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Miscarriage of Justice: Paul McCabe and Nora Wall

by Breda O'Brien

Studies - An Irish Quarterly Review, Issue 380, vol.95, Winter 2006

I don't say he's a great man... His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.

                     Death of a Salesman – Arthur Miller

Attention must be paid. Linda Loman’s plea on behalf of her husband, Willie Loman, a salesman enduring humiliation at his career’s end, has a resonance whenever a human being is treated as if he or she were a mere pawn in the plans of others. It is perhaps even truer of Paul McCabe than of Willie Loman, that he was not “the finest character who ever lived”. Paul (Pablo) McCabe was a homeless man who had schizophrenia and a history of substance abuse. He had Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy. He was a recidivist petty criminal. It is easy to dismiss such a person, but there was another side to his character. In spite of suffering significant disadvantage from childhood, he thought deeply about life, had a love of reading and painting and liked to write poetry. Unlike Willie Loman, Paul’s name did appear in the newspapers, but not in a way for which anyone would wish. It was alleged that he had raped a child on two occasions in the group home managed by Nora Wall, a Sister of Mercy at the time, and had done so while she held the child’s ankles. Nora Wall also faced separate charges of sexually abusing the girl in question, Regina Walsh. Both were found guilty. He received a sentence of 12 years in prison, while Nora Wall was sentenced to life. 

They had served four days of their sentence when it emerged that a witness, Patricia Phelan, had been called in the case despite the fact that the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) had deemed her unreliable. As a result, the convictions were quashed and they were told that they were entitled to consider themselves innocent. Six and half years later, in December 2005, a miscarriage of justice was declared. By that time, Paul McCabe was dead. His funeral was delayed for three weeks at the end of 2002, while attempts were made to locate his mother who lived in England. While Paul was not allowed to ‘fall in his grave like an old dog’, given that his funeral was sensitively handled in the Franciscan Church at Merchant’s Quay in Dublin, he has been allowed to fall from our consciousness. There were some questions raised about what happened to Nora Wall, notably in some fine journalistic work by Mary Wilson and Kevin Myers, but Paul McCabe has never been the subject of any sustained media attention. Nora Wall, who has borne her suffering with tremendous dignity, at least had a close-knit family who supported her, and those who had known her in her former life as Sr. Dominic staunchly refused to believe the allegations. Paul McCabe had no such support, although he did have people who showed concern for him in the various services he used.

It is ironic that Nora Wall, faithful both to her instincts and her training that she received as a young Sister of Mercy, was one of the few people who treated Paul McCabe with dignity. Her reward was to be accused of actively helping him to commit a heinous crime. As a result, she had to spend 2 years signing on at a Garda station twice a day. She could not visit her elderly mother, and her family had the constant stress not only of coping with the fact their sister had been unjustly accused, but of trying to hide from their mother what was happening. She could not work. She was spat at and physically threatened in the street. She was the first Irish woman convicted of rape and received a life sentence. In contrast, Joseph McColgan, who was convicted of terrorising and abusing his four children physically, mentally and sexually from the 1970s to the 1990s, received a twelve-year sentence.

There are other ironies. Paul McCabe was reared from the age of three in religious-run industrial schools, and in other circumstances might have seemed an ideal subject for journalists well-known for highlighting the injustices suffered by residents of such places. For example, the highly influential States of Fear television series had concentrated on the harm visited on innocent children in industrial schools. Instead of being of benefit to Paul McCabe, the fact that the series ran in April and May 1999, and the trial was in June 1999, was probably a central factor as to why the jury convicted them. The picture of the institutions (and all those who worked within them) painted by the programmes was so bleak that there was little hope of a fair trial. This is despite the fact that the case against Paul and Nora was riddled with contradictions and lacking in credibility from the very beginning. Even after the convictions were quashed, there never has been a sustained media campaign to discover why Paul McCabe confessed to the crime, and signed a statement to that effect. Why did the Guards who interviewed him take no notes, in violation of regulations? Why was there no commission of inquiry into this miscarriage of justice that affected two people’s lives so deeply? Perhaps the most telling questions of all have never been answered. Why did the DPP make a decision not to call Patricia Phelan as a witness? It would be a most unusual decision not to call an alleged eyewitness. More importantly, if Patricia Phelan was unreliable, what did that say about Regina Walsh? If the corroborating witness was deemed unreliable, why did that not cause serious questions to be asked about the person making the original allegation, from whom Patricia must have gained her information?

