'I weep for all the other little children that Calnan may have abused'
Triona O’Sullivan was just six when Fr Calnan tried to rape her and, with his jailing on Monday, she believes she finally got justice
WHEN JOHN Calnan was brought into the Central Criminal Court in Dublin on Monday, he still looked every inch the priest, despite the maroon jumper and denim jeans. With his sparse white hair, thick glasses, unsteady gait and conspicuous reliance on a cane, he looked older than his 73 years.
But he remained straight-backed and sternly impassive, as Mr Justice Paul Carney sentenced him to eight years for the attempted rape of a six-year-old girl more than 30 years ago.
That little girl, Triona O’Sullivan, now 39, was in court to hear the judge describe “the grooming process” that had begun when she was not yet four.
Calnan was the local curate. His church and residence, between Rosscarbery and Glandore in west Cork, stood across the road from the O’Sullivans’ home and the children used to play in his yard.
“I’d never heard of the word ‘grooming’,” she says. “The idea of putting all those steps together until he finally got to the point of trying to rape a child. It took years of teasing and tickling, then more and more touching down here [the groin area]. Then he’d let me run off and have my ‘treat’.”
The treat was blackberries with sugar or a Walnut Whip.
Her mother was tickling her one day when the child said: “Why don’t you tickle me down there?”
“I remember her horrified face and her asking, ‘Why would I do that?’ And I said, ‘Fr Calnan does’.” Her mother immediately told another priest but he did nothing then – and the abuse seriously escalated.
Her mother had told her brothers not to let Triona out of their sight, but Calnan locked the doors of his house, telling her to take off her underwear and to sit on the floor. He was attempting to rape her when her brother Barry’s frantic banging on the door made him release her. This time, her distraught mother confronted Calnan. He asked, who would she believe – a priest or a young girl?
After she returned to the other priest, Calnan was moved, all of 8km away, to Skibbereen, to a house between schools where he taught religion.
Meanwhile Triona’s childhood had died. She recalls as a two-year-old her wonderment at getting a big doll called Julie. “After that, there is this. Only this. Guilt and fear and being on guard and anxious.” She tried to become a boy by chopping her long hair and fiercely resisted her mother’s efforts to put her in dresses.
More than 30 years later, it was by examining old family photos documenting this transformation that she was able to establish the period of abuse. The compulsion to “blend in” has never left her. She began to wear make-up only recently and gestures with a rueful smile at her functional, all-enveloping, grey woollen “court” outfit.
She had wanted to be a chef and studied hotel management but never settled, ending up in the US for 18 years, “chopping and changing jobs”. In her victim impact statement, read to the court, she said that her “choice of boyfriends and later my choice of husband were all in part influenced by the fact that I was abused. I say this because all the main relationships I entered into were with abusive men. I have been married once and my husband, after behaving terribly, left me.” It was shortly after he left her three years ago that she saw Calnan standing outside a Cork city restaurant as she went in with her family. When he was still there 90 minutes later, she ran away in near hysteria.
Spurred on by her friend Monica, she decided it was time to take action, although the decision to report Calnan was far from easy: “There were terrible scenes within the family.”
Almost to the end, her mother, who died last October, tried to discourage Triona from speaking out about it, which “severely hampered” their relationship.
“Of all the different ways in which the abuse has affected my life, I would say the rift between us has been the most distressing. As she was dying, the abuse was there between us,” she says.
Her mother relented, however, and lived to hear that Calnan had admitted his guilt. “I see now that she did everything she could possibly do at that time. Going to the guards wasn’t the done thing; the priests were the law.” More than 45 sessions of psychotherapy prepared O’Sullivan for the court ordeal, although Calnan’s guilty plea precluded a trial. She has high praise for Mr Justice Carney and the detectives’ protectiveness.
The “buffer zone” provided by an old friend, Pat Sammon – who works with Insight Consultants – and the therapy combined to give her the strength to waive the anonymity she is entitled to.
“I want to make this as public as I can because I weep for all the other little children that Calnan may have abused. I would have seen lots of ‘treats’ going round [to other children] back in my time,” she says.
“I want the message to go out to anyone who has been abused that sweeping it under the carpet doesn’t make it go away. You can take a hold of it. You can deal with it. And people who were abused by him can finally breathe out now. They don’t have to come forward but they know now that something has been done.”
As for herself, she is clear that the rough hand dealt her was not all caused by the abuse. It is important to take responsibility for your own decisions, she says.
“‘If you want to be sad, you can be sad’, my therapist says. ‘If you want to be happy you can be happy.’” The wheel has come full circle. She is back in Glandore, doing what she has always wanted; running a small catering company. No longer living in fear. Happy.