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Saturday 24 August 2019

At last - we finally see the real Bernadette

Irish officialdom can be baffling in its inhumanity. What purpose was there in prosecuting Bernadette Scully

STRENGTH: Bernadette Scully had incredible love for her daughter Emily. Photo: Collins
STRENGTH: Bernadette Scully had incredible love for her daughter Emily. Photo: Collins
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Tullamore twinkles like a Christmas bauble in the winter fog and around the town there is a palpable sense of relief that Bernadette Scully was acquitted of the manslaughter of her daughter, Emily.

In the pubs and pews of the Midlands town there is indignance that the State even took the case. After morning Mass, one local woman sums up the sentiment. "What did that case cost the taxpayer to prosecute? We're told there isn't the money to care properly for youngsters like Emily, but there was more than enough money to hound her poor mother, who wasn't even allowed to grieve properly. Bernadette was very popular locally. She was a great GP. I hope she'll be able to go back to it. People are appalled."

When the trial was over we saw the face of a woman, a mother, no longer a pair of eyes glaring defiantly from under a cap. Now we saw a face warmly framed by blonde hair, a person invigorated with hope, and we finally glimpsed her in full context, surrounded by the people who loved her; her handsome partner, Andrius Kozlovskis, and her sisters, as protective of her as she had been of Emily.

At the door of Bernadette's house on the outskirts of Tullamore one of them wards off reporters, while a cat pirouettes around her ankles. A planning permission sign signals that next year will be a new start; the awful memories of 2016 to be built over.

If the case transfixed the nation, it did so for more than reasons of voyeuristic pity. At trial, Bernadette Scully was painted as a high-achieving martyr - to her career and her daughter's dreadful conditions.

The description of Bernadette going back to work the same day as having a gynaecological procedure, the Herculean care of Emily, even the Shakespearean drama of the suicide note; they all seemed to bespeak a woman who would have the steely pragmatism to make terrible decisions. But gleaming in the details there was also a softer sense of the modern everywoman about Bernadette Scully: the chequered love life, the IVF attempts, the difficult balance of work and home. She had managed them all, yet somehow she had ended up in the dock with her life, her reputation and her freedom to grieve, all on the line.

She had, by the account we heard, a fairly tough early life; her father died when she was young and Bernadette helped look after her younger siblings from a young age. She thought of becoming a teacher but went for medicine after getting high points in the Leaving Certificate. She studied in UCD and qualified in 1983. She worked as a junior doctor in Kilkenny, before training to be a GP. She also spent time in England but returned to Ireland to work in the border area as a family doctor.

She was unlucky in love. The first husband turned out to be gay and Bernadette became an unwilling font of gossip for Tullamore. She eventually split from that man, on amicable terms, and met a Turkish chef, Haluk Barut. By then in her 40s, the marriage must have represented Bernadette's last chance to have children. She became pregnant after three gruelling rounds of IVF and Emily Barut was born, profoundly disabled, in 2001. Bernadette split from Haluk, and was left saddled with his gambling debts, the prospect of early retirement and full-time care of Emily now more distant than ever. In the witness box, Bernadette's sister, Teresa, spoke about her bravery in caring for Emily. "All Bernie ever wanted to do was to have a little baby of her own, and there was no one more deserving because all she had done, all her life, was give, give, give," she said.

The defence case seemed very much to hinge on this narrative, that Bernadette could not have committed a killing. Emily's medication was so voluminous that it had to be delivered in a van and a nurse testified at trial that the care she received at home was beyond reproach.

The unspoken question for many of us was: even if Bernadette had accidentally caused Emily's death - which she did not - would any justice have been served by holding her accountable before the courts? Does any child deserve to live a life screaming in pain, convulsing with constant fits (which in Emily's case, one nurse testified, would likely get much worse through puberty)? And is not the larger problem that the law, as it stands, seems to believe in life at all costs, even when those costs are constant, unbearable, humiliating pain and the destruction of the spirit. If any of us had to face a situation like this, would we want those who love us the most to take their courage in both hands and give us back our dignity?

This was an option that was denied to Bernadette, even if she, or Emily, had wanted it. Like any parents of disabled children she was all but abandoned by the State to shoulder most of the care of her child alone, aided by her partner and family. As a doctor she perhaps felt that if anyone could give Emily a semblance of normality, it was her. The last, sleepless hysterical night of Emily's life left them both at the ragged edge of distress. And in the aftermath of Emily's death, at the very limits of her terror, Bernadette tried to take her own life. In court the note was read out.

"I do not want to die," Bernadette wrote. "I cannot let Emily's suffering continue. I can't watch it any longer. The pain is too big, the struggle each day too hard, the loneliness and isolation too much."

Although there was 10 times the therapeutic dose of chloral hydrate in Emily's blood, expert evidence said people metabolise the drug at different speeds, so that a life-saving dose for some would be a lethal dose for others.

It was difficult to tell which had been the case for Emily, but in the end sense prevailed over procedure. The wisdom of the abolition of juries is periodically discussed, but here we had a brilliant example of one exercising its discretion. One of the abiding images of the trial was Bernadette's sister mouthing the word 'thank you' to the jury, even as she was reproached by the judge for doing do. It was the last twitch of an ordeal that is now over.

Still, Irish officialdom is sometimes baffling in its inhumanity. Yesterday it was reported that it was "not inconceivable but highly unlikely" that Bernadette would face disciplinary proceedings from the Irish Medical Council.

An expression of condolence or support might have been more apt for a colleague about to pick up the pieces of her life.

On the streets of Tullamore, the sentiment was a humane antidote to this thin-lipped officiousness. One bartender told me: "After all she's been through, she'll be warmly welcome back. We've missed her."

Sunday Independent

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