Sunday 19 January 2020

Salacious tale of lust and loathing in a school in the Irish midlands

The drama reads like a bad soap opera that has found its way into the High Court, writes Maeve Sheehan

LOUIS O'KEEFFE was watching television late on a Saturday night in the house he shared with his bachelor pals in Tullamore when Mary O'Toole rang the doorbell. It was 13 years ago but, according to Mr O'Keeffe, it was "a bizarre enough occasion to remember." Among his housemates was Jim Mooney, a teacher in Tullamore College whom Mrs O'Toole has accused of bullying and sexual harassment.

But according to Louis O'Keeffe's evidence last week to the High Court in Mrs O'Toole's legal action against the school authorities, it was Mrs O'Toole who was making a nuisance of herself that night.

According to his account, it was close to 2am when the doorbell rang. Louis, being nearest, answered it to a woman he had never seen before. She asked to speak to Jim. Louis asked her to wait, and then fetched his housemate from the garage. He returned to his television, leaving Jim and his guest to have a chat in the hall.

Even with the TV on, he could hear their muffled conversation. He claimed that when heard the words, "I just want to be with you," he turned up the volume. "I didn't want to hear it. It was a private conversation," he said. In fact, Jim Mooney didn't want to hear it either. He suspected Mrs O'Toole, a fellow teacher in Tullamore College, of having a crush on him. He told the court that she said things like, "don't be afraid, I only want to be with you", and she was very close to drunk. He told her he wasn't interested and asked her to go home.

But she couldn't, because according to Jim Mooney, she claimed to have lost the keys to her car. That sparked a "hue and cry" as they searched for the missing keys in the gravel. In the end, according to Louis, "Jim said he was going to drive that nut job home."

Back home an hour later, the doorbell rang repeatedly, according to Louis, who was now in bed. Eventually could bear it no longer. On his way to deal with the nocturnal caller, he saw Jim "hiding" in the kitchen. If it was Mrs O'Toole, he warned Louis, he didn't want to speak to her.

It was she. "She was unsteady on her feet, slurring her words, quite persistent that she wanted to speak with Jim," Louis testified. He told her Jim didn't want to talk. "As soon as I closed the door, she proceeded to ring the bell again. I asked her, 'What do you want?' She said she wanted to be with Jim."

He told her to go home. If she didn't, he would have to call the gardai. But she kept ringing the bell, he claimed, shouting in the letterbox that she wanted to be with Jim.

Louis duly phoned the guards to say that a woman was making a nuisance of herself. As he spoke in the hallway, he claimed that she shouted through the letterbox: "I am not making a nuisance of myself." "The garda said: 'Oh yeah, I can hear her now,'" said Louis, whose account is disputed by Mrs O'Toole.

The scene could have been taken from a bad soap opera: three bachelors play pool and watch telly into the early hours when along comes a teacher who slurs sweet nothings through the letterbox. But the salacious tale of lust and loathing from a school in the Irish midlands is no sitcom.

Mrs O'Toole, a 48-year-old married mother of one, is suing the Offaly VEC because it failed to act on her complaints that she was sexually harassed and bullied by her colleague, Mr Mooney, and failed to protect her, claims that are denied by the VEC.

Mrs O'Toole has already given her account of how Mr Mooney allegedly exposed himself to her, touched her bra strap on several occasions, harassed and demeaned her over four years.

Her husband, Eamonn, who is also a teacher, claimed his wife was "too nice" to confront Mr Mooney, instead calling to his house late at night to "reason" with him. She said that when she complained, the school authorities failed to act, and transferred her to another school.

Last week, it was the turn of her former colleagues at Tullamore College to give a very different version of events.

Mrs O'Toole, always impeccably turned out in smart jackets and heels, listened with grim attention, occasionally shaking her tendrilled head or tutting in disagreement with the evidence. She was flanked by her husband and her teenage son, Darragh.

There was a sense that Mr Mooney had been waiting for this moment when he took the witness stand to deny that he had ever made sexual advances towards Mrs O'Toole. It was she who came on to him, he claimed. The day after the "letterbox incident" when Mrs O'Toole called to his home, he got an "extremely weird" phone call from Mrs O'Toole in which she asked: "What about us?" She also wrote him the "scary" letter, much cited in court: "Jim, I need to talk to you. I promise not to get intense. I promise, promise, promise. I don't want anything from you, just a moment of your time. I'm sorry about last night, I had a few gins. When I have a few gins I'm crazy." He claimed there were other encounters too. In the summer of 1998, she came back to his house with another male colleague who was staying the night.

