Saturday 20 December 2014

Gene Kerrigan: Search for closure goes on three decades after priest's violent end

The mystery that surrounds the death of Fr Niall Molloy refuses to go away, writes Gene Kerrigan

Published 26/02/2012 | 05:00

Fr Niall Molloy who was violently killed in Clara Co Offaly in 1985.
Richard and Theresa Flynn leaving court during Mr Flynn's trial for the manslaughter of Father Niall Molloy.

MOST of all it was a family tragedy. But it was also a mystery, with allegations of a cover-up. The mystery has never been resolved, so it became one of those stories that refuses to be filed away.

At the heart of the Fr Molloy case was an excellent display of courtroom skills by defence lawyers, and a dreadful mistake by a veteran judge.

Last week, through Shannonside local radio, the family of Fr Niall Molloy renewed its call for an independent inquiry into the priest's violent death, at the house of two of his closest friends, in Clara, Co Offaly, in July 1985. At this stage, disappointed by reports that an internal garda review of the case turned up nothing fresh, the family can only repeat the demand for a public inquiry made regularly

since the shambles of a trial in 1986. Given the family's lack of leverage, it's unlikely to happen.

Fr Molloy died following blows to the head at Kilcoursey House, owned by Richard and Theresa Flynn. The house, on 60 acres, had nine bedrooms. Fr Molloy was an old friend who was in the horse business with Theresa Flynn. He was a guest at the wedding that weekend of a daughter of the Flynns, and he stayed overnight, a common occurrence.

Exactly what happened that night is unknown. The gardai were alerted some hours after Fr Molloy died. The parish priest of Clara, Fr James Deignan, was called to Kilcoursey House by Richard Flynn at around 1am. No one rang an ambulance. A local doctor was summoned and arrived at 2am. By then Fr Molloy was dead. Theresa Flynn was hysterical. She was sedated and taken to hospital. She later claimed she couldn't remember what happened.

The parish priest awoke the local garda sergeant, after 3am. "There's a priest dead in the bedroom at Kilcoursey House", Fr Deignan said. He added that this was a terrible scandal in the parish, was there any way it could be covered up? There'd have to be an inquiry, the sergeant said.

The body was found in the Flynns' bedroom, the face bruised, with a long drag mark of blood on the carpet, showing the priest had been dragged towards the door at some point. A detective inspector asked Richard Flynn if he'd caught the priest in a compromising position with his wife. Flynn said no. And there isn't the slightest evidence of any sexual complication to the case.

Richard Flynn's rather odd story was that Fr Molloy came to the bedroom to continue a discussion they'd had earlier. At some stage Theresa told Richard to go down and get more drink. Flynn told his wife Fr Molloy already had a drink and if she wanted more she could get it herself.

At that point, he claimed, Fr Molloy and Theresa attacked him and in defending himself he hit the priest, who fell down and died.

The medical evidence was that Fr Molloy was hit in the face five or six times. He was alive, though probably unconscious, for some time afterwards. There was bleeding into the membrane covering his brain. His brain swelled, causing his lungs to fill with liquid until he died. If his heart stopped when he fell there wouldn't have been bleeding.

Eleven months later, Richard Flynn appeared before the Circuit Criminal Court, charged with manslaughter. Given Flynn's story, his barrister didn't have much to work with. Patrick McEntee SC allowed witness after witness to give evidence without asking questions. Nine witnesses were heard in just 90 minutes.

One effect of this strategy was that witnesses were merely led through their written statements, and didn't expand on their evidence. State Pathologist Professor John Harbison gave evidence that the priest died from pulmonary oedema, fluid accumulation in the lungs, consequent to injuries to his head.

Prof Harbison noted as a matter of record that the 52-year old priest's heart had the normal degeneration for that age, but there was no infarction, no thrombosis.

Mr McEntee prepared the ground for his one shot at victory. Could damage to the heart have contributed to the death? Prof Harbison could not, of course, rule out the possibility that the priest's heart failed in the course of his death, under strain as the lungs filled with liquid and he struggled to breath. But there was no evidence that this happened. Prof Harbison believed the blows to the head led to the pulmonary oedema and death.

With the prosecution evidence given, the case was effectively finished -- neither Richard nor Theresa Flynn would take the stand. Mr McEntee addressed the judge in the absence of the jury. He put forward an alternate version of what happened.

This was: as he ran to attack Richard Flynn, the priest -- due to anger and exertion -- had a heart attack. Still standing, he received three blows from Flynn.

As he fell, he hit his head on the bedpost, the bed board and the floor. This accounted for the evidence of six blows to the head.

It would not be safe to put the case to a jury, Mr McEntee argued. Judge Roe should direct the jury to find Mr Flynn not guilty. Mr McEntee's job was to do his best for his client, and he did so, using what scant materials he could find. And it worked.

The judge called the jury back. Incredibly, he told them: "Professor Harbison agreed that there was a possibility that Fr Molloy died of a heart attack." The accused had to be given the benefit of this possibility, and declared innocent. The case lasted less than three hours. Prof Harbison had given evidence that Fr Molloy's body showed no thrombosis, no infarction. He agreed, under questioning, that heart failure might have been a contributing factor, secondary to the cause of death -- pulmonary oedema, following blows to the head. The judge stood the pathologist's evidence on its head.

This was confirmed at a subsequent inquest, and garda blood evidence undermined the pinball theory, of the priest's head hitting various objects as he fell.

The nature of the acquittal deepened the family's anguish. Over the years, conspiracy theories spread, fuelled by odd aspects of the case, including the priest's broken watch, Judge Roe's involvement in the horsey set, and an aborted business deal.

Years later, someone who knew Judge Roe commented off the record.

The source, who would not have tolerated a cover-up, believed it was just a bad decision by a good judge. "We all have a day when we go mad, and that was Frank's day."

Sunday Independent

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