30 Jun 2022

Former priest and newspaper columnist gets four years in prison for multiple schoolboy sex assaults

A former priest and newspaper columnist has been sentenced to four years in prison for multiple sexual assaults on a school boy in the 1990s.

Barry Fergal Jennings (56) of Cloonkeerin, Frenchpark, Co Roscommon was convicted by unanimous jury decision last March of six counts of sexual assault of the boy at places in Dublin on  dates between September 1998 and December 1999.

At the time Jennings aka Fr Jennings and Fr Fergal Mac Eoinín, was a chaplain at Tallaght community school in Dublin. He had denied the charges.

At his sentence hearing at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court, Monica Leech BL, prosecuting, outlined how the priest went to the victim's home and molested him in his bed. He also sexually assaulted him a number of times while driving him around and also molested him twice at locations at the school.

In his victim impact statement, the man said that he was previously a happy child but that the sex attacks destroyed his life.

He said that the abuse left him feeling ashamed and suicidal. He ended up leaving school after completing his Junior Cert, turned to alcohol and drugs and lost his friends.

His first attempt at suicide was a drugs overdose at 19 and he was admitted to hospital a number of other times after that. He said he was diagnosed with PTSD and that the trauma negatively affected his relationship with his family.

He said the trial was very difficult and that “seeing my abuser laughing and smirking” in the court was difficult.

“I am angry a lot. The pain remains. I don't know if I'll make it. If I do overcome I don't know how I will build a life,” he said. The man's sister read the statement in court on his behalf and she broke down in tears  a number of times while doing so.

Patrick O'Sullivan BL, defending, said Jennings was a highly educated man who had a number of primary degrees and qualified as a barrister. He joined the Dominican order in 1993, became a chaplain at the school in 1996 before moving to a parish in Waterford.

The court heard Jennings had a column in the Irish Times which ended as soon as the allegations against him came to light.

Defence counsel said Jennings left the priesthood in 2016 after becoming “disillusioned”. He now lives “effectively as a hermit” in a rural area in Co Roscommon, where he has little interaction with anyone.

In a medical report handed in to court, Jennings was described as being depressed and anxious. He was “very despairing” because of the allegation against him.

The report said Jennings described himself as a hugely idealistic person who was dedicated to his principles and was angry at the “false allegations”. He described his life as being a “living nightmare” and that he suffers anguish on a daily basis.

The defence called three witnesses to give character evidence in defence of Jennings -  all young men Jennings worked with when he was a priest. They described him as being like a father figure to them.

Mr O'Sullivan urged Judge Patricia Ryan to consider imposing a non-custodial sentence, saying the offence was at the lower end of the range for such offences.

Judge Patricia Ryan said that there was many aggravating factors in this case that she needed to consider before sentencing. She said it was a very serious abuse of trust as Jennings was a chaplain at the school the boy attended.

She said the offence involved the grooming of a young boy, with a significant age disparity between the injured party and Jennings. She noted from the victim impact statement the effect that the assaults have had on the injured party, which have impacted his mental health, his relationships and interfered with this occupational life.

Judge Ryan also took into account Jennings' lack of previous convictions, the good work he has done in the community as well as 36 letters of support that were handed in to court.

Judge Ryan said that these were very serious crimes and that a custodial sentence was unavoidable. She sentenced him to four years in prison with this sentenced backdated for time already served. 

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