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‘Everyone is equal before the law, including judges’: the full story of the Gerard O’Brien case

O’Brien’s conviction marks the first time in the State’s history that a sitting judge has been found guilty of sexual assault

Former judge Gerard O'Brien was jailed for four years for his crimes on Friday. Photograph: Collins Courts

It was during the busy shopping period before Christmas when the verdict landed.

Three days before Christmas last – just before 4pm on Friday, December 22nd – the news broke: a jury in the Central Criminal Court found a sitting Circuit Court judge, Gerard O’Brien, guilty of sexually assaulting six young men in the 1990s when he worked as a teacher at CBC Monkstown, the south Dublin secondary school.

The assaults against the men, aged between 17 and 24 at the time of the offences, occurred on dates between March 1991 and November 1997, when O’Brien was in his 30s, at locations in Co Dublin. Four of the men assaulted were students or former students at the school where O’Brien taught.

The trial had run for four weeks – and the jury had deliberated for almost three days by the time it reached nine guilty verdicts against the 59-year-old judge, but news of the verdicts was the first time O’Brien was named publicly, outside the courtroom, in connection with these offences.


On Friday, O’Brien was jailed for four years for his crimes.

Mr Justice Alexander Owens imposed an effective sentence of five years and nine months on O’Brien (59), of which 21 months was suspended, making a total four years’ imprisonment.

O’Brien will also be subject to two years’ post-release supervision and will be registered as a sex offender.

The December 2023 conviction of a sitting judge on such serious criminal offences generated huge publicity when the story broke.

O’Brien, of Old School House, Slievenamon Road, Thurles, Co Tipperary, did not react as the verdicts on eight counts of sexual assault and one of attempted rape were read out, unmoved visibly by the unprecedented nature of the conviction against him.

It was the first time in the history of the State that a sitting judge had been convicted of sexual assault and one of the few instances where a member of the judiciary was convicted of a serious criminal offence.

In contrast to O’Brien’s reaction to the verdicts, five of his six victims who were present in court with family members gasped with relief, cried and hugged each other as the verdicts were read out.

From the start of the trial on November 21st, O’Brien – a veteran of courtrooms since becoming a Circuit Court judge in 2015 – attended court alone each day, only interacting with his legal team. He remained composed during often emotional evidence from the complainants.

After the verdict, Mr Justice Alexander Owens said he would have remanded O’Brien into custody immediately only for the “special circumstances” surrounding him, referring to O’Brien’s disability.

O’Brien was born severely physically disabled, with no arms and one leg. He was born with a rare congenital condition, phocomelia, a side effect of thalidomide. This was a drug that was used to treat morning sickness during pregnancy until it was withdrawn in 1962, one year after it was withdrawn internationally after being found to cause major birth defects.

Gerard O’Brien: Convicted judge overcame severe physical disability to teach and pursue legal careerOpens in new window ]

During his direct evidence, O’Brien, who was born in 1964, told his counsel, Michael O’Higgins SC, that “my mother was convinced she took it [thalidomide], and my injuries are a result of that”.

He was the subject of a radio documentary broadcast on RTÉ in 1992 about his disability. He spoke candidly about life with his condition, about how he never asked himself why he could not have “a straightforward life” like everyone else and how he would have liked to get married and to have someone with whom to share his life . He expressed frustrations in interviews with the programme makers about getting dressed and going to the toilet.

The disability did not hinder his career.

After teaching, he returned to the legal world, having studied law at University College Dublin (UCD) and qualified as a solicitor, but later struggled to find work as a lawyer. In 2006, after stints at a number of law practices, he set up his own firm, Gerard O’Brien Solicitors.

He dabbled in local politics; he was elected to Thurles Urban District Council in 2009, running for Fianna Fáil and serving as deputy mayor of the Co Tipperary town for a time. He was known in his home county for his involvement in local drama and a musical theatre group.

He resigned as a county councillor in 2012 after he became State solicitor for North Tipperary. He was nominated as a Circuit Court judge in November 2014, replacing Margaret Heneghan, who became a High Court judge.

None of the details of O’Brien’s against-the-odds career could be reported in the most recent court proceedings as his identity was prohibited from being revealed.

Still, the case was covered by court reporters, with O’Brien anonymised in media reports.

Under the 1981 Rape Act, anyone charged with a rape offence is entitled to anonymity unless and until they are convicted. This meant nothing could be published that could identify O’Brien, including his later legal career or appointment to the bench in 2015.

During the case, O’Brien was described as a teacher, his profession between March 1991 and November 1997, the period covering the offences.

