Out of everything she saw in the house that day, it was a single bar of blue soap that stayed with the social worker.
It sat alone in a bathroom that catered for a family of seven, but which was devoid of shower gels, shampoos, toothpaste, toothbrushes or toilet roll.
The entire house was filthy and the stench was unbearable. The walls were coated in several layers of dark glossy brown paint, layers that had been added over time to cover up the stains.
The social worker had encountered a fossilised slice of pizza on the hall floor when she came in the front door. There were no pictures on the walls, no family photographs and no toys at all except for some broken pieces in a dirty playpen. There were thick, smelly blankets covering almost every surface.
The small bar of soap was in fact the only cleaning item of any kind in the entire house.
“There were deep crevices in that soap,” the social worker told the Central Criminal Court trial. “Like it hadn’t seen water in so long. I’ll never forget that soap.”
The events that brought seven family members before the court, in a trial that ran for 10 weeks and involved an indictment of 91 charges of “atrocious” sexual abuse, sexual exploitation and neglect offences against five children, started several years ago when a teenage girl met a man 22 years her senior.
He came to her parents’ house one day with a mutual friend. She was watching TV and her mother told her to make him a cup of tea. The relationship blossomed from there, the court heard.
They had their first baby boy within a couple of years, when she was still in her teens. One Valentine’s Day, he proposed and they married the following year. In quick succession they had four more children - a girl and three more boys.
It would be a few more years before the first red flag was raised to social services.
In 2011, when two of the children attended a neonatal hospital appointment with their mother, medics were concerned by the appearance of the boy and girl, who were grubby, dirty and overdressed for the hot weather. Upon further investigation, it was discovered that both children had third degree burns under their heavy clothes.
This prompted engagement by social services with the family to begin. It stopped and started over the years as the family situation appeared to improve, worsen and improve again. The trial heard that a family support worker, who has since died, liaised with the family during this period.
Social workers believed that when the mother and father had the support of family members - many of whom would later stand trial alongside them, things improved. But when they fell out (and the trial heard there were frequent periods of infighting) the children’s situation would again deteriorate.
In 2014, the social worker that would become central to the case moved to the area. At the time just one case (or file) was open on the family. This was in relation to their eldest child, who had run away from school one day.
The principal had followed him home and was so concerned at the state of the house that she immediately contacted Tusla and spoke to the school psychologist. Gardaí had also alerted Tusla after they found the same boy alone and soiled in a local park. Another social worker who visited the house was shocked at the flies and the dirt, despite the fact the family had only recently been moved to the house by the local council.
There had been a second outbreak of scabies in the home and at the time, the mother was not speaking to her family or getting any support from them, the court heard.
At the end of the social worker’s first meeting with the parents in a local community centre, her level of concern was raised to such an extent that she decided to open a professional assessment on all five children, who at that time ranged in age from one to six.
“They were absolutely - I apologise - to be brutally honest, they were filthy. Filthy dirty,” the social worker said of the parents. The couple had made no attempt to clean themselves. The mother’s hair was matted to her head. There was a strong body odour emanating from them both.
Aside from their physical appearance, their responses to various questions were troubling. They gave different answers to the same questions, such as why their six-year-old had recently tried to go hitch-hiking. “We were just leaving the house and he ran off from the car” was the first answer. Then 10 minutes later: “We were in the park playing and suddenly he wasn’t there.”
“It was total confusion and deflection,” the social worker told the trial. “Different answers, deflection, blame, trying to manipulate the whole situation”.
The following month, the social worker visited the home for the first time. There was rubbish, debris and broken pieces of toys littered all around the garden. The mother answered the door and let them in, locking the front door behind them. (She or her husband would do this on each and every occasion for the next 18 months despite the social worker protesting it wasn’t safe to lock the door for fire safety reasons and that they should hang a key up on the wall).
There was a broom in the corner of the hall and the floor appeared to have been swept, but there was “sticky, gunky filth” in each corner. When the social worker suggested to the mother that she should clean the floor and throw out the fossilised pizza slice as it might attract rodents, the mother replied that she needed a new front door to stop the rodents getting in.
This was what the mother constantly did, the social worker said. She wanted a new door, new windows for the house, a new car, a new washing machine. “All the material things.”
“It was the quietest house,” the social worker recalled of that first viewing. “It was the most desolate, sad, quiet..,” she trailed off. “There was nothing.”
As well as the hairy blankets on every surface, which the social worker “couldn’t understand what they were doing there”, there were piles of clothes everywhere. A pot of mouldy food sat on the cooker. Upstairs, alongside the bathroom with its single bar of soap, the boys’ and the parents’ bedrooms were extremely bare.
The mother seemed eager to show the social worker the girl’s room. It consisted of a bed with a Hello Kitty duvet, a little built-in wardrobe and a pink lamp.
The social worker assumed the mother was alone in the house as it was so quiet. But upon further inspection of the house downstairs, she noticed a movement from underneath one of the blankets. She pulled it back and found the youngest child, aged 18 months, tightly strapped into a small buggy, staring up at her with big eyes.
“The pallor of his skin was kind of grey,” the social worker said. He was clammy, extremely thin and his legs were “spindly”, like little sticks. He made no response when she performed some basic developmental checks on him.
The mother claimed he was talking away, but the only words he seemed able to say were “bye” and “door”. When she lifted up his little chin, she discovered two thick rings of crud and dirt. He had obviously not been washed in a long time.
