Man awarded €200,000 damages against childhood abuser
High Court decision creates new civil wrong for long-term control by abusers over victims
Cormac Walsh leaving the Four Courts on Thursday after the significant High Court decision. Photograph: Courts Collins
A man sexually assaulted over years as a child by another man whom he regarded as a “father figure” has been awarded €200,000 aggravated damages against his abuser in a significant High Court decision.
Mr Justice Michael White’s judgment creates a new civil wrong covering the long term control and manipulation exercised by an abuser over their victim.
An emotional Cormac Walsh, from Arklow, said he hoped the court’s decision on his case against Michael Byrne,a former teacher and brass band leader, from Templerainey, Arklow, will help other victims of abuse.
The recognition by the courts of a “crime so devious and underhand” will be very significant for other victims, he said. “It explains to victims that it was not their fault, that the child is never at fault.”
Deirdre Burke, solicitor for Mr Walsh, said the case aimed to highlight the continuum of oppression which begins with the first contact with the victim, extends to the physical abuse and beyond, and the impact of all that on victims.
“The aim is to acknowledge there is more to the abuse than the individual assaults on victim,” she said.
In his judgment, Mr Justice White said Mr Walsh sought a declaration the entire relationship created by Byrne with Mr Walsh, was “a continuum of oppression” involving manipulation, psychological dominations and acts of assault and battery and this continuum was tortious (constituted a civil wrong).
The mental trauma suffered by Mr Walsh was not just confined to the acts of assault and battery but arose due as a consequence of breach of trust by Byrne who had played such an important role in Mr Walsh’s life, the judge said.
The court’s objective consideration of Byrne’s kindness, concern and considerable investment of time with Mr Walsh, to the period the abuse stopped, “was for the insidious purpose of satisfying his own sexual desire”, the judge said.
For those reasons, it was appropriate to extend the law of tort to cover what is now a well recognised and established pattern of wrongdoing, where a child is befriended, where trust is established and where that friendship and trust is used to perpetrate sexual abuse, the judge ruled.
This involved a combination of behaviour by which a child is befriended to gain their confidence and trust and includes a process by which a person prepares a child, significant adults and the environment for the abuse, he said.
Such behaviour can involve many acts of individual kindness but with the aim of gaining access to a child and maintaining their compliance with the abuse and secrecy to avoid disclosure.
Earlier, the judge noted Mr Walsh first met Byrne, a teacher and leader of a brass band in Arklow, when he was aged nine. Mr Walsh joined the band and became close to Byrne whom he regarded as a father figure and continued to have regular contact wit him well into adulthood.
A feature of this relationship was Mr Byrne’s kindness to Mr Walsh who confided in Byrne about personal matters and Byrne also gave him numerous gifts over the years.
Mr Walsh went with Byrne on band trips, including camping trips. Byrne began to sexually abuse Mr Walsh when he was aged 11, that abuse continued until he was aged 17.
This abuse occurred in the context of an “exceptionally close” relationship between Mr Walsh and Byrne, a person respected and trusted in his community, over a period of several decades, the judge said. When Mr Walsh was aged 13 and had had an operation on his testicle, Byrne told him it was necessary on doctor’s advice to take sperm samples to check his fertility and Byrne engaged in that “particularly insidious form of abuse” which involved misrepresenting medical advice, the judge said.
While he had some concerns that Byrne, who represented himself and made submissions but did not call evidence, was not legally represented, the court was satisfied Mr Walsh was a credible witness and the mental trauma he suffered was “a direct consequence” of the sexual abuse by Byrne over some five or six years and the serious breach of trust by Byrne.
After the abuse stopped, the friendship between Mr Walsh and Byrne continued and Byrne was the best man at Mr Walsh’s wedding in 1987 and also gave him a wedding gift of a plot of land, the judge said. Mr Walsh did not disclose the abuse to his wife until he was aged 43 and he made a formal complaint to the gardaí in 2009.
Byrne is serving a sentence after pleading guilty to a number of counts of abuse of Mr Walsh, the judge noted.
Byrne’s behaviour seriously impacted on Mr Walsh’s psychological wellbeing and he experienced mental health difficulties since 1987, the judge said. He had episodes of serious mental breakdown, was hospitalised for a period and diagnosed as having an adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depression secondary to the consequence of pervious sexual abuse in childhood.