incident, only to retract this statement when faced with footage of what occurred. As video showed and the court heard, after O’Brien “politely” asked Crotty to stop shouting homophobic slurs at someone, he grabbed her by the hair and began punching her repeatedly. O’Brien remembers thinking as she lost consciousness, “He’s not stopping. I’m going to die”.

After beating his victim unresponsive, Crotty fled the scene. Later that night, he turned to Snapchat to brag about the incident: “Two to put her down, two to put her out”.

On the one hand, for Crotty to still receive no jail time beggars belief. But, as horrid as it is to say, stories like this are more sickening than they are surprising.

Many comparisons have been drawn between this and another recent case, which saw Limerick hurler Kyle Hayes receive a suspended sentence for his violent, unprovoked attack on Cillian McCarthy – leaving McCarthy with extensive injuries and headaches/vision problems he still suffers with today.

Last summer, heavyweight boxer and naval officer David O’Gorman pleaded guilty to assaulting his girlfriend. He punched her in the head so violently that he permanently displaced one of her eyes. O’Gorman was given a suspended sentence after agreeing to pay compensation, and today remains a serving member of the defence forces.

Crotty’s sentencing is part of a wider trend; there’s a litany of issues within the Irish justice system which allow violent offenders to avoid jail time. Not least of all is prison capacity – at near 110% as of last month, overcrowding has become such a huge issue that many suggest it motivates judges to opt for suspended sentences over custodial ones. And when it comes to judges themselves, they’re not put under enough scrutiny for the reasoning behind their sentencing trends – Judge O’Donnell, for example, also oversaw O’Gorman’s case and has a history of giving lenient sentences to violent offenders.

Regarding Crotty, while Judge O’Donnell called the assault appalling, cowardly, and vicious, he explained he decided to give the soldier a suspended three-year sentence after taking into account his guilty plea, lack of prior convictions, and… the end of his army career if imprisoned.

To be clear, a guilty plea and lack of convictions are mitigating factors a judge is meant to take into account. But even still, if a guilty plea is meant to soften sentences because it suggests cooperation and remorse, Crotty is sure being given a lot of credit for it, considering his initial lies and his bragging after the fact. A guilty plea is also seen as a ‘win’ for the victim, as they don’t have to go through the trial process… but how much of a ‘win’ is it when it effectively functions as a get-out-of-jail-free card?

However, these two factors aren’t the ones people take primary issue with. Rather, it is the third explanation that’s caused the most outrage: protecting Crotty’s career.

It’s been heard before – the suggestion that a ‘once-off’ violent attack shouldn’t tarnish a perpetrator’s career or reputation, or have potentially lifelong repercussions for them… the way it does the victim. That the ultimate objective here isn’t revenge, but rehabilitation, so why ruin a(nother) life when we could give a ‘second chance’?

Rehabilitation is important, but punishment of violent crime still needs to exist; to ensure justice and accountability, to comfort the victim and their family of those things, and, not least of all, because suspended sentences aren’t the effective means of rehabilitation they claim to be. It’s meant to be a deterrent; if you offend again, you go to prison, no if, ands, or buts. But per The Law Reform Commission’s 2020 report, the system for monitoring breaches and activating suspended sentences is essentially ineffective, with judges quoted as saying, “For many years when I was practising, it was a complete joke because nobody ever reactivated it”, and “Few, if any, (suspended sentences cases) have ever been brought back before me, and I do not believe it to be because all of them have achieved their purpose”.

Given all this, some are lamenting that the conversation around Crotty’s sentencing has become so centred around gender-based violence, believing it should be about the justice system in general. And I think it’s not unreasonable to identify how much systemic problems allowed this to arise, or to look at the Hayes case and suggest the same outcome could’ve arisen had O’Brien been a man.

But nothing exists in a bubble.

Gender-based violence has been on the rise recently, as has hate in general, and it is naïve to suggest this has played no part in forming the mindset of someone who thinks he can get away with shouting slurs and beating people unconscious. But I want to make the point that when we talk about gender-based violence, it isn’t just to highlight the disproportionate targeting of women. It’s also to talk about the way culture and society teaches men to behave, and what it lets them get away with.

It goes without saying Crotty’s actions aren’t reflective of all men. In fact, there’s been significant vocal support for O’Brien from men in recent days, and this is incredibly valuable – having men call other men out can do so much in terms of de-normalising violent behaviour. Some men will only listen to other men, after all, and some men may assume their peers also don’t take such issues seriously, until proved otherwise.

But even with oodles of ‘good men’ out there, it doesn’t change the fact our society is built on patriarchal ideals, ideals we continue to perpetuate today. We reward women for being compliant and nurturing, valuing their appearances and performance as ‘caretakers’ over their capabilities, achievements, and ambitions. And in turn, we reward men for taking charge and providing, valuing their strength and dominance at the expense of vulnerability, humility, empathy, and emotional intelligence.

Take Crotty, Hayes, and O’Gorman – men who made careers out of physical strength and skill. Traits that can easily make for a violent and volatile cocktail when combined with an unchecked ego. And when we’re constantly rewarding men for such traits while not encouraging emotional maturity, an unchecked ego is par for the course; evident in Crotty’s bragging online and Hayes telling McCarthy, “Do you know who the f*ck I am?” before attacking him.

Physical dominance is rewarded in men, and violence is just a step away (especially when we ask men to suppress emotion). What this unfortunately means, is that for men who learned old-fashioned ideas of male superiority, violence can function as a way to feel ‘manly’. Take Crotty: he started by shouting homophobic slurs, then attacked a woman, and finally, bragged about overpowering her. His actions that night were centred around his adherence to traditional masculinity, and his abuse of those who don’t fit that mould.

Judges like O’Donnell can understand offenders like Crotty or O’Gorman enough to give them a suspended sentence, enough to believe it was just a fluke, enough to believe they should be able to go back to their defence forces career lickety-split, because they can understand just how things escalated. They can understand why a man was able to ‘lose his cool’. It happens all the time, after all.

It has been confusing and slightly infuriating to watch people try and pull apart the different aspects of this story into neat little categories – to only want to talk about the courts and not gender, or about gender and not the courts. No one wants to decide if this is a justice system issue or a gender-based violence issue, but the truth is it’s both – and the problem will be worse served by trying to tackle these factors unequally or in isolation.

The one thing we can agree on is that change is needed, and needed now. As we all have heard lots over the last few days – enough is enough.