Plans to pay tribute to retiring judge cancelled due to controversy over Cathal Crotty sentence

Judge Tom O’Donnell criticsed soldier’s ‘utterly appalling’ attack on Natasha O’Brien but spared him a jail term

Protesters gather in Dublin in solidarity with Natasha O'Brien who was attacked by Cathal Crotty, a serving member of the Defence Forces, who walked free from court after he was given a three-year suspended sentence by judge Tom O'Donnell. Photograph: Cate McCurry/PA Wire

Plans to pay tribute to Judge Tom O’Donnell, who is retiring this week from Limerick Circuit Criminal Court, have been cancelled following the controversy over his decision to impose a suspended sentence on a soldier for beating a woman unconscious.

Legal sources confirmed tributes to the judge would not be heard in the court on Wednesday as it was feared it would further fuel what some feel are unfair criticisms of him. A reception took place in a Limerick hotel last week in recognition of his 47-year career as a solicitor and judge of the District and Circuit Courts.

A protest had been planned for outside the courthouse on Wednesday, with others having taken place at the weekend in response to the suspended three-year sentence imposed on Defence Forces member Cathal Crotty (22) for attacking Natasha O’Brien.

Judge O’Donnell ordered Crotty, of Parkroe Heights, Ardnacrusha, Co Clare, to pay Ms O’Brien €3,000 compensation over what he said was an “utterly appalling” incident but opted not to jail him after hearing it would affect the soldier’s career. Ms O’Brien said she was disgusted with the sentence and later called for Crotty to be removed from the Army.


The Defence Forces has since commended Ms O’Brien for her bravery and it said it is conducting its own inquiries, which are likely to have consequences for Crotty’s Army career. There is an expectation in political circles that the sentence could be appealed by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).

In a statement on Tuesday afternoon, the organisation said it “unequivocally condemns any actions by serving personnel that are contrary to military regulations or that do not reflect our values”.

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It said there is “no place for any form of gender-based violence, abuse or any form or inappropriate behaviour” by members on or off duty. Any conviction in a civilian court has implications for the retention and service of members of the Defence Forces, as stipulated in military regulations, it said.

“The Defence Forces cannot act until due process has been completed in a civilian court of law. It is then a matter for the relevant Defence Forces authorities in accordance with military regulations,” the statement went on. “In the cases referred to in the media, the Defence Forces can confirm that proceedings in relation to these, have commenced. It would be inappropriate to comment further on these specific cases until they have concluded, to avoid any risk of prejudice.”

Defence Forces review serving personnel with convictions for gender-based violenceOpens in new window ]

Ms O’Brien was walking home from work when she was attacked by Crotty, a private in the Defence Forces based at Sarsfield Barracks, Limerick. Judge O’Donnelll heard Ms O’Brien had “politely” asked Crotty to refrain from shouting homophobic slurs at other people on the street. Crotty then grabbed her by her hair and began punching her. A passerby intervened and Crotty ran away but he later boasted about the incident in messages to friends on Snapchat.

The judge said Crotty had taken “pride in striking a defenceless female in what was a cowardly, vicious, unprovoked, and totally unnecessary assault”. Speaking after the hearing, Ms O’Brien said the terms of Crotty’s fully suspended sentence had traumatised her.

Legal sources said they had sympathy for Judge O’Donnell who one said had found himself “in the midst of a tornado” of public discord. Sources said they disagreed with some of the subsequent commentary aimed at the judge, particularly online, since the sentence was handed down.

Speaking about the case on Tuesday, Taoiseach Simon Harris said he wanted to thank Ms O’Brien for speaking out as her “courage has shone a light” on a number of concerning matters.

“There’s a lot I’d like to say in relation to court matters, none of which I am allowed to say. Other than to say this, as in any case, it is open to the DPP to appeal a sentence should they decide that is the appropriate thing to do. And I believe there’s a 28-day period,” Mr Harris said.

“But I think this has also shone a very serious light in relation to the Defence Forces. I think it raises very grave and serious questions. There can be no hiding place in the Defence Forces, nor indeed, in my view, any place for anyone in the Defence Forces who has been convicted of domestic, sexual or gender based violence.”