A former Donegal priest has been jailed for 15 months for the sexual abuse of two young sisters.
Con Cunningham, now aged 86, pleaded guilty to eight counts of indecent assaults between 1971 and 1975.
Passing sentence, Judge John Aylmer said the abuse had had an appalling impact on the lives of victims Margaret and Paula Martin.
The women, who were aged between 11 and 13 years and 9 and 12 years at the time, waived their right to anonymity to name Cunningham. They appealed to any other victims to come forward.
“We are conscious too that this may open wounds of other survivors – please, do not suffer in silence. We are looking forward to life beyond this, to recovery and peace,” they said in a statement.
The abuse took place at a number of locations in Donegal including at the girls’ home, at the parochial house in Fanavolty in Fanad and also at the Loreto College buildings in Letterkenny.
The Martin sisters sat in Letterkenny Circuit Court as their abuser spoke only the word “guilty” when the various charges were put to Cunningham, who is now living in a homeless hostel in Dublin and is of frail health.
The court was told he acknowledged his crimes as far back as 2002. His admissions coincided with the publication of the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the Ryan Report).
However, evidence given in court revealed how complaints were made against the then priest to the then bishop of Raphoe Seamus Hegarty in 1994. The priest was sent to the Granada Institute for sex abusers in Dublin, but they deemed he posed no danger and was allowed to continue his ministry.
Gardaí met with both victims but, for various reasons, they were not prepared or able to go ahead with a prosecution. In 2002 following the publication of the Ryan Report, gardaí received files on allegations against the clergy including those of the two women.
The woman met with the then bishop of Raphoe Dr Phillip Boyce, who gave them the opportunity to address their issues.
Among these were the women’s demands that he have no further access to children and that the Catholic Church pay for counselling needed to cope with the abuse.
The church paid for counselling received by one of the women from 1994 to 1999.
Cunningham was also prevented from saying Mass publicly but could say Mass in his own private dwelling.
A letter in which the priest admitted his crimes was also shown to the two victims but they were not given a copy of this letter.
It was only in 2020 when gardaí got a search warrant to recover documents from the bishop’s palace in Letterkenny that these and other documents were recovered, revealed investigating detective John Gallagher.
Although the women did not address the court directly, their victim impact statements were read out in court.
The powerful statements recalled in detail the beginning of the abuse and the horrific impact it has had on their lives.
The woman also spoke about how it damaged their spirituality as they had been brought up in the Catholic faith by two loving and caring parents who trusted this priest.
One of the sisters told how the priest abused her when her mother had gone to her grandmother’s wake. She told how the priest was “like an animal” as he sexually abused her. On another occasion he made them sit on his lap on an armchair in the parlour of his house and he would abuse them.
One of the women said that when he came to live in their community he became like a great uncle to them and would shower them with sweets, money and tracksuits before the abuse began. He would eat all his meals in their home and would meet parishioners there and basically “had the run of the house”.
Barrister for the accused, Colm Smyth SC, instructed by solicitor Frank Dorrian, said his client was in frail health.
He had asked him to proffer an open and profound apology and to say sorry for the hurt and damage caused by his assaults which were a grievous breach of trust.
He said he had admitted his guilt in 2002 and for the best part of 20 years the case had been hanging over him knowing “this day would come” and suggested this was a mitigating factor.
He also added that if this case had come along with the priest’s previous case of indecent assault for which he was jailed in 2018, then he would not be facing another court case. Since these crimes, which took place in the 1970s, he has led a blameless life.
Judge Aylmer said he placed the cases at the upper end of the scale of such offences, which merited a sentence of 20 months in jail before mitigation.
He reduced this to 15 months taking into account his guilty plea, the fact that he pleaded to his crimes as far back as 2002 and has had the case “hanging over him” for that time.
He also made reference to his age, his remorse and also that he was “put out of his ministry” when he admitted his crimes.
Paula and Margaret Martin said justice was done regardless of the sentence Con Cunningham has received.
“Today we are released from the shame which has haunted us… a shame which was never ours, it now sits where it should always have been.”
They thanked Garda Sergeant Gerry Dalton and Detective John Gallagher from the Milford Garda station for their sensitivity in working with them and creating a place of trust to speak.
“In 2002, we were informed, by the bishop’s secretary, that our files were being sent to the gardaí, totally unprepared for this and in the space of just two weeks, we had several meetings with bishop Boyce at his palace and with gardaí in Letterkenny Garda station.
“Without victims’ support or counselling and feeling under intense pressure and very fearful, we made the best decision our mental health could cope with. But this never gave us a real sense of closure.”
In early November 2018, Margaret requested a meeting with Bishop Alan McGuckian – she had four meetings in total.
“Following this, Paula and I then decided the only way forward was court proceedings. We are standing here today having survived, first and foremost because we had each other for support.
“We are deeply grateful to our parents and families, who have been hurt too, and our friends. The blessing of our sons in our lives gave us grounding, purpose, hope and joy. These lights kept us going through the darkest of times. We are also deeply grateful for all the professional help we have received over many, many years,” they said.
“We are mindful today that this is a painful day too for the extended Cunningham family,” they added.
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