Monday 14 October 2019

Clerical error adds to stain of tribalism

If you're on camera carrying a semi-conscious woman around at night it's irrelevant what anyone thinks of you, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Elis O'Hanlon

IT was like the old Groucho Marx quip: "Who do you believe -- me, or the evidence of your own eyes?" Only this wasn't funny. Charged with the sexual assault of a young woman in Listowel last June, Kerry bouncer Danny Foley clearly expected the court to give more credence to his protestations of innocence than to CCTV footage showing him carrying the victim to a nearby skip where she was later found by gardai semi-conscious, with extensive bruising and scratching, and naked from the waist down, while he crouched over her.

The jury at Tralee Circuit Criminal Court went with the evidence of their eyes, and found the 35-year-old guilty. Last week, Judge Donagah McDonagh sentenced Foley to seven years' imprisonment with the last two suspended, condemning the "web of lies" which the bouncer had spun around the night's events and his "revolting assertions" about the victim -- noting too his total lack of remorse. He also ordered the convicted man to be placed on the sex offenders' register for life.

That, however, was not before astonishing scenes in the courtroom prior to the judge's arrival as around 50 friends and supporters of Danny Foley, mainly older men, queued up to shake his hand and even hug him as he sat between two prison officers while the 24-year-old victim looked on from across the courtroom.

As an example of tribal loyalties of family, townland and blood triumphing over common decency and respect for the law, it was almost as if the whole spectacle had been choreographed to confirm every sophisticated city-dweller's prejudices about country folk. The word gombeen was soon being bandied about liberally.

The fact that the woman from the Kerry Rape Crisis Centre said she'd never seen anything like it before, and that the victim had received hundreds of messages of support from wellwishers -- or that calls were pouring in to Radio Kerry from listeners horrified at the incident -- didn't make it any less unedifying. The most charitable explanation is that these 50 supporters genuinely believed Foley was an innocent man, despite the verdict.

His fiancee, Michelle, certainly thinks so. She told Newstalk's Eamon Keane: "I personally don't believe there was enough evidence to come back with a conviction."

And there are indeed miscarriages of justice sometimes. The fact there was no clinical evidence of sexual assault in this instance is the sort of detail which in other cases -- a terrorism trial, say -- would be leapt upon as reasonable doubt by many of those who were criticising what happened in the court in Tralee. It's hard to see how even that explains away the other damning aspects of the case; but then it's not about the truth, it's about what those people believed to be true, however implausible or contradictory.

What transformed this incident from one more nasty eructation of small-town bile against transgressors from the unspoken tribal code into something which felt more significant was the presence of Fr Sean Sheehy -- the parish priest of Castlegregory until his resignation this weekend, who had also supplied a character reference for the accused declaring that there wasn't an abusive bone in his body and that he had a high respect for women.

If you wanted to create a hapless country cleric for a black comedy, you couldn't have asked for a more fitting candidate. An embarrassed Bishop of Kerry moved swiftly to distance the Church from the retired priest's remarks and to show solidarity both with this woman and other victims of sexual crime, and indeed accepted without delay the cleric's offer to step aside. But up to then it had started to look all too familiar after

years in which priests only ever seemed to open their mouths in order to stick their feet right in. They really are endemically clueless about how bad they look.

But the mistake here was surely that Fr Sheehy was asked to provide a character reference in the first place. We live in a brave new world of DNA and forensic fingerprinting and CCTV and profiling, and we still think it matters if someone's next-door neighbour or old headmaster says the accused is a fine boy who loves his mother and bakes cookies and saves spiders from the plughole and never misses Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve? If you're seen on camera carrying semi-conscious women around the neighbourhood in the middle of the night, it's irrelevant what anybody thinks of your character. Foley's other character witness, for example, was a businessman who said he was always "inoffensive, courteous and calm". And your point is, sir?

There was another case in the Central Criminal Court last week of a man found guilty of the repeated rape of his daughter from the time she was seven. His first character reference came from an ex-employer who said he was "a first class man" about whom he couldn't speak highly enough. (Yeah? Try being a seven-year-old in his company and see how long that testimony stands.) The other was from his current partner who said the man was "honest, salt of the earth, very reliable, and my best friend". Bless. Did he have a little kitten too?

These references are meant to help the judge when passing sentence, but it's hard to see in this day and age what such a vague and indefinable concept as "character" has to do with it when you've just been found guilty of orally raping a seven-year-old child, as this man was. It's as meaningless as asking for the colour of his soul.

There's not a psychopath in the world who couldn't find at least two people to say he was a marvellous fellow. It's the same with the references on your CV. You're hardly going to pick the boss who fired you. The truth is that nobody really knows anybody as they are on the inside. Certainly not priests and girlfriends.

If abnormality and malignancy were that easy to spot, then there wouldn't be serial killers, and Hitler's mother could have throttled the future genocidal dictator at birth and saved the world a great deal of trouble. One person's opinion of another person's character is as worthless as their opinion of his new hat. And even if it was worth getting such an assessment, I wouldn't ask a priest for it anymore than I'd ring up Sigmund Freud for his thoughts on transubstantiation.

Take off the dog collar, and Fr Sheehy is just a blinkered old codger who lined up with a bunch of other gullible schmucks to shake a convicted sex offender's hand. The scandal isn't that a man in a dog collar talks twaddle.

It's that we're constantly surprised when he does.

Sunday Independent

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