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Remorseless to the end: the Synge Street abuser who refused to repent

At the end of a long trial, it seemed abuser Patrick Harte might finally admit his guilt. Instead, he reverted to type

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NO REMORSE: Patrick Harte (78) was found guilty on multiple charges of indecent assault. Photo: Collins Courts

NO REMORSE: Patrick Harte (78) was found guilty on multiple charges of indecent assault. Photo: Collins Courts

NO REMORSE: Patrick Harte (78) was found guilty on multiple charges of indecent assault. Photo: Collins Courts

In more than 10 years of reporting on serious criminal trials, it was one of the strangest spectacles I've seen in a courtroom.

Last Thursday afternoon in court number five in Dublin's grandly modern Courts of Criminal Justice building, those gathered for the sentence hearing of a former teacher at a Christian Brothers school convicted in March of molesting young boys five decades ago witnessed what might be described as the epitome of the unrepentant.

Patrick Harte, 78 years old and, by his own account, struggling with a multitude of physical ailments including cardiac issues, sat in the dock of the court, behind a heavy glass screen that pre-dates pandemics and betrays the usual business of that court in sentencing often violent criminals.

It had been a job to get Harte, of Templeogue, south Dublin, to even come to court at all. Having been convicted last March, he was, not unusually, remanded on bail for sentence last Monday. His trial was one of the last to run before the country went into lockdown.

Last Monday he failed to show and his lawyers explained he was following HSE guidelines around Covid-19, was still cocooning, and should not be forced to come to a busy courtroom. Judge Martin Nolan accepted that his age and medical ailments placed him at a greater risk if he did catch the virus but he also said the virus wasn't going away any time soon and Harte had to face justice.

He ordered Harte to come to court the following day but last Tuesday his lawyers told the judge their client had gone into hospital with heart trouble.

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WITNESS: Fr Tony Conlon. Photo: Collins

WITNESS: Fr Tony Conlon. Photo: Collins

WITNESS: Fr Tony Conlon. Photo: Collins

Harte pleaded not guilty to the indecent assaults and continues to deny the charges. He also denied much of the corporal punishment allegations and no charges of child cruelty were brought against him. In March, a jury, by a majority of 10 to two, found him guilty of sexually assaulting the seven men when they were boys of nine and 10 at the Sancta Maria Christian Brothers primary school on Synge Street, Dublin.

The abuse all took place between September 1968 and September 1970, before Harte was promoted to principal.

One by one, the men had described an atmosphere of terror and fear in class 3C, where Harte was more often than not holding "the leather", a strap he used to summarily and routinely mete out beatings to the children.

The men described Harte telling them "you're all dunces, that's why you're in 3C". They described how their desire to learn and do well dwindled in the face of this oppressive regime, where you never knew when you might be beaten, or, worse, called up to his desk.

Harte played the role of "good teacher, good teacher", which one victim said was a ploy to engineer situations in which to molest the defenceless boys under the cover of a disciplinarian teacher.

He would summon a boy to the front of the class and stand him close to his body and hidden behind his teacher's desk.

Sometimes this would be on the pretence of reward, with Harte ostentatiously praising the boy in sweet tones as he held the boy fast with one hand and groped his genitals with his other. One victim described how Harte would fix him with a steel-like stare as he whispered praise, groping him until the abuser's face flushed red.

More often Harte would summon boys to his desk on the pretext of some minor misbehaviour, like passing a note or giving the wrong answer to a question. The men described how they would freeze when Harte called their name.

Fear and a belief they were stupid was beaten into them, those men, all now in their late 50s, told the court. Last Thursday they finally got to stand up against their oppressor.

One of the victims, Fr Tony Conlon, described how the fear instilled by Harte had haunted his life and held him back from achieving all he might have. He told the court he didn't seek vengeance, only justice that would restore, shine a light on to a dark truth and allow victims to heal.

He said he now wished to look forward to a brighter future, out of the shadow of the abusive past. Another victim said the abuse left him feeling worthless his entire life.

Another man, softly spoken, described how, instead of nurturing these boys, Harte had abused his privileged position as a teacher and demolished the potential of his young charges, filling them with fear not confidence.

He movingly thanked his parents for taking him out of Synge Street when they realised what Harte was doing.

"Telling you was heart- breaking and I thought it was my fault. You rescued me from this danger."

They had, he said, little but love to offer and protect a frightened little boy.

As some of the victims took to the witness stand to read their own statements, Harte looked around the courtroom, as if incredulous that these "stupid boys" were now strong, articulate, courageous and defiant men.

He looked lost, large dark shadows under his eyes, but still defiant, as if he was still the master and these were still the dunces he had power over. Then it was time for his lawyers to present a plea of mitigation. But instead, they told the court, the accused first wished to speak. Perhaps now would finally come the moment of redemption sometimes seen in the grim theatre of tragedy that is Dublin Circuit Criminal Court. That liberating moment where a man finally faces his failings, admits he has wronged and caused so much suffering and genuinely seeks forgiveness.

But, no.

Instead, it was the school master who spoke. His only apology, a churlish defence of his decision not to show up for court earlier in the week, made it clear there would be no remorse for his sins half a century earlier.

In a rambling 10-minute speech, ostensibly articulate but in substance largely incoherent, Harte flailed around for someone to blame for his current position. He accused the prosecution of being motivated by sectarianism.

He quoted Leo Varadkar and said the DPP had betrayed the former Taoiseach's call for an equal society free of discrimination on the basis of sexuality, religion or social status.

At times standing with one hand pocketed, the besuited Harte looked more like someone giving a speech at his own retirement do than a man facing imprisonment.

He spoke about the dire state of the education system in Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s and boasted of his achievements as an educator and social reformer. His lawyers looked down at their desks; some of his victims looked at him bemused, others became upset at his tirade; hard-nosed court reporters looked askance.

At one stage, Harte warned the judge that if the sentence imposed reflected the "sectarian" prosecution he would instruct his lawyers to go to "the High Court".

Finally, Harte sat down again and his lawyers did their best to plead mitigation on behalf of a remorseless client. They asked the judge to consider that this was an ignominious end to a life which was otherwise free of stain. His counsel urged the judge to at least partially consider the question of what the sentence might be if Harte had been prosecuted at the time of the offending.

Judge Nolan praised the courage of the victims, who the court heard had come forward independently of each other. He jailed Harte for three years. In doing so, as one victim put it, he helped to free Harte's victims from the shackles of a distressing past.

Declan Brennan is managing editor of CCC Nuacht courts agency

Sunday Independent