Sunday 15 September 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Early release of Tom Humphries is no deterrent to sex abusers'

The disgraced journalist was always going to be freed one day, but did it have to be so soon, asks Eilis O'Hanlon

Tom Humphries is said to have shunned therapy while serving his sentence for sexual exploitation. Picture: Collins
Tom Humphries is said to have shunned therapy while serving his sentence for sexual exploitation. Picture: Collins
Convicted paedophile Tom Humphries
Tom Humphries leaving the Midlands Prison. Exclusive photo by Steve Humphreys

Eilis O'Hanlon

Wikipedia describes Tom Humphries as a "convicted child molester and former sports journalist". That says everything there is to know about the collapse of the once glittering reputation of the former Irish Times man.

Humphries was not just any old sports reporter. He was the eminence grise of Irish sports writers, an inspiration to established and upcoming peers alike. Now he will forever be best known for grooming and abusing a 14-year-old girl when he was a volunteer coach at a north Dublin GAA club. That came to light when, infamously, his own daughter found sexually explicit messages on her father's mobile phone - 16,000 in a three-month period alone.

Six years later, he finally pleaded guilty to defiling a child and other charges. Now Humphries is out, after just 20 months, and is rumoured to be considering a new life in the sun in Spain, which some might consider a reward.

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His early release could hardly be called a surprise, though. Humphries was sentenced to only two-and-a-half years behind bars - a term criticised by child abuse campaigners at the time. With good behaviour, he was never likely to serve the whole term.

It's still worth asking whether 20 months reflects the gravity of his crime, when those guilty of engaging in sexual acts with a child under the age of 17 can be sentenced to anything up to five years, or 10, if a "person in authority".

There are some who will say that Humphries has suffered enough. He is estranged from his family. His professional career is in ruins. He claims to be ashamed of what he's done, and will never again enjoy a normal life.

Those minded to feel sympathy for him would be well advised to keep such sentiments to themselves. They'll certainly not be thanked for expressing them publicly.

The question still stands: was 20 months enough? Lawyers, being lawyers, say it's not helpful to compare sentences for different offences. The riposte from most non-partisan observers would surely be that defilement of a child must be equally worthy of severe penalties as other crimes.

Tom Humphries leaving the Midlands Prison. Exclusive photo by Steve Humphreys
Tom Humphries leaving the Midlands Prison. Exclusive photo by Steve Humphreys

The Misuse of Drugs Act lays down a minimum sentence of 10 years' imprisonment for being found guilty of possession of drugs for sale or supply with a value greater than €13,000. The mandatory minimum sentence for possession of a firearm is five years.

Without wishing to state the obvious, five and 10 years are both considerably longer than 20 months. Nothing better illustrates the disjunct between legal eagles, who bristle at the thought of minimum sentences, and ordinary laypersons, who just want violent and sexual offenders locked away for as long as possible and aren't that pernickety about how it's done.

Most people would be more supportive of rehabilitation if they could be assured that it would be set alongside tough prison sentences to punish aberrant behaviour. The victims of grooming and child abuse have to live with the lifelong effects of what was done to them. Why should the person responsible have it any easier?

Unfortunately, that raises another problem. When John Gilligan was sentenced in 2001 to 28 years for importing 20,000kg of cannabis resin, the judge condemned him for being behind "a haemorrhage of harm that is unlikely to heal even in a generation".

The Court of Criminal Appeal subsequently ruled this was "in effect sentencing (Gilligan) for criminal activities of which the applicant had not been convicted", and reduced the sentence to 20 years.

In other words, a victim might testify as to the longer-term effects of her ordeal, but the blunt truth is that it doesn't matter how long she suffers, the perpetrator can only be convicted of the specific offence for which he was charged and tried, not its lifelong effects.

No doubt Tom Humphries had conditions imposed upon him on release, and will be on the sex offenders' register for life; but if another person was inclined to give in to the same perverted appetite for teenage girls, would they be more likely to consider 20 months behind bars as a deterrent or a risk worth taking?

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