Mr Justice Paul Carney said in the High Court last Tuesday that he believed he was being "moderate" when he sentenced 72-year-old Patrick O'Brien to 12 years' imprisonment for the repeated rape of his daughter Fiona Doyle.
There are few who would have disagreed with the sentence. Every instinct in us makes us want to see such a man go through even one thousandth of the pain that his perverted sadism inflicted on a lonely, terrified little girl. More responsibly, we are glad there is a rule of law, which prevents vengeance even in such cases; but our instinct is to want him flayed emotionally, maybe even physically, for what he did.
And when a learned judge who knows and must interpret the law on our behalf calls a 12-year sentence for this elderly, seriously ill man "moderate", he and we know that the term is relative: it would mean that Patrick O'Brien would never leave prison. And some small part of our horror is assuaged. Further, Judge Carney has an honourable record on behalf of victims of all violence. He has not infrequently said in court that he would wish for the power to impose an even longer sentence than the law allows in some cases.
But last Tuesday, the "moderation" of 12 years, that well-deserved reality of a life sentence, was suddenly, and for most of us horribly, adulterated. Nine years of the sentence were suspended. Even worse, the three remaining years were effectively put in abeyance when Judge Carney granted bail to Fiona Doyle's tormenter. This, he said, was because he expected that O'Brien might appeal the sentence. And Fiona Doyle left the courtroom, as did the man who had defiled her. Except that O'Brien was effectively free; his daughter was still in the prison his crimes had built for her.
And many people thought that perhaps Mr Justice Carney had allowed objective justice to be overshadowed by a wider judicial concern. He has in the past been frustrated by successful appeals to the Court of Criminal Appeal where he has seen some of his sentences considerably reduced.
Indeed, in "designing" the sentence he handed down to O'Brien, Judge Carney referred to the convicted man's age and frail state of health as reasons to mitigate severity. But he also mentioned a case in 2008, when the Appeal Court later suspended in its entirety what he considered the moderate sentence he had imposed for sexual violence. The reason was the health of the criminal concerned.
And Mr Justice Carney went on record last Tuesday as believing that the DPP of the time had "gone behind his back" and said "it was a matter of indifference" whether the accused man served time. One can only imagine how galling that must be for a judge who has seen the faces of the victims in cases where the charge is one of hideous violence. Effectively, Mr Justice Carney is begging his brother and sister judges on the Criminal Appeal Bench to walk just a yard, if not a mile, in his shoes.
Judges have sentencing discretion in this jurisdiction, which places a fearsome burden of responsibility on them. Even where sentences have a technical mandatory minimum (for instance, 10 years for drug trafficking), there are listed exceptions and caveats. Perhaps it's even understandable that judicial discretion makes those who exercise it intractable, unwilling to yield an inch, either to colleagues or to an outraged public. Their position is horribly lonely. But Mr Justice Paul Carney has vindicated himself and the system of sentencing as it now stands. (Reform may be long overdue to take some of this burden off the shoulders of individual judges who are, after all, also merely human. )
Mr Justice Carney, castigated I suspect, in every pub and living room in Ireland last week, salvaged perceptions of his own humanity on Thursday and proved that the system itself is perhaps not as blind and intractable as it is frequently painted. He said he was sorry; he said he had made a mistake. And our hearts should sing.
The dawning horror on Fiona Doyle's face last Tuesday as he finished his judgement seems after all not to have influenced him. Nor should it have. The enormity of the case and its implications for the safety of children was at stake, whatever the time lapse, whatever the implications for the contemptible defendant. This case needed to set a legal precedent which would howl "justice" down the years. And Mr Justice Carney took his seat on the bench of the Criminal High Court last Thursday, called there by the Director of Public Prosecutions. The DPP was appealing, as Paul Carney had said she had the right, against the granting of bail to Patrick O'Brien. Also being appealed, not under law, but under humanity, were the implications of that judgement for an heroic woman.
And under our legal system, Mr Justice Paul Carney was able to apologise, to say his judgment had been "inappropriate", that his procedure had been "wrong".
He expressed profound regret for the distress he had caused Fiona Doyle. He had needed, he said, to consult and get the immediate assistance of other judges. Dear god, who could doubt it? Judges are not superhuman: there must be times when the isolation becomes unbearable, usually when a victim sits before them, begging for justice for a long-standing agony.
Mr Justice Paul Carney gave Fiona Doyle three days of almost unimaginable pain. And then he gave her undeniable justice.
Like most of her fellow countrymen and women, I salute her soaring courage. But I suspect, as she must suspect, that the manipulative criminal who is so far beneath contempt is (almost incredibly) entirely without remorse. He did, after all, apply for renewed bail. But Ireland and its people know that Fiona Doyle is a trailblazer: the man who has no right to call her daughter will live only in infamy.