Paul McCabe addressed a Diocesan Gathering of Mercy Sisters in Gracedieu in Waterford in1988. His account tells of being born in Dublin in 1949 to a single mother. She struggled on until Paul was three, but she ‘had great difficulty in working, paying for accommodation and paying someone to look after me.” Thus he came to live in what was to become known as the “ old St. Michael’s”, a junior industrial school run by the Sisters of Mercy in Cappoquin. His memories of that time are “very happy ones of caring and interested women.” He then went to the Industrial School at Artane, Dublin, which he found traumatic, as it had “over nine hundred boys in a very strict set-up.” After leaving Artane, he began to drift and became involved with drugs, including time spent in South America.   He returned to Ireland in 1977. He stole to support his drugs habit. He had treatment in St. Brendan’s Hospital, and alcohol abuse remained a problem. In 1980, he came to Cappoquin again. He stated, “Cappoquin is my home. In Dublin I am homeless.” The institution where he had been reared had been closed and replaced with group homes, Coisceim and Emohruo, where he met Sr. Dominic (Nora Wall) although, as someone of roughly the same age, she had never known him in St. Michael’s. He hoped to find information about his mother, but none existed. In 1986 his mother wrote hoping to find out something about her son. Sr. Dominic facilitated a reunion, and mother and son spent three happy days together in Cappoquin. She had married in England and had four more sons, but had never told her new family of Paul’s existence. His stepfather learned of Paul for the first time when notified of his death. In correspondence with this writer, he stated that if he had known that his wife had a child before he met her, he would happily have welcomed him as part of his family.

Sr. Dominic had a policy of welcoming back those who had been reared in the group homes and in the old St. Michael’s. Some were very successful, like a past pupil who became a US attorney general. Some were social outcasts, like Paul. The door was also open to relatives of current pupils, and indeed, to friends who were Guards. She felt it was good for the children to see everyone treated without discrimination regardless of social class or status. Little did she know that her kindness would lead to a nightmare that lasted for nine years.

Nora Wall took a sabbatical in 1990, and enjoyed her first full week off since beginning to work in the group homes in 1974. During those 16 years she had reared 65 children, 11 of whom are sadly now dead. She is still in regular contact with most of them and with her “grandchildren”, the children of those pupils. Unhappy with the direction the Mercy Sisters were taking, she left the congregation in 1994. In 1996, she worked in a St. Vincent de Paul shelter for homeless men. In October 1996, she was arrested in Dublin and brought for questioning to Fitzgibbon Street Garda Station about the allegations made by Regina Walsh, whom she had cared for from the age of eight. Regina alleged that Paul McCabe had raped her, while Nora Wall held her legs, on the occasion of her twelfth birthday on the 8th of January 1990. She also claimed that Nora Wall had sexually abused her on numerous occasions. Nora Wall was not questioned then or subsequently on a second allegation: that she had also assisted Paul McCabe in raping Regina Walsh in a virtually identical way two years previously. This latter charge, on which neither she nor Paul McCabe was questioned, was the one on which they would subsequently be found guilty.

Notes were taken of the interviews, which Nora Wall refused to sign, because she says that the statements that the Guards had made to her, such as that they would see to it that she got “fourteen years in Limerick”, were not included in the notes. At all times she declared her innocence. She was released without charge. She finished her contract with the St. Vincent de Paul, and, after some time, got work with Sir Patrick Dunn’s Hospital, which she was forced to leave after the Guards informed the hospital she should not be working with people. In May 1997 she was formally charged. She had to sign on at a Garda station twice a day. She was forced on to social welfare, and at one time she had a budget of £2 a day to live on, after rent, electricity and other bills were taken care of.

Paul McCabe was arrested on the same day in October 1996, and taken to Dungarvan in order to take part in an identity parade. A Guard from Dublin was initially asked only to identify him to Guards from Waterford, but ended up travelling to Dungarvan and conducting the interviews with a Detective-Garda. Curiously, while notes were taken of every request made by Paul McCabe, and every stop made on the journey, the Gardaí declared that no discussion of the case took place in the car, so no notes were taken of any conversation. It sounds odd, to say the least, that the charges were never mentioned. Even more extraordinary, no notes were kept of the subsequent interviews in the station, in clear breach of the Criminal Justice (Treatment of Persons in custody in Garda Stations) Regulations 1987. Regulation 12(11) demands a record be kept that is as complete as is practicable, and it must be signed and dated by the member conducting the interview. Both Guards admitted, at the hearings, to making no notes, and under pressure of questioning from defence counsel, also admitted that Paul McCabe did not dictate a statement as they originally suggested, but responded to questions. This, again, is in breach of regulations, which allow only minor clarifying questions during the taking of statements. Paul McCabe signed two statements, both of which were quite strange in the way that they were formulated. For example, part of the first statement says, “I told Sr. Dominic what had happened the night before in Regina’s room. I told her I had intimate relationships with her, meaning Regina. She said to me I was like St. Augustine.”

