Priest defiant in defence of sex attacker

MARISA REIDY mreidy@kerryman.ie

'A MAN with the highest respect for women and someone who does not have an abusive bone in his body' — probably the last words you would associate with a convicted sex offender.

Yet these were exactly the words used by Fr Sean Sheehy to describe Danny Foley of Meen Listowel, just weeks after he was convicted to sexually assaulting a woman he had known for almost a decade.

If that wasn't enough, they were said by Mr Foley's family friend — who acted as a character witness — while his victim sat in the public gallery of Tralee Circuit Criminal Court and listened.

Although he has since stepped down from his duties as acting parish priest of Castlegregory, Fr Sheehy was defiant in his defence of Mr Foley in the aftermath of his court appearance — describing the whole affair as 'a miscarriage of justice.'

"To hand down a seven year sentence in that kind of a situation seemed to me to be a miscarriage of justice," he said, a day after shaking the hand of the convicted sex offender. "I just wanted to support him for one thing and let him know he was not alone. I mean, it's a horrible situation to be in the dock as a prisoner, just sitting with his prison officers. From a purely pastoral standpoint I would do that with anybody."

Asked about the effect his actions had on the victim, he said he did not know her, but would also have shaken her hand had he known her.

Insisting that he had no regrets in supplying a character reference for a convicted sex offender, he said his 'Christian responsibility' was to this person who he knew and to the person who is the object of, what he called, 'this extremely harsh sentence.'

While he may have felt at ease with his actions and words, Mr Foley's victim certainly was not.

"When I heard the priest on the radio I was really devastated and shocked at what he was saying about me," she said at a press conference on Saturday. "Now I know that the priest in court was only one man and he didn't represent the church."

The 24-year-old victim also thanked Bishop of Kerry Bill Murphy for his subsequent apology and support. On Thursday, the Bishop moved to disassociate himself and the Diocese from the actions and statements of Fr Sheehy.

"Fr Sheehy is retired from an American diocese and is substituting for the parish priest of Castlegregory, Fr. Tadhg Ó Dochartaigh, who is recuperating from illness," he explained. "I wish to offer my sympathy to the victim and to apologise to her on my own behalf and on behalf of the Diocese of Kerry."

Bishop Murphy paid tribute to the woman's courage and expressed his hoped that what has happened will not undermine the progress that has been made in bringing perpetrators of sexual abuse to justice.

On Friday, two days after the sentencing hearing, Fr Sheehy offered to withdraw from his work in the parish of Castlegregory. The Bishop of Kerry accepted his offer which took effect from that day.

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