Why do clergy provide character references in sex offender cases?

The recent publicity regarding the controversial sermon by Father Seán Sheehy in St Mary’s Church, Listowel, has reminded the public of the previous controversy 13 years ago, when he provided a reference for local bouncer Danny Foley after he was convicted of sexual assault.

The evidence given on that occasion, which included CCTV footage, led to a unanimous verdict from a jury of 10 men and two women, resulting in the conviction for the assault on the 22-year-old woman.

Judge Donagh McDonagh said no reasonable person could believe the young woman could consent in the state she was in. He spoke of Foley’s ‘web of lies’ before sentencing him to seven years, with two suspended.

The victim in the case felt suicidal due to the reaction of sections of the people of Listowel, but appreciated the support shown by her parish priest, which she contrasted with Father Sheehy, then PP of Castlegregory.

Efforts by Foley to overturn the verdict were unsuccessful.

After censure from the then bishop of Kerry, Bill Murphy, Father Sheehy stepped down from his post.

It has to be seriously asked how Father Sheehy can lecture others on morality, when he does not seem to consider the commandment about bearing false witness. He has effectively impugned the character of the young woman in Listowel by refusing to accept the court’s unanimous verdict, backed up by CCTV and two Garda witnesses, and upheld by three judges on appeal.

He has not the slightest evidence for his contention that the verdict was a miscarriage of justice, merely a hunch based on his knowing the guilty party, which means absolutely nothing.

If he had the slightest degree of conscience, he would publicly apologise to that woman, who received death threats, and would acknowledge that Danny Foley fully deserved the sentence imposed on him.

However, Father Sheehy is far from the only priest to provide a reference for a sex offender.

Years earlier, in Duagh, near Listowel, the parish priest of that village was among prominent locals who provided a reference for Liam Sheehy (28) who raped an Englishwoman married to a local man. The manner in which she and her husband were shunned by locals after going to the guards caused them to return to England.

However, this is not confined to Kerry, a Dublin priest provided a reference for a man who raped a Polish woman in the grounds of a church, of all places.

While providing such references is not illegal, one has to wonder at the wisdom of priests, of all people, doing so, in view of the massive damage the Church has experienced from its own abuse scandals, never mind making excuses for sex offenders.

I am aware of a somewhat similar case in Offaly, from my days as a journalist there. A victim of the late Donal Dunne, a notorious paedophile schoolteacher, became aware that he was teaching in the Sacred Heart School in Tullamore.

Someone had come up with the bright idea of putting him in an all-girls’ school on the grounds that he only molested boys; they didn’t realise his frustration would make him cruel to the girls in other ways.

The victim in question told me how he alerted a priest in Tullamore, the late Father Colm Savage, who told him he would not allow a man’s past ‘to be used against him like an albatross around his neck’. The priest’s failure to act meant that Dunne was free to go on and molest a neighbour’s child after retirement, which led to a Garda investigation which exposed his reign of abuse in schools in Offaly, Kilkenny and Dublin.

Questions have to be asked about why this selective compassion exists among some clergy – compassion for the perpetrators of sexual crimes, and a total lack of empathy for the victims.

Now, I am not suggesting this is characteristic of all priests – I recall in the 1990s that a woman from a domestic violence support group was invited to address Mass in Tullamore – but unfortunately, the actions of those who do act in this way damage the reputation of good priests.

It is time for the bishops to insist that clergy stop providing character references in such cases and look at sacking priests who have done so, unless they make public apologies.

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