An autism campaigner has received a 60-day suspended jail sentence after she pleaded guilty to trespassing at the property of a Christian group she believed to be “a cult”, in what was described as “an endeavour borne out of misplaced public concern”.
Fiona O’Leary, 51 and of Knockduff, Dunmanway in Co Cork, pleaded guilty at Bandon District Court to the charge of trespass at the property at Reenascreena, owned by the Society of Saint Pius X Resistance, or SSPX Resistance, on August 10, 2020.
Inspector Deborah Marsh told Judge James McNulty that at 5.20pm that day Ms O’Leary, in the company of others, including some of her children, entered the property, owned by a man named in court as Fr Giacomo Ballini.
The judge heard that she said she was a member of the press, and the “Covid police”, and began filming different areas of the property, including an office and a bedroom.
Insp Walsh said the footage was then uploaded onto social media.
In court Insp Marsh said Fr Ballini had contacted gardaí, and his statement was read out in court. In it he said five people, including two adults, parked a car on the property and then proceeded into the building, despite a request from two women there for them to leave.
The statement outlined how Ms O’Leary was recording as she walked around the property, that she said she was from the “covid police” and that she rebuked those there for not wearing facemarks. The court heard the filming included that of a private room and office, despite a request that she not do so. Ms O’Leary left at 5.50pm.
Ms O’Leary’s barrister, Alan O’Dwyer, agreed that this was a fair representation of the facts. Outlining his plea of mitigation for his client, who had no previous convictions, Mr O’Dwyer said Fr Ballini had been excommunicated from the Catholic Church, but Judge McNulty said the court was not interested in politics or religion being discussed in court.
Mr O’Dwyer said Ms O’Leary was a mother-of-five, that she was autistic, as were four of her children, and that her eldest child, who is 30, has had significant health issues. She and her partner are both carers, he told the court, adding that Ms O’Leary had not come to any Garda attention since this incident.
“She would describe herself as a campaigner for people’s rights,” Mr O’Dwyer said of Ms O’Leary.
Using what he said were his own words, Mr O’Dwyer added: "This was an endeavour borne out of misplaced public concern.” Mr O’Dwyer said his client was pleading guilty to the Section 13 Public Order offence, was apologetic and had said if she could go back in time she would have acted in a different way.
Judge McNulty said it was a “grave offence” given that it involved a “wilful intrusion on private property” in contravention of rights upheld in the Constitution.
“She is entitled to her antipathy,” the judge said. “She may harbour antipathy towards them [the group], but the antipathy is not permitted to escalate to the stage of enmity, of hostility, or vitriol.
He said neither a fine nor community service would be appropriate and taking into account aggravating factors - such as the presence of her teenage son during the incident - and mitigating factors, such as her caring responsibilities, he sentenced Ms O’Leary to 60 days in prison, fully suspended for a period of two years.
That suspended sentence, on her own bond of €2,000, is on condition that she keep the peace and be of good behaviour, and also on a special condition that for the next two years she does not engage in any behaviour in any public place or public forum, to include social media, which is abusive or offensive to any person or group with whom she disagrees.
The judge said Ms O’Leary can have and hold her opinions and nurture antipathies but there were boundaries which he said were necessary for civil public discourse and debate.