Northern Ireland news

Co Derry woman tells of sex assault after father-in-law's funeral as attacker avoids jail

Oonagh Hughes, who has waived her right to anonymity, with her husband Kevin

A WOMAN sexually assaulted after her father-in-law’s funeral has told how both sides of the family have been ripped apart by the crime.

Oonagh Hughes (51) waived her right to anonymity to encourage others to report sex attacks to police following the sentencing yesterday of John Shivers.

District Judge Nigel Broderick, sitting in Antrim Magistrates Court, told the 56-year-old from Grange Park in Magherafelt that “the impact on Mrs Hughes has been quite profound, not least the emotional trauma she has suffered as a result of this assault”.

The attack happened in September 2016 at Moyola Golf Club in Castledawson, Co Derry where mourners had gathered after the funeral. Shivers was convicted of sexual assault after a contest hearing last December.

Mrs Hughes has expressed disappointment that he was handed 220 hours’ community service. The maximum sentence for the crime is two months’ imprisonment.

“I think it was very light for what I have been through for two and a half years,” she said.

However, she said she is relieved that he will be on the sex offenders register for five years – something he resisted through this lawyers until the very end.

“Men have to stop behaving like animals and they will only stop when they are named and shamed,” she said.

The judge also ordered Shivers to pay £1,000 in compensation, although he said it was “in no way the full amount” due to his victim, who is “at liberty to pursue a civil case if she so wishes”.

“If I had known what he was like, I wouldn’t have been in his company,” Mrs Hughes said.

“I would encourage victims to come forward. It’s a hard process, it’s a long process, but it’s a process of self-discovery. You find things out about yourself.

“You find out who your real friends are.”

Mrs Hughes revealed that the case has torn apart her home village of Castledawson, fracturing families and decades-long friendships.

Oonagh and Kevin Hughes had only been home a fortnight from a trip to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary when his father went into hospital, dying six weeks later.

Her husband had left their table at the golf club to go to the toilet towards the end of the evening when Shivers, a close friend of her brother-in-law, targeted Mrs Hughes, coming to sit beside her and putting his hand on her leg.

The court heard he “moved his hand up to her thigh” and made sexual remarks when she asked him to stop, before continuing the assault which left her tights torn. Shivers’s DNA was detected on the hosiery.

The assault was witnessed by Mrs Hughes’s daughter, who testified to the court via videolink from Australia where she was spending a year travelling.

However, many family members and friends disagreed with her decision to report the assault to police.

A defence lawyer told the court Shivers maintains his innocence and will appeal his conviction, claiming there has since been “what can only be described as a tidal wave of evidence from people who did not want to be involved in the case”, all supporting his version of events.

“The whole [Hughes] family have stood by my husband’s brother and nobody had spoken to me in two years. It’s really, really hard for my husband,” Mrs Hughes said.

“I haven’t seen or heard from any of the Hugheses since July 2016. None have called to the house – none have phoned. I have been totally eradicated from the family that I was part of for 31 years.

“My family don’t speak to me – my mother and my five sisters, including my twin. Just one sister speaks to me. People have said to me ‘It was God’s will’ and that I shouldn’t be airing my business in public.”

Mr Hughes also said the sex assault has become a “taboo subject” in his family.

“I work with them as well. It’s a family business. Can you imagine that? Going to work with someone you’re speaking to but don’t want to speak to. There’s a difference between good and evil. They say blood is thicker than water, but this is something else.”

The 52-year-old said he has found the last 30 months devastating.

“My father had died and then this happened at the funeral. I was processing grief and at the same time trying to help my wife,” he said.

Mrs Hughes said she “had fallen to pieces” but she found a counsellor who helped “build her back again”.

She was unable to work as a teacher for seven months due to stress-related illnesses and unable to drive for four months.

“I thought I would never work again,” she said. 

Victim Support, she said, was “fantastic throughout” the “flawed legal system”, in which she said victims “don’t have a voice”.

“For the first time it felt like someone was on my side,” she said.

The horror of what had happened to his wife, grief at the loss of his father and family tensions took their toll on Mr Hughes, who has also been seeing the counsellor.

The couple have spent more than £3,000 on the weekly therapy but both now have a remarkably positive outlook.

“The counsellor told us, ‘If you lower your expectations you can’t get hurt’. I had thought after the case was over and he’d been found guilty there would be people coming back and saying sorry. It was shocking to see people coming to support him in court after he had been convicted,” Mrs Hughes said.

“We have some very, very good friends that have supported us throughout. We are blessed. It’s like a certain lifting. There are no hidden doors any more, no pretence. We know who people are and who are there for us and who aren’t.

“I married my best friend. We have been married 27 years and I never had another sexual partner and I love him to death.

“I feel like I’m getting my life back slowly. This year I feel like I’m back to ‘me’ in the classroom again.

“It has changed me. I’ll always think of my life before the assault and after. But all the same, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Mrs Hughes urged people to listen to sex assault victims.

“When you mention it a conversation dries up. For me that was the hardest bit. You need to talk – you need to be listened to. I’m talking so much not because I wasn’t believed, because people tried to shut me up, she said.

“Before this maybe I would have said the wrong thing to victims, but if you don’t know what to say, just tell them you’ll be there for them.”

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

Northern Ireland news

Today's horoscope


See a different horoscope: