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Witch Hunt Trial Teacher Acquitted

Psychologist questions garda methods into probe at school

The Sunday Tribune, 1st December 2002 by Catherine Cleary Security Correspondent

THERE was the day they brought their children for a game of pool at a local pub and someone remarked: "There goes the paedophile family." There was the time when a woman's voice on the telephone hissed: "Tell that bastard to watch his back because I'll shoot him."

There was the crowd who spat at him and then someone hit him, knocking him down the steps of the court. There were 15 missed birthday parties because no children could be invited to the house to celebrate any of their three sons' birthdays.

There were 2,065 days between the time when the Limerick school teacher was first accused of sexually assaulting children at a special school and when he had his name cleared.

A jury in the Central Criminal Court last week unanimously acquitted the 48-year-old father, who cannot be named for legal reasons, on charges of sexually assaulting two teenage boys at the school.

During the 14 days of evidence, the jury heard from teachers and staff at the school and some parents of children who said that the accused man had been an excellent teacher. One mother told the court that she would not allow gardaí to interview her daughter because her disability meant she would make up stories to please them.

This was the key to the defence case presented by senior counsel Martin Giblin. In a psychological evaluation to the court for the defence, clinical psychologist Dr John McEvoy reported on his viewing of video-taped interviews by health board workers with the school children.

McEvoy was asked to say how the interviews measured up to "best practice" and the extent to which there was a danger of "acquiescence bias" or the "tendency of persons with intellectual disabilities to agree with interviewers or to say 'yes' to questions regardless of their content".

McEvoy commended the health board workers for their attempts to develop a rapport with the children and for some of their methods of questioning.

But he criticised some of the methods, including the length of time between interviews and references to children being a "good person" or "brave" for providing information.

"When interviewing children and adults with intellectual disability it is important to try and avoid questions that make it clear to the respondent what answer you are expecting, " he noted. "Unfortunately, it would appear that throughout the interviews, statements frequently are made within a suggestive context. For example, 'It's okay to tell me, you're not in trouble and it's not your fault', and 'Mammy said you have to be honest with me'."

McEvoy concluded the interview process did not meet the requirements of best practice.

"As a result, the possibility of acquiescence, suggestibility and contamination can not entirely be ruled out."

The defence team argued that the investigation into the allegations was a witch hunt and that crucial procedures were not followed when the mentally handicapped teenagers were interviewed. The investigating gardaí denied this.

In a letter signed on behalf of 44 members of staff at the school, gardaí were warned in 1998 about the conduct of the investigation. "We are concerned, as professionals qualified in communicating with pupils with learning difficulties, that our pupils are being interviewed by people not conversant with the level of their comprehension and their use of language, " the school staff wrote. "We are aware how open to suggestion many of our pupils are and their powers of discernment are very poor, " the letter read to the jury stated.

In the witness box, the superintendent in charge of the investigation told the court that his gardaí were experts at interviewing people. In separate evidence, defence solicitor John Devane told the court that a garda involved in the investigation had told him "I have found the key to unlock these children's minds".

In an interview with The Sunday Tribune, the teacher recounted the time since the allegations first emerged and he was suspended.

He was a welcome addition, to the staff of the school as he could organise soccer classes and matches with other schools in the area. Pupils and staff were on first-name terms.

He introduced daily conversation sessions into the class where his 12 students would talk about what was happening in school and at home. He would type it up into a handout and give it to the class to show to their parents, keeping them in touch with what was going on. It was a technique he had learned in Britain where he had worked.

Then that morning in March 1997, the chairperson of the school board of management was waiting in the principal's office to see him. "She said, 'I have to suspend you'. I said, 'what are you talking about', and she said one of the children's mothers was accusing me of sexually assaulting her son. I said 'That's terrible, that's mad.

That's a lie', " he said.

He asked if it was a woman he had been dealing with over problems with her son. "She said, 'I can't say who it is. I can't say anymore. Just go home and you'll be contacted'."

"I've just been accused of being a child abuser, " he told his wife.

"My immediate reaction was incredulity, " his wife said. "I actually thought in my naivety it would go away." She said she never asked him if there was any truth in it. She never felt she had to. In the months that followed, she would sometimes come home to find her husband lying on the lawn crying.

At first they had to keep it secret, saying that he had left school because of a bad back.

Another male member of staff was suspended and staff were informed of the suspensions so the secrecy lifted. "Things got worse and things got better, " his wife said.

They tried to explain to their children what was happening.

Then the accusations got wilder.

One girl accused 31 people of abusing her. Another accused 17 people. Allegations were made that a group of teachers, including a recently bereaved widow, had engaged in oral sex in the school.

"They wouldn't listen to the truth. They wouldn't listen to the teachers. They wouldn't listen to me, " the teacher said.

At one point before the trial, his wife realised what the last five years had been leading to.

"Jesus Christ, I thought, he's actually going to trial here for something he didn't do, " she said. "Part of you says 'we have the truth, we've nothing to fear.'

But that's not the case. Justice and truth are not the same thing."

One of his former teaching colleagues said the atmosphere in the school was surreal during the investigation. "There was absolute fear and dread. I'm convinced that the only thing that saved us from being accused ourselves was the fact we were women." She said teachers who supported their accused colleague were questioned by friends and family about their support for him.

"We were vilified everywhere, told 'you're supporting a guilty man'. This should never have been given to a jury. It should have been stopped. But 12 people were able to decide this man is not guilty, at long last."

One teacher who had taught for 33 years told the trial the investigation had destroyed the school, that "they had reduced the school to ashes".

The solicitor for the family, John Devane, has already called for an inquiry into the investigation. The teacher and his family want answers. "I dream of court, in my waking moments and my sleeping moments, all the different aspects of it. It's still fiercely raw at the moment, " his wife said.

"We've been robbed of five years and eight months of our lives. It's not going to get better overnight."