As Mr Justice Owens noted in the absence of the jury during the trial, O’Brien could have been identified if he was described in media reports as teacher who later became a judge.

During a trial, the media can only report evidence heard by the jury. During the early stages of the trial, the question of whether the jury would hear O’Brien was a judge was frequently the subject of legal argument in the absence of the jury.

The defence successfully prevented the prosecution from including this detail in the opening of the case.

Mr Justice Owens said the court’s preference was for jurors to learn about O’Brien’s legal career if it became relevant to the evidence.

In the absence of the jury, the six complainants were each asked why they decided to make a complaint to gardaí. Only the sixth complainant to give evidence referred to the fact that O’Brien was later appointed a judge.

The jury became aware during the evidence of this complainant that O’Brien went on to have a legal career after he left the school in 1997.

In charging the jury at the conclusion of evidence, Mr Justice Owens told jurors that O’Brien’s job was of limited relevance to their deliberations.

He said the “Constitution states that everyone is equal before the law including judges, bishops and presidents ... The rules are the same for all.”

Another aspect of the trial that could not be reported at the time was evidence referring to O’Brien’s disability.

During his direct evidence, O’Brien told his counsel, O’Higgins , that “my mother was convinced she took it [thalidomide], and my injuries are a result of that”.

He outlined that he requires assistance with everyday tasks, such as eating, dressing and toileting.

During cross-examination, O’Brien said it was “humiliating” to require assistance with going to the toilet, “not a parade seeking sexual pleasure”.

Photos of O’Brien’s prosthetics were shown to the jury during the trial, along with a video of him lying on a bed, then moving himself into a seated position.

In his evidence, O’Brien outlined his attempts to find work as a solicitor following his graduation from UCD. He said he “saw the shutters go down on their eyes when they saw I had a disability”.

He started to teach in the 1980s, but said no supports were put in place at the school, and “because of the level of dependency and how much I did ... I ended up having to depend on students to take me to the toilet”.

The six complainants – now men in their 40s and 50s – recounted their experiences to the jury. Some became emotional while they spoke about what happened to them as younger men.

Five complainants said they woke up to find O’Brien performing sexual acts on them that they had not consented to.

Of these complainants, four said they woke to O’Brien performing oral sex on them, with the fifth saying he woke to O’Brien licking his face and pressing against his buttocks with his body.

One of these five complainants also said O’Brien attempted to rape him anally. The final complainant’s allegation related to an act of masturbation in the toilets of a pub.

Each complainant said they had been drinking alcohol and O’Brien had been too.

The four men who were students or former students of O’Brien, described him more like a “friend” than a teacher and outlined their high level of respect and admiration for him.

“I completely and utterly trusted him,” said one.

“We held him in the highest regard as a teacher. I looked up to him and thought he had my best interests in mind,” said another.

The men described how, as students, they would assist O’Brien with everyday tasks. None of the men had any issue with doing this, as they had seen older students help O’Brien throughout their time in secondary school.

The abuse was similar in nature, and on many occasions, it began with O’Brien buying the young men alcohol and inviting them back to his house.

He would ask them to stay the night in order to help him the following morning. These complainants would sleep beside O’Brien and wake sometime later to him performing sexual acts on them.

The sixth complainant to give evidence said he woke up to find O’Brien sexually abusing him. He said O’Brien also attempted to rape him.

When interviewed by gardaí in July 2020, O’Brien denied this allegation, saying it was “physically impossible” for him to do what the complainant said.

The fifth complainant to give evidence described how he would bring O’Brien to the toilet when he was a student in the school, assisting him in the process, and said the then teacher used the opportunity to arouse himself.

The trial heard about an incident that occurred in a pub after this young man had completed his Leaving Certificate when O’Brien asked him to take him to the toilet. He said O’Brien again aroused himself. He then leant into the young man, pinning him against the cubicle wall, and kissed him on the cheek or neck. The young man asked O’Brien to stop, and he did so when a toilet door opened.

The remaining two complainants knew O’Brien socially. One of these complainants told the trial that he woke to find O’Brien sexually abusing him.

The second man said he went to a friend’s house in early 1994 and fell asleep in a bed beside O’Brien. This complainant said he woke up to his face and neck being licked by O’Brien. He said there was also a foot grappling with his boxer shorts.

He said he was initially frozen, then elbowed O’Brien at least seven times, telling him he was “really disappointed”.

Five of the six complainants described being “frozen” when they realised what O’Brien was doing. One complainant described waking to find O’Brien abusing him and being “scared s**tless” and “frozen solid in the bed”.

