Two sisters have said they have been “released from the shame which has haunted” then after a former Donegal priest was jailed for 15 months for the horrific sexual abuse he inflicted upon them when they were children.
Con Cunningham, now aged 86, pleaded guilty before Letterkenny Circuit Court today to eight counts of indecent assault between 1971 and 1975.
Passing sentence Judge John Aylmer said the abuse had had an appalling impact on the lives of victims Margaret and Paula Martin.
Speaking following the sentencing, the sisters said: “Today we are released from the shame which has haunted us…..a shame which was never ours, it now sits where it should always have been.”
The women, who were aged between 11 and 13 years and 9 and 12 years at the time of the abuse, waived their right to anonymity to name Cunningham.
They appealed to any other victims to come forward.
“We are conscious too that this may open wounds of other survivors - please, do not suffer in silence.
“We are looking forward to life beyond this, to recovery and peace,” they said.
The abuse took place at a number of locations in Donegal including at the girls' home, at the parochial house in Fanavolty in Fanad and also at the Loreto College buildings in Letterkenny.
Cunningham is now living in a homeless hostel in Dublin and is in frail health.
The court was told that he acknowledged his crimes as far back as 2002.
His admissions coincided with the publication of the report of the Ryan Commission into Child Abuse.
However, evidence given in court revealed how complaints were made against the then priest to then Bishop of Raphoe, Seamus Hegarty, in 1994.
Cunningham was sent to the Granada Institute for sex abusers in Dublin but they deemed he posed no danger and he was allowed to continue his ministry.
Gardaí met with both victims but for various reasons, they were not prepared or able to go ahead with a prosecution.
In 2002 following the Ryan Commission, gardaí received files on allegations against the clergy including that of the two sisters.
The women met with the then Bishop of Raphoe, Dr Phillip Boyce. The sisters said they wanted Cunningham to have no further access to children and for the Catholic Church to pay for the counselling needed to cope with the abuse.
The Church paid for counselling for one of the women for the counselling she received from 1994 to 1999.
Cunningham was also prevented from saying Mass publicly but could say it in his own private dwelling.
A letter in which the priest admitted his crimes was also shown to the two victims but they were not given a copy of this letter.
It was only in 2020 when gardaí got a search warrant to recover documents from the Bishop's Palace in Letterkenny that these and other documents were recovered, revealed investigating detective John Gallagher.
The sisters’ victim impact statements were read out in court. In them they recalled the beginning of the abuse and the impact it had on their lives.
The woman also told how it damaged their spirituality as they had been brought up in the Catholic faith by two loving and caring parents who trusted this priest.
One of the sisters told how Cunningham abused her when her mother had gone to her grandmother's wake.
She told how the priest was "like an animal" as he sexually abused her.
On another occasion he made them sit on his lap on an armchair in the parlour of his house and he would abuse them.
One of the women said that when he came to live in their community he became like a great uncle to them and would shower them with sweets, money and tracksuits before the abuse began.
He would eat all his meals in their home and would meet parishioners there and basically "had the run of the house".
Barrister for the accused, Mr Colm Smyth, SC, instructed by solicitor Frank Dorrian, said his client was in frail health and was now in his mid-80s.
He had asked him to proffer an open and profound apology and to say sorry for the hurt and damage caused by his assaults which were a grievous breach of trust.
He said he had admitted his guilt in 2002 and for the best part of 20 years the case had been hanging over him knowing "this day would come" and suggested this was a mitigating factor.
He also added that if this case had come along with the priest's previous case of indecent assault for which he was jailed for in 2018, then he would not be facing another court case.
He added that since these crimes which took place in the 1970s, he has led a blameless life.
Judge Aylmer said he placed the cases at the upper end of the scale of such offences which merited a sentence of 20 months in jail before mitigation.
He reduced this to 15 months taking into account his guilty plea, the fact that he pleaded to his crimes as far back as 2002 and has had the case "hanging over him" for that time.
He also made reference to his age, his remorse and also that he was "put out of his ministry" when he admitted his crimes.
Reacting after the sentence was handed down, Paula and Margaret Martin said that justice had been done regardless of the sentence Cunningham had received.
.“On a day like this there are no winners, what is lost cannot be replaced….but closure will help heal the pain,” they said.
“In 2002, we were informed, by the Bishop’s secretary, that our files were being sent to the gardai, totally unprepared for this and in the space of just two weeks, we had several meetings with Bishop Boyce at his palace and with gardaí in Letterkenny garda station.
“Without victims’ support or counselling and feeling under intense pressure and very fearful we made the best decision our mental health could cope with. But this never gave us a real sense of closure."
In early November 2018, Margaret Martin requested a meeting with Bishop Alan Mc Guckian, and they had four meetings in total.
“Following this Paula and I then decided the only way forward was court proceedings,” she said.
“We are standing here today having survived, first and foremost because we had each other for support.
“We are deeply grateful to our parents and families, who have been hurt too, and our friends.
“The blessing of our sons in our lives gave us grounding, purpose, hope and joy. These lights kept us going through the darkest of times.
“We are also deeply grateful for all the professional help we have received over many, many years.”
They thanked Sergeant Gerry Dalton and Detective John Gallagher of Milford garda station for their sensitivity in working with them and creating a place of trust for them to speak.
The brave sisters also thought of the family of the man who had abused them.
“We are mindful today that this is a painful day too for the extended Cunningham family,” they said.