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Acquittal in Irish Rugby Rape Case Deepens Debate on Sexual Consent

The Ulster case began when a 19-year-old woman said she was raped in June 2016 at a party at Mr. Jackson’s home. In a text to a friend a day after the house party, she appeared intimidated by the prospect of facing down the men she had accused: “I’m not going to the police. I’m not going up against Ulster Rugby. Yea, because that’ll work.”

Mr. Jackson and Mr. Olding were charged with rape and sexual assault. The trial centered on whether the woman had consented to the acts performed on her, and on the sometimes contradictory accounts of what had been done, and by whom, on a night fueled by alcohol.

Mr. Olding said he had had consensual oral sex with the woman, but both men denied having had vaginal sex with her. A taxi driver who took her home testified that she had been “sobbing throughout the journey” and that he saw blood on the back of her white jeans. A doctor told the court that he had observed a laceration in her bleeding vagina. But defense experts argued that this was not proof of rape or even that she had had sex.

The young woman spent eight days on the witness stand being questioned by each of the defendants’ lawyers. She sat in court while her underwear was passed around for the jury to examine. Defense lawyers cited testimony that said the young woman did not physically resist or scream for help from other women downstairs.

The criminal law in Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, is based on the principle that guilt must be proven beyond reasonable doubt. And after a grueling trial, the two players — and two of their friends who had been charged with lesser offenses — were unanimously cleared by a jury of eight men and three women after less than four hours of deliberation.

On the steps of the courthouse, Mr. Jackson’s lawyer, Joe McVeigh, strongly criticized the complainant and the police for taking the case. Mr. Olding, speaking through his lawyer, maintained that everything had been consensual but said: “I am sorry for the hurt that was caused to the complainant.”

But anti-rape and women’s rights activists said that some of the evidence produced in court, particularly private WhatsApp messages sent among the young men and their friends, had raised disturbing questions about the attitude of some Irish men toward sex, consent and women in general.

Photo

Mr. Jackson outside a court in Belfast in March. Speaking through his lawyer, he maintained that everything had been consensual, but said, “I am sorry for the hurt that was caused to the complainant.” Credit Paul Faith/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Court records showed that after the party, Mr. Olding posted a message — “We are all top shaggers” — to a private WhatsApp group that included Mr. Jackson. The group exchanged boastful, abusive and misogynistic messages that appeared to refer to the young woman, including, “Mate no jokes she was in hysterics.” One member of the group concluded a graphic exchange with “Legends!! … Why are we all such legends?”

Defense lawyers argued that the comments were exaggerated boyish banter. But those remarks, and the vitriol unleashed by some of the men’s supporters against the woman, whose identity is protected in Northern Ireland’s legal system, were condemned.

After the verdict, some called for her to be named and said she should be punished for trying to ruin the lives of innocent young men.

Luke Rossiter, a semiprofessional player with Drogheda United soccer team in the Irish Republic, called on Twitter for her to be “locked up” and directed obscene abuse at women who had supported her. He later apologized for his “stupid and immature” comments and vowed to donate his wages for the rest of the season to a rape crisis center.

Willie John McBride, a celebrated former player for the Ireland rugby team, which represents both parts of the island, gave the players more measured support on a Dublin-based radio show this past week.

“The guys have come through a very traumatic couple of months where they’ve virtually been tried on television every day, walking in and out of the court,” he said, adding, “It is time they were back playing rugby again.”

The verdict failed to quell the rising anger of supporters of the young woman and survivors of sexual violence, who continued to rally under the hashtag #ibelieveher. (When Mr. Jackson’s lawyers threatened after the verdict to sue anyone who attacked his client or questioned the verdict on social media, a blizzard of defiant responses emerged under #suemepaddy.)

The following week, Mr. Jackson put out a more contrite statement: “I am ashamed that a young woman who was a visitor to my home left in a distressed state. This was never my intention, and I will always regret the events of that evening.”

Cara Cash-Marley, the chief executive of Nexus, a rape counseling service in Northern Ireland, said the trial had again exposed the onerous burden of proof placed on those who brought sexual assault complaints.

She said complainants should be allowed to record their evidence when it was fresh in their minds, rather than be expected to repeat it many times over — and finally to be aggressively cross-examined in court years later.

Cliona Saidlear, executive director of Rape Crisis Network Ireland, said the case may have spurred a new willingness to re-examine prevailing attitudes about sex and consent. “There is a macho culture in sport, and a hookup culture,” she said. “And we have to say, just because it is this way, does it have to be that way?”

The decision to sack the two players came amid commercial sponsors’ concerns that the men’s return would damage the image of a sport that has grown in popularity in recent years — not least among Irish women.

But a recent episode hinted at the hurdles still remaining. In Belfast this past week, the Malone rugby club said that it was investigating a photograph that had emerged of two players simulating sex acts with a trophy cup, the names of Mr. Jackson and Mr. Olding stuck to their torsos.

Source: NYT > World

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