Soft sentences for sex crimes spreads culture of menacing ignorance

And once again we read a report of a teacher weeping in court as her sex attacker walks free..It really is time to hold judges to account for their failure to properly convict crimes of sexual assault.

Here, journalist Justine McCarthy documents some of the appalling lenient sentences handed down by judges in recent sexual assault cases.  

The night Seán Thackaberry flung Michelle Hennessy over a wall and sexually assaulted her for 20 terrifying minutes, he effectively signed her death warrant.

Last week, Thackaberry,20, of Maryville, Melita Road in Kildare town, was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in jail but his victim was not in court to see him taken away. For she is dead.

Explaining after the trial why Michelle took her own life in October 2012, her mother Peggy, said:  “For ages, people would be intimidating her and saying she was making it up.”   Those who hassled Michelle ignored the physical bruises she bore after Thackaberry had finished with her. They ignored the evidence that he stopped only because a Garda patrol car happened by. They ignored Michelle’s changed personality afterwards, her reclusiveness.  The case is chillingly reminiscent of the day in 2009 when Danny Foley, then 35, from Listowel, was sentenced on conviction of assault. A single file of about 50 well-wishers queued to shake his hand, watched by his victim who was seated with her counsellor, across the courtroom.  During the hearing, Fr. Seán Sheehy, a parish priest, gave evidence that Foley has the highest respect for women.


Newspaper reports likened what unfolded in the Tralee courtroom to a John B Keane play, as if such displays of menacing ignorance were normally consigned to the past.  The difference between Keane’s darkly brooding 1950s and now is that, these days ambivalence about sexual crimes is flagrantly inculcated by the ruling class.  The silence in the Dáil over Michelle Hennessy’s suicide is almost as disturbing as her death.  It transmits a message that the revictimisation of victims of sexual crimes is of no concern.

Ireland is the only western European state that has not signed the Council of Europe’s convention on violence against women.  France, Turkey, Sweden, Slovakia, Portugal, Montenegro, Luxembourg, Iceland, Greece, Germany, Finland and Austria all signed in 2011. Justice Minister Alan Shatter told the Dáil the delay was caused by a conflict between the necessary provision for emergency barring orders and constitutional property rights.  Even Keane’s Bull McCabe didn’t think of that one.

Last Monday, the Court of Criminal Appeal overturned a six-month custodial sentence for Anthony Lyons, He was a wealthy aviation broker when he rugby-tackled and sexually assaulted a female passer-by on a quiet Dublin road one night.  Lyons has the wherewithal to pay 75,000 euro, as ordered by the court.  His reward was that he served just six months of his 66-month jail sentence.

The appeal court deemed the sentence by Desmond Hogan, the trial judge, too lenient and said it failed to take into account the gravity of the crime or its impact on the victim. The court will hear submissions this week to determine a suitable sentence. Hogan, however, is unlikely to be censured for compounding and prolonging the victim’s anguish with his leniency.  No matter how often sentences are overturned by the appeal court, there are no repercussions for the judges who impose them.

ImageIn 2007, the appeal court overturned a non-custodial sentence by Judge Paul Carney on Adam Keane from Daragh in Clane for breaking into a woman’s home and raping her. Last January, Carney released Patrick O’Brien, 72, of Bray, Co Wicklow, on bail pending an appeal of his 12-year sentence – nine years of it suspended – for routinely raping his daughter from the age of seven.  Carney only revoked bail following public uproar.  Nearly 3,500 signatures have been collected for a petition calling for the resignation of Martin Nolan, after the circuit court judge suspended in full a three-and-a-half year sentence in a child pornography case. Gardaí has discovered more than 7,000 child abuse imaged in the possession of Patrick Corcoran, 53, a former civil servant in the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism.


This is not the first time  Nolan has freed convicted sex criminals.  Last July, he suspended all of a two-year sentence on a man who sexually assaulted his neighbour in the bed, as her eight-year old son lay beside her.  The man has pulled off the woman’s lower-body clothing, had her pinned to the bed and his legs wrapped around her when the child awoke and cried out:  “Get off my Mammy.”  The man replied:  Ssshhh, relax. I’m nearly done.”  Nolan said he did not find the man’s evidence believable but he rewarded him for showing remorse.

In October 2012, Graham Griffiths of the Saltings, Annagassan, Co Louth, was convicted of a random violent sexual assault on a 17-year old girl. Griffiths told Gardaí he had wanted to ‘make her inferior’.  He had four previous convictions for assault causing harm.  Nolan gave him four years and suspended the lot.  He ordered Griffiths to pay 15,000 euro to his victim: the price of a small car.

Also in October 2012, Nolan sentenced Glen Humphrey to three years for attacking three women.  One of the women, upon whom Humphrey has stamped, told the court she suffered from sleeplessness and flashbacks, and was attending counselling.  Nolan suspended the entire sentence and ordered Humphrey, who has six previous convictions, to pay 12,000 euro to the woman who was stamped on.

In a third case in October 2012, Nolan presided in the trial of Aidan Farrington of Iona Drive in Glasnevin who was found guilty of assaulting two of his nieces on three separate occasions when they were aged over 18.  Nolan described the assaults as ‘very serious’ but decreed that publication of Farrington’s name was sufficient punishment. He gave him three years, suspended in full.

Whenever a judge passes a controversially lenient sentence in a sexual crime case, there is a public debate about training for judges and the establishment of a judicial council. This is to ignore the obvious, in the same vein as did those who intimidated Michelle Hennessy and queued to shake Foley’s hand.  The obvious question is, if a judge lacks the emotional intelligence to understand the potentially catastrophic effects of sexual crime, what is he doing on the bench in the first place?

Inadequate sentencing is a disincentive to victims to report crimes and it conveys a message to society that such crimes are not really that bad.  Thus spreads the culture of menacing ignorance that caused Michelle Hennessy to end her life. If judges who impose inadequate sentences believe the punishment fits the crime, they fail to understand the crime.  And that is unacceptable.

Justine McCarthy – Sunday Times 24 November 2013


One response to “Soft sentences for sex crimes spreads culture of menacing ignorance

  1. Hi Justine, I’ve just come across this write up. I’m Michelle’s twin sister and I agree with everything you’ve talked about here. When Michelle died we were told that her case was dead in the water and that it would never go ahead because she was dead. That infuriated me, made me sick to my core. Our justice system is a joke, our judges have no idea when it comes to these crimes. I mean for god sake they lock people up for having no tv license quicker than they lock up a rapist. The Gardai stood back and allowed her attackers “supporters” to continue intimidate and bully her until she took her life. It is a disgrace that even after all of this my family are still been intimidated. I’ll tell you why she wasn’t protected, why we had to fight for the pathetic justice we got, it’s because Michelle and my family are not celebs, we are not TD’s or ministers daughters etc, the sad thing is these laws will never change until a TD’s or ministers or judges daughter sister etc is raped…..and we all know it!! The victims and their families deserve an apology from our pathetic justice system!

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