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Colleague may sue sex-case teacher

A TEACHER whose claims of sexual harassment were dismissed by the High Court last week could now be sued by the colleague whom she wrongly accused.

Mary O'Toole sued Offaly VEC for allegedly failing to act on her complaints that she was sexually harassed and bullied by Jim Mooney.

At the High Court on Friday, Mrs O'Toole sobbed on her husband's shoulder after the presiding judge dismissed her claims.

Mr Justice Iarlaith O'Neill found that that "far from him sexually harassing" Mrs O'Toole, it was Mr Mooney who was subjected to repeated and unwanted sexual advances from her.

But this tale of lust and loathing in a midlands school has had far-reaching consequences. The bitter legal action has loomed over the protagonists for more than a decade. Now Mrs O'Toole, 48, is possibly left with a legal bill running to hundreds of thousands, while the vindicated Mr Mooney could re-activate a legal action he began against her more than a decade ago. Meanwhile, Mr Justice O'Neill's robust dismissal of Mrs O'Toole's claims questions the wisdom of the legal action in the first place.

The setting of this tawdry drama was Tullamore College in 1997. Mrs O'Toole claimed she was a popular teacher and happily married until Jim Mooney started coming on to her. She described how he pouted at her at a Christmas party, slithered down a wall and opened his legs. On one occasion, she claimed, he asked if she "wanted a ride"; on another, he rubbed her back; and on a third occasion, she claimed he exposed himself to her. She described these alleged advances in detail and with vehemence.

But then came Mr Mooney's turn to testify. He produced a letter she wrote to him, to which he had never replied but wisely kept. "I don't care what you're like, who you are, where you come from, even if you're an extraterrestrial. It doesn't matter even if you don't like me. I can cope with that -- hell, I'm a big girl -- just please can we talk somewhere there's no one else around," it said.

Mrs O'Toole remarkably claimed she was trying to reconcile with Mr Mooney when she wrote this letter. But Mr Justice O'Neill described it as "redolent of romantic interest" and of "a very urgent desire on her part to discuss this" with Mr Mooney.

Indeed, the letter provided an "illuminating insight" into her state of mind. Mr Justice O'Neill found she had a "serious lack of insight" into how "bizarre" and "outrageous" her behaviour was. And rather than acquire that insight over time, "she has swung from romantic interest to a distorted, hostile view of Mr Mooney and the events involving him".

The object of Mrs O'Toole's romantic desire, Mr Mooney, was a single man who shared a house with friends in a Tullamore housing estate.

Younger teachers often ended up going back there after school social club and also after nights out.

He claimed it took him a while to realise that she was interested in him. She dropped into his classes and once called around uninvited when he stayed home sick.

Her intentions soon became clear when she knocked on his door late one night. "I just want to talk to you," she said.

He persuaded her to leave and ended up driving her home. But she was back a short time later. She persisted ringing the bell and one of his housemates was dispatched to answer it: he claimed she was slurring her words and unsteady on her feet. She wouldn't go so he called the guards to say a woman was making a nuisance of herself. As he spoke in the hallway, she continued to shout through the letter box: "I am not making a nuisance of myself." "The garda said: 'oh yeah, I can hear her now'," the housemate told the court.

Another time, after going to see D'Unbelievables, Ms O'Toole joined other teachers at Mr Mooney's house, even though he had made it clear she wasn't invited. He claimed she sat between his legs and started fumbling with the buttons on his fly as she told him how much she liked him.

Even a young substitute teacher, who had just joined the school, could recognise Mrs O'Toole's unusual interest in Mr Mooney. Michelle Brooks joined the school as a young temp, and noticed Mrs O'Toole's acute interest in her colleague -- "what he was doing, where he was going, who he was socialising with."

When Mrs O'Toole showed her a tie she planned to send him, Ms Brooks suggested it might be better to give it to her husband.

On October 12, 1998, Mrs O'Toole got her friend to drive her to Tullamore College where she found Mr Mooney's car and stuck a meat skewer in his tyre and knocked off the aerial. After his car was damaged, he went to a solicitor about her. A few years later, in June 2001, there was a fire at the school. Mrs O'Toole was arrested and her house searched but she was never charged.

She got a transfer to a school in Edenderry but started legal action, claiming the school had not investigated her allegations of bullying and harassment against Mr Mooney. Around that time, the school principal got five "silent" calls. At the sixth, he said: "Mary is that you?" He heard a sharp intake of breath, the phone hung up and he never got another call.

The judge dismissed all claims against Offaly VEC and Mr Mooney. Costs have yet to be decided.

Sunday Independent