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Student victim of sexual assault will have to live with ‘mental scars’ for rest of her life

Imposing a suspended sentence, the judge accepted his admission that 'he was not thinking straight and that he takes full responsibility for his offending '

Craigavon Magistrates Court

A student, who was forced to leave university following a sexual assault at a house in the Holylands of Belfast, says she will have to live with the “mental scars of the incident for the rest of her life”.

Rhys O’Hara, from Charlotte Street in Warrenpoint, was handed an 18-month prison sentence, suspended for two years, after he sexually touched his victim as she sat on the toilet in his student accommodation on October 6, 2022.

The 20-year-old was in the Limelight Bar in Belfast just days after starting university when he met his victim for the first time. She too was a student.

The court heard how both were intoxicated at the time with the victim describing her intoxication as seven or eight out of 10. O’Hara had also consumed a number of recreational drugs at the time.

A prosecution lawyer explained how the pair talked for a while in the bar before they went to the defendant’s house a short distance away. This was around 2am.

Upon arrival, the victim immediately went upstairs and was sick into the toilet. O’Hara followed her into the toilet where he touched her intimately “skin on skin” between the legs.

The victim messaged friends on Snapchat who in turn came to get her, before taking her back to her student accommodation.

O’Hara denied the initial offences levied at him stating that any contact of a sexual nature was consensual, however, he changed his plea when a charge of sexual touching was agreed upon.

His defence lawyer told the court: “By pleading guilty, he has not only vindicated his victim in this case, but demonstrated the genuine remorse that he feels, which is also highlighted in the pre-sentence report.”

The lawyer alluded to his “very young” age, being 18 with no previous record, as well as a “very positive” character reference.

He said: “This is a young man literally just out of school, who moved up to Belfast for the first time away from the family home, took far too much drink on this night in question, and then was offered Ecstasy by a so-called friend, took it for the first time and appears literally just to have lost the run of himself and behaved in a way that is completely out of character.

“It will have an ongoing effect over the rest of his life. He’s left university as a result of this and is back living in the family home working in a manual job.

“He’s here [in the courtroom] terrified about the outcome of this hearing, and genuinely remorseful.”

His Honour, Judge Ramsey KC, described it as “a distressing case and yet….it’s a scary case, I suppose, in some respects”.

“It shows how a person, who has otherwise good character, can, because he has taken too much to drink and because he’s been given cocaine, behave in a way completely out of character.”

He added that he accepts O’Hara’s own admission that “he was not thinking straight and that he takes full responsibility for his offending behaviour”.

Referring to the complainant’s victim impact statement, one which she wrote herself, Judge Ramsey said: “The impact it has had on her life has been, in her words, irreversible.

“She was pursuing her dream of becoming a teacher, and she has now not completed that work. She still says she will carry the mental scars of the incident with [O’Hara] for the rest of her life.

“She did begin working again after she dropped out of university but she had to take numerous sick days and the stress is affecting her mental health. She says she used to enjoy going out and socialising but she is now very cautious.

“She is, however, thankful for the friends and family who have supported her throughout the process, it has not been easy, and I’m hopeful that one day I will feel I will be able to move forward from the incident and have a new sense of strength and resilience.”

As well as the suspended sentence, O’Hara will be placed on the sex offenders’ register for the next 10 years.

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