This last sentence was bizarre enough, but St. Augustine was to feature further in the evidence, when both Guards admitted that they had stopped Paul McCabe when he began to tell them the whole history of the saint. Instead of realising that this was a strange subject for a suspect to raise, and therefore that they should proceed with caution, the Gardaí continued as if he were fully compos mentis. This was a man who suffered from schizophrenia and epilepsy, who had a history of substance abuse and had been a patient in the Central Mental Hospital and in St. Brendan’s, Grangegorman. A Guard claimed that he did not know that Paul McCabe suffered from schizophrenia, and made the quite extraordinary statement that he didn’t see what difference knowing whether he did or not would have made. Paul McCabe was a vulnerable individual, who had not taken his weekly injection for his schizophrenia for some weeks, because it exacerbated his Parkinson’s symptoms. A doctor was called for him, who administered some medication, but he had been interviewed for over an hour before being given the medicine.

It is not suggested that Paul was ill-treated, merely that a very ill man was not given the same treatment even as Nora Wall, where notes were taken of her interviews, and of the questions and answers asked. The doctor who examined Paul McCabe in Dungarvan was asked at the hearings if he would have been alerted to his precarious mental state if he had started speaking about St. Augustine, and he replied that he would have been. The Gardaí made no such connection. Paul McCabe made a further statement, all about the night of Regina’s 12th birthday party on the 8th of January 1990, and this time he says that Sr. Dominic was present, but he was not aware that she had held Regina by the legs. Justice Carney was not impressed by the testimony of the guards in the case, and in fact said that he found one Guard “not credible” when he stated that Paul McCabe had dictated his own statement without substantial questions by the Guards. The alleged rape on January 8th, 1990 was the only charge on which Paul McCabe was questioned. Like Nora Wall, he was never questioned on the second allegation that he had also raped Regina Walsh two years previously in 1987 or 1988, again with Sr. Dominic present. In fact, neither Paul McCabe’s nor Nora Wall’s defence teams received notification of this second charge until May 28th, 1999, only six days before hearings began, and two years after they were initially charged.

After he was released after questioning in Dungarvan, it emerged that it would have been impossible for Paul McCabe to have been in Cappoquin on the 8th of January. He is recorded as present in a Dublin hostel on the night of the 7th/8th until 10.30 in the morning and also on the 9th of January until 10.30. He was committed to Mountjoy on the 10th of January. In spite of this, they were still charged with the rape of Regina Walsh, “on a date unknown between the first day of January, 1990 and the 31st day of January, 1990.” The Guards had returned to Regina Walsh and put it to her that Paul McCabe could not have been in Cappoquin on the 8th of January. On November 5th, 1996, she “corrected” her statement to state that it was not the day of her 12th birthday, but of the celebration of her 12th birthday some days before or after that date, that the alleged assault took place. At the hearings, witnesses were produced to show that there was no man present at the party. Even more strange, Patricia Phelan, who corroborated Regina’s accounts of being assaulted, claimed that both assaults took place, not two years apart, but two or three months apart, when Regina would still have been only nine. The jury obviously found the “birthday party” allegation not credible either, because they found both parties not guilty of it in a 10 to 2 jury decision. They still found them guilty on the charge that neither party was ever questioned on – the alleged rape that took place at least two years prior to the birthday party.

One has to ask how that could have happened? An assault around a twelfth birthday is not something that someone could have accidentally made a mistake about. If the jury did not believe Regina’s account of the “birthday party” rape, how did they find her other allegation credible? Not to mention the fact that Patricia and Regina’s accounts did not tally in other vital aspects. Regina claimed that no one knew of the assaults and that she told no one at the time. Patricia claimed that she was present at both, and, in both cases, helped Regina to shower, and, in at least one instance, sat up all night with her. Regina also claimed that she had remembered the assaults in flashbacks, in other words through the now discredited ‘recovered memory’ syndrome. This was never queried in court. The girls described both assaults as following a virtually identical pattern, with Paul McCabe and Sr. Dominic acting in the same way, including leaving the room and never referring to it again. Someone in Sr. Dominic’s position would surely have been in fear of one or both girls revealing what had happened, if the allegations were true, and would surely at least have warned them not to speak of it, but no. Regina Walsh had made similar allegations against a male relative in the past, but no physical evidence was found that she had been raped. Sensationally, it would emerge in an interview in the Star newspaper, that she also had claimed to have been “raped by a black man in Leicester Square.” Patricia Phelan had also made allegations against three different male relatives, and had been involved in another allegation of sexual assault where the judge found her “less than credible”.