Mrs O'Toole sat on the floor reading a magazine. "I rested on the couch, put my head back and closed my eyes and, the next thing, Mrs O'Toole had got from where she was to over between my legs. She was resting her arms on my knees. For about a minute the conversation took a personal twist and she started telling me how much she liked me. She had a good bit of drink on board at this point and started moving her hands up my inner thighs. I moved her back and made light of it."

Mrs O'Toole started "simpering", he claimed, and when he said to her, 'You do what you like, I'm going to bed,' Mrs O'Toole started to follow him upstairs. "I had to turn around and push her out of the house," he said.

The "crush" did not go unnoticed. When Michelle Brooks started teaching at the school in September 1997, she noticed Mary O'Toole's alleged interest in all things Jim Mooney during their regular lunches at the Tullamore Court Hotel.

"She was very interested in Jim, in what he was doing, where he was going, who he was socialising with, who his girlfriend was, all that kind of thing," said Ms Brooks.

"I remember during our lunchtime chats, Mary said to me, 'I suppose I would consider riding off into the sunset with Jim but I couldn't hurt Darragh.'"

Ms Brooks attended a course in Dublin, Mrs O'Toole tagged along for the shopping. Later, according to Ms Brooks, Mrs O'Toole produced a tie from her shopping bags and said she was sending it to Jim anonymously.

"I said 'Mary, why would you do a thing like that?' She said: 'I just want to cheer him up and make him smile.' I said: 'Mary, you'd be better off to give it to your husband.'"

If there was staff room gossip, the court was told that it failed to reach the ears of the principal, Mr McEvoy, and his deputy Helen Wilson. However Mr McEvoy recalled that on one occasion in late 1997 he was "patrolling the corridors" and spied Mrs O'Toole crying inside a classroom.

"The reason she was upset was because a member of staff was ignoring her and she wanted to be their friend," said Mr McEvoy.

She wouldn't name this person, and Mr McEvoy said he offered words of comfort, saying it was that person's loss if they didn't want to be friends with Mrs O'Toole.

When school resumed in October 1998, the relationship between Mrs O'Toole and Mr Mooney took a turn for the worse. He returned to his car one Monday evening after a game of indoor football to find the tyre had been skewered

and the aerial damaged. Mrs O'Toole denied she had anything to do with it in a meeting with her VEC bosses. By early November, she confessed to gardai.

The reason she damaged the car, according to her garda statement, was that Mr Mooney had tried to initiate a sexual relationship with her. She elaborated in the High Court, saying that he had made her cry in public, a further humiliation on top of his exposing himself to her, and that she couldn't take any more.

What happened in her subsequent meetings with her VEC bosses is hotly disputed.

She said she complained of sexual harassment by Mr Mooney, but the school took his side. The school authorities said the only harassment she mentioned was indecent exposure, which was not its responsibility because it occurred in a private house outside the school grounds.

Mrs O'Toole was later transferred to another school, where she was out on sick leave for several months. She lodged an official complaint of sexual harassment and bullying against the school in January 2001, and initiated legal action several months later.

Around that time, Mr McEvoy received the first of several "silent" calls to his ex-directory number in his office in Tullamore College.

He told the court how the mysterious caller always phoned around 10am, never spoke but stayed on the line until he hung up. On the sixth silent call, he said: "Is that you, Mary?" After that, the calls stopped, he said.

Several months later, in June 2001, there was an arson attack on Tullamore College.

Mary O'Toole was a suspect. Superintendent Pat Murray, then a detective, asked the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation (NBCI) to send down detectives from Dublin to make doubly sure they weren't on the wrong track. When the NBCI came to the same conclusion, they arrested Mrs O'Toole.

Superintendent Murray recalled how he was taken aback during the garda interview when Mrs O'Toole demonstrated the type of sexual harassment allegedly perpetrated on her by Mr Mooney.

"She got up from her chair, came over and started to rub my back. I found it most alarming. I made a note of it and asked her to sit down."

Mrs O'Toole was never charged. The case continues in the High Court on Monday.

Sunday Independent

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