Former priest sentenced to four years in prison for sexual assault of schoolboy

Barry Fergal Jennings (56) of Cloonkeerin, Frenchpark, Co Roscommon was convicted of six counts of sexual assault of the boy at places in Dublin on dates between September 1998 and December 1999
Former priest sentenced to four years in prison for sexual assault of schoolboy

Declan Brennan and Isabel Hayes

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 following a unanimous decision from the jury 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, also known as 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 molested him twice at locations at the school.

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

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

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

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

If I do overcome, I don't know how I will build a life.

“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, breaking down in tears a number of times.

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 and became a chaplain at the school in 1996 before moving to a parish in Co 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, the court heard.

In a medical report submitted to the court, Jennings was described as being depressed, anxious and 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 support of Jennings, all of whom were young men Jennings worked with while he was a priest, describing 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.

The judgw said there were many aggravating factors in the case that she needed to consider before sentencing, adding 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 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 work he has done in the community, as well as 36 letters of support which were submitted to the court, however, the judge said the case involved 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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