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Dangerous Desire for Condemnation

Added to on December 4, 2005

Sunday Independent, December 4th 2005 by Gene Kerrigan

IT TOOK the jury five hours to reach a verdict. In June 1999, by a majority of 10-2, they found former nun Nora Wall and Paul McCabe guilty of a 1988 rape. On the evidence before them, it appears to have been a verdict they were entitled to reach.

On the evidence before him, it appears that Mr Justice Paul Carney was entitled to sentence Wall to life in jail and McCabe to 12 years.

In short, no one jumped to conclusions, and the six-day trial appeared to proceed as these things are supposed to.

A long process ended last week when the appeal court found that Nora Wall was the victim of a miscarriage of justice. Paul McCabe is dead.

The 1999 trial took place shortly after the broadcast of the RTE series States of Fear, which detailed the shocking extent of clerical abuse - physical and sexual - of children. The Wall case seemed, at the time, to be something particularly grotesque from the very bottom of that murky pit where trust was betrayed and children savaged.

Regina Walsh was 18 in 1996, still suffering the effects of her unstable childhood. She claimed to police that when she was 10, and an inmate of St Michael's residential childcare centre in Cappoquin, she was raped. A drunken man, Paul McCabe, she alleged, raped her while Sister Dominic (Nora Wall) held her down.

Last week's court hearing was told that shortly after she made her allegation to the police, Regina Walsh met another girl from St Michael's, Patricia Phelan, and asked her to back up her claim. Phelan agreed.

Regina Walsh subsequently claimed she never asked Phelan to testify.

The trial took place in June 1999. In July, Wall and McCabe were sentenced. Some days later, the DPP applied to the Court of Criminal Appeal to quash the verdict.

The core of this decision concerned Patricia Phelan, the witness who backed up Regina Walsh's claim of rape. In April 1997, more than two years before the trial, a senior counsel evaluated the police file for the DPP and decided that Patricia Phelan was an unreliable witness and should not be called. Phelan had made allegations in a previous case and, after inquiries were made, it was dropped.

A year later, as the pre-trial procedures ground on, the same senior counsel received a further bundle of statements. He was told they included "a number of statements which were not in the Garda file".

This was true, in that the bundle included new statements. However, the bundle also included statements taken previously, including Patricia Phelan's.

The senior counsel read the statements, believed Patricia Phelan's statement was new, and didn't recall that a year earlier he had ruled that Phelan was an unreliable witness who should not be called. Without the additional information to hand suggesting Phelan's unreliability, he now decided, on the basis of her statements, that she should be called as a witness.

It was human error. There were suggestions of overwork, a lack of resources, and there was apparently some truth in those - but sometimes people make mistakes. At several points in the process, other lawyers might have done things differently and Phelan mightn't have been called as a witness, but the centre of the thing seems to be a lawyer simply failing to recall something he did a year previously. Unfortunate and human - not all possibilities of human error can be foreseen.

In a newspaper interview after the trial, Regina Walsh made allegations of another rape, by another man, and this caused disquiet. The interview also brought the previous case involving Patricia Phelan to the surface.

When the DPP's office looked at the documentation, lawyers saw that the instruction that Phelan was not to be called, as she was an unreliable witness, had been breached.

Meanwhile, Phelan told another nun her evidence was untrue. Last week, the appeal court heard that Phelan admitted to police that she made up the claim that she saw Nora Wall hold down Regina Walsh while Paul McCabe raped her.

Strident Catholics see much of the revelations of the past dozen years as part of an assault on the church by liberal atheists and their media friends. And the Wall case gave strident Catholics material to work with.

In the days following her conviction, the media wrote a lot about Nora Wall. Much was legitimate. And it wasn't just the media that accepted the verdicts. The Sisters of Mercy made a statement about "the revolting crimes". They congratulated Walsh and Phelan on their courage and begged anyone abused in their care to go to the gardai.

It was reasonable to accept the verdicts as sound. However, some of what was written was bizarre.

Once convicted of an atrocious crime, Wall had no good name to lose and was therefore a free-fire zone for the media. It was possible to make headlines from the most extreme claims.

Wall was, for instance, accused of supplying children to Fr Brendan Smyth, the notorious paedophile. Take a nun convicted of rape, and a priest convicted of abuse - get someone who says they saw Smyth visit the residential home where Wall worked. Put two and two together and get any number you want.

Once the conviction was quashed, it was the turn of the strident Catholics to use the Wall case to make groundless accusations. The conviction, they claimed, was only possible because of the "hysteria" generated by such programmes as RTE's States of Fear.

And the bizarre and unfounded stories published about Nora Wall were proof that the media was out to get the church, and many of the wider accusations of abuse were fraudulent.

Carefully-researched and well-founded stories exposing clerical abuse could now be lumped in with the sensationalist nonsense made up in the wake of Nora Wall's conviction.

The usual suspects trotted out their usual accusations about how we are all drowning in "political correctness". And some victims of abuse dismissed what happened in the Wall case as some kind of technicality.

There are any number of conclusions we can draw from this dreadful case.

Every time someone complains about how there are too many safeguards that throw the balance in favour of "the criminal" and against "the victim", let's remember Nora Wall. Such safeguards are under constant threat - and they weren't thought up by some quixotic academic. They emerged painfully, from generations of dodgy verdicts and miscarriages of justice.

Every time we feel the urge to allow our sympathy for the victims of abuse or rape to compromise due process, let's remember Nora Wall. In the media, even when there's a guilty verdict, the criteria for a story should remain what we know, not what we can get away with. Then there's the context of our history.

In a statement to police, Patricia Phelan claimed she was beaten at St Michael's and as a result she hated Nora Wall and wanted to get back at her.

It appears that Nora Wall came to personify for her a system that was strict and damaging.

Whatever else the case teaches us, it's as well to recognise what lies at the bottom of all this - after generations of poverty, strident religion, government neglect and a culture of strictness - the institutional treatment of children left a swamp of bitterness that will take a long time to drain.

From that swamp, damaged people come forth with dreadful claims that a fractured, pompous, too-human system of justice has to try to deal with fairly, and sometimes it fails.

Gene Kerrigan