The convictions were quashed because of this information coming into the public domain. Patricia Phelan also later admitted to Sr. Mona Killeen that she had lied. Regina Walsh and Patricia Phelan obviously colluded in their evidence. Nobody has ever answered why the DPP proceeded with the case at all, given that, if there was such a huge question mark over one witness, it raised an even bigger question mark over all the allegations.  Regina Walsh fled to England for a year, because she did not want to go to court, and she said at the hearings that “I was frightened, and only that the Guards reassured me that they would be here with me, I wouldn’t be doing it.” In the miscarriage of justice judgement, Justice Kearns singled out for particular mention one Guard, who took the statements from Patricia Phelan regarding Regina Walsh and was also involved in the two other cases where Patricia had made false allegations. Yet the DPP does not seem to have been alerted to this fact.

It would be easy to demonise the two young women, but Nora Wall will have none of it. Regina Walsh had spent time in St. Declan’s Psychiatric Unit, after a suicide attempt, immediately prior to making the allegations. Regina and Patricia were vulnerable people, she maintains, and she in particular commends Patricia for having the courage to eventually admit that she had lied. It had a particular poignancy, because Patricia was her “first baby”, reared since 13 months of age in Coisceim. After the miscarriage of justice was declared, Nora extended her hand to Patricia and told her that she was “still her first baby”, which caused Patricia to fall into her arms and cry uncontrollably.

In a sense, both Nora Wall and Paul McCabe were lucky that Patricia Phelan was called inadvertently, because if she had not been, none of the other discrepancies might have come to light. Both of them are forgotten victims of a miscarriage of justice. Nora Wall has no doubt that the atmosphere generated by States of Fear was a central factor in the jury’s willingness to believe the allegations, despite her blameless record of lifelong service to children.

It is instructive to see how seriously the State took the potential miscarriage of justice involving Dean Lyons, which is in stark contrast to the way Paul McCabe and Nora Wall were treated.  The late Dean Lyons confessed to the savage and brutal murders of Ms. Mary Callinan and Ms. Sylvia Shiels in March 1997 in Grangegorman, Dublin. When it emerged that Dean Lyons had made a false confession, the Department of Justice first set up an independent review by Shane Murphy S.C., followed by a Commission of Investigation conducted by George Birmingham, S.C. An Expert group was also established to assess the “adequacy of Garda training, protocols, regulations and procedures” in relation to, among other things, “assessing the fitness of persons to be interviewed” and “avoiding the use of leading questions with vulnerable suspects”.

Dean Lyons was a very different case to Paul McCabe, although both were homeless. Dean Lyons was a heroin addict, who was borderline intellectually disabled. He had a long record of telling untrue stories. He appears to have confessed with great eagerness to the crime. The Commission of Investigation cleared the Gardai of any wrongdoing, but did say that, beginning with the first of four interviews, inappropriate leading questions were asked, which allowed Dean Lyons to glean valuable information to bolster his claims. George Birmingham says:

In particular, he (Dean Lyons) proved highly adept at acquiring information from the manner in which questions were formulated. Examples of this are clearly evident in the first video-taped interview …As a matter of probability the same process as is visible on the video tape must have continued during the later (non video-taped) interviews.

 Page 6, Report of the Commission of Investigation (Dean Lyons Case.)

Also, other Gardaí who viewed the interview tape, were critical of the methods used.

 He is not saying that the interview was suggestive, but with certain questions such as “When you were getting in the window, was there anything in your way like curtains or anything?’ he could see Lyons jump on an answer. He wouldn’t have conducted an interview in that way. Page 173, Report of the Commission of Investigation

Dean Lyons consistently got the order in which the women were murdered wrong. This was ignored by most of the investigating Gardaí. Certain commentators were openly sceptical of the conclusions reached by the Commission of Investigation. For example, Pat Rabbitte TD, while accepting that George Birmingham had carried out his duties in a diligent and thorough way, wondered how Dean Lyons “could have outwitted three teams of experienced Garda interrogators.”

Dean Lyons was apparently eager to be seen as a brutal murderer. Paul McCabe had no desire to be seen as a child rapist, but he still ended up signing a confession to a crime that he did not commit. Why was there no commission of inquiry in his case? No attention continues to be paid to a vulnerable member of society, who appears to have been a hapless pawn in an attempt to destroy Nora Wall, for reasons that have never been fully established. May he rest in peace. May justice one day be done for both of them.

Breda O’Brien is a teacher and columnist.