“You would think your reaction would be to get out of there, but I just froze to the spot,” he said.

The sixth complainant told the trial he was “in a state of shock” and “delirious”.

“I didn’t know if I was in a dream or awake,” he said.

The former students said O’Brien bought alcohol in pubs for them.

O’Higgins, O’Brien’s counsel, suggested to one of these complainants that there was a “drinking culture in the school” and “a pattern of teacher drinking with fifth- or sixth-year students”.

“I think it was just with Gerry O’Brien,” the complainant replied.

The jury heard that O’Brien was interviewed by gardaí nine times, all on a voluntary basis. In initial interviews, he denied any sexual contact with all six men.

In later interviews, he said consensual sexual interactions had occurred with three complainants and the other allegations “never happened”.

In one interview, gardaí told O’Brien that one complainant called him “opportunistic”. Asked how he felt about this, he replied: “It makes me out to be some sort of monster.”

O’Brien also told gardaí: “I lost everything: my school, life and friends.” He left the school in November 1997 in the wake of the mother of one complainant contacting the principal after her son told her he had been sexually assaulted by O’Brien.

Asked about the allegations relating to what happened in the pub bathroom, O’Brien said he felt “betrayed” and that they were “appalling” and “lies”.

O’Brien told gardaí that he struggled with his sexuality and, at the age of 15, he spoke to a priest who called him an “abomination”.

In his evidence, O’Brien seemed nervous at times, his voice often uneven during his two days of testimony.

O’Brien said he had consensual sexual encounters with three complainants and denied any sexual interaction with the other men.

He said he initially denied sexual contact with any of the complainants when he was first interviewed by gardaí because of feelings of shame.

Part of his reasoning was “how horrendous these cases are, how hotly fought they are, how devastating for everybody”, he said.

“It was the fear of what’s happening now that made me try to bat it away and hope to God it might be taken away from me.”

Under cross-examination, he said he lied because he panicked but accepted they could be interpreted as “self-serving”.

He said he felt it wasn’t appropriate to exercise his right to silence during his Garda interviews. He then clarified that it “did not cross” his mind to do this, as “the scale of it, the impropriety of it, the shame of it, the horror of it derailed me somewhat”.

During the trial, the jury heard that O’Brien started to work as a solicitor in 1999 after he had left the teaching profession. He said he trained with leading criminal law practices and later acted for the HSE in child protection cases.

O’Brien was appointed State solicitor for North Tipperary in 2012. He said he made recommendations on Garda investigation files, describing his role as “not as forensic” as that of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

O’Brien said he was stationed in Cork as a Circuit Court judge but denied the prosecution’s suggestion that he presided over “dozens” of criminal trials.

He said it was “maybe 20″ but agreed with Anne Marie Lawlor SC, counsel for prosecution, that he has “extensive experience in conduct of trials”.

She put it to O’Brien that his position is that each complainant “told lies”. He replied that he is “not calling them a liar” but “saying they are mistaken”.

Asked by Lawlor whether it is coincidental that five complainants said they woke up to him performing sexual acts on them, O’Brien replied that some “people will not admit to having sexual relations with a man with no arms and no legs”.

In her closing speech to the jury, Lawlor said O’Brien had told “unadulterated self-serving lies designed to protect himself from detection, prosecution and conviction”.

She noted that O’Brien’s disability has affected his life in a “profound and serious way” and is “threaded” through the case due to his circumstances. She asked the jury to consider carefully what bearing, if any, this had on the offences.

“You are dealing with very serious matters for all the complainants and O’Brien,” said Lawlor.

She asked the jury to look at the “implausibility of a number of people making up the same story”.

Lawlor concluded her speech by suggesting that the “correct and proper determination is that Gerry O’Brien is guilty on each count”.

In his closing speech for the defence, O’Higgins said O’Brien’s disability and sexuality were central to understanding the “dynamics” of the case.

He asked jurors to consider whether his client was “not very mature” despite his achievements. He told them to assess whether O’Brien was a “person acting maliciously” or “someone who wouldn’t willingly hurt anyone”.

In his evidence, O’Brien said he had never been in a relationship. Asked by his counsel whether this was something he wanted, he replied: “I still want, but it’s unlikely now.”

In early January, two weeks after his conviction and under growing political pressure, O’Brien resigned as judge.

Two days earlier, Simon Harris, then a Government minister and now Taoiseach, said that O’Brien’s conviction showed that in Ireland “no matter who you are, the law of the land will be applied without fear or favour”.