A GP later gave evidence at trial to say this child was in the 0.4th percentile for weight of a child his age, indicating he may not have been receiving adequate food intake.
Both the meeting with the parents and this viewing of the house led to the concerns about the children being escalated to a Tusla process called a case conference, in which a range of professionals including teachers, medical professionals and various social workers work together to assess their needs and progress.
The first case conference was held in December 2014 and at the end of it, every professional present agreed the children were at risk of neglect. The parents did not agree. Their advocate was the mother’s brother-in-law - the children’s 49-year-old uncle who would later stand trial accused of sexually abusing them. He too agreed that his niece and nephews were at risk of neglect.
There was one question that loomed large but which was not explored at trial. Why did it take so long for the children to be taken into care? The family first came to the attention of Tusla as early as 2011, but it was another five years before they were finally removed from their parents.
By then, two more children had been born to the parents and the older children were in school. They had a range of medical problems - some of which can not be reported on - but which included dental issues, dietary problems, recurring head lice and scabies, marks and scarring to their bodies that were never explained. They had a wide range of behavioural issues including hyper-vigilance, over-compliance and anxiety.
The social worker was at times expansive about Tusla procedure with regards to working with parents. She described how there was six months between case conferences because you “make a plan and give the family time”. In order for the threshold of neglect to be met, one has to see “a pattern of acts and omissions that happen over time”, she said.
She said the children were placed on a national database of children living in neglect - a list known only to gardaí and social workers, but which was “very serious” as far as Tusla was concerned.
There were three case conferences held over a 19-month period. “You continue assessing and monitoring,” the social worker said. “The hope is you are seeing the changes that you’re putting in place.”
They weren’t. Instead of being removed from the list, the children continued to present with issues - low weight, sunburn, lack of supervision, bad diet, tooth decay, inappropriate behaviour.
The decision to remove the children from the family home was eventually made some three months after the father admitted to the social worker in January 2016 that he was giving them melatonin medication to help them “settle” at night. He said he gave his daughter the most as she was “the hardest to knock out”. The social worker told the trial she was shocked at this admission and “taken aback that this was happening”.
At this point, the decision was made to “intensify” things. But reports had to be prepared. A charity that was working with the family had to complete its assessment of the family. The social worker was actively looking for foster parents. At the third case conference in April 2016, the decision was made to go to the District Court and apply for the children to be removed from the family home.
This was done with a “heavy heart” the social worker said under cross-examination. It is tough on a family to place them in state care, she said. But it was clear that the children’s wellbeing was being detrimentally affected while they were in the care of their parents.
At this point, there was no apparent suggestion of any sexual misconduct against the children.
The foster parents
Almost all of the children’s foster parents who gave evidence at trial said they had never seen children in such a state as the five they took in back in April 2016. The siblings were split up, with the eldest boy going to one home, the eldest girl and second eldest boy going to another family and the two youngest boys going to a third (after a brief period in separate homes).
The older children, then aged six, seven and nine, didn’t know how to use cutlery, toothbrush, or toilet roll. They didn’t know how to shower or bathe. They had caked faeces on their bodies and boys had never been to a barber. They couldn’t get over having a choice of food in the kitchen and for a long time, one of them hid food around the house as if in fear it might be taken away again. One of the boys had scarring on his arm and flesh gouged out of his leg. The girl had very little hair due to rampant head lice and was covered in bruises.
The two younger boys were thin, dirty and quiet. They didn’t know how to hug or kiss. The second youngest would cry silently, tears streaming down his cheeks while no sound escaped him. He fell asleep in this state on his foster mother’s lap on the first night in his new house. The youngest boy, who had just turned three, would not call for help at night, even when he got sick or wet the bed. He didn’t understand that if he needed help, he could ask for it, his foster mother said.
At first, the parents had supervised access to the children, with visits in a local afterschool or a play centre. Extended members of the family - including some of the accused - also attended some of these visits at the request of the parents. The children agreed to this, saying they wanted to see their cousins.
Three professionals had to be present at each visit because - the social worker told the court - at every opportunity, the mother tried to whisper to her children and ask them questions in a low voice. She was overheard asking her oldest son questions about where he was living. Her daughter was upset when her mother started whispering to her and would hide under a table, the court heard.
The foster parents described a deterioration in the children’s progress after these visits, including bed-wetting, distress and acting out. Eventually, access was suspended by order of the court.
In the wake of their children being taken into care, the parents had a sixth child - a girl. It was a “concealed pregnancy”, the social worker said, with the mother not receiving any medical care until six weeks before the birth.
The father told gardaí that he did not know his wife was pregnant. “She arrived when I was in the toilet,” he said of the baby. “[She] never told me she was pregnant.” The 49-year-old uncle helped deliver the child.
The father said he couldn’t remember “the name she put on the child”. This baby was also taken into care.
Most of the foster parents reported seeing sexualised behaviour in the children, which they found unsettling. In the eldest boy’s first summer with his foster parents, he made disclosures to them about sexual abuse. In October 2016, a Tusla referral was made to gardaí who applied to interview the children.
These interviews with the three eldest children did not take place until July 2017, some nine months later. The reason given for this delay at trial was that during this period, the children were displaying emotional and behavioural problems. They were undergoing psychological and other medical assessments and could not be interviewed until Tusla gave the all-clear.
“The welfare of these children was far more paramount than getting the interview,” the specialist garda interviewer told the trial, adding that she liaised with Tusla for “months” on the issue. Ultimately, it was a delay that would be used by defence counsel against the prosecution.
When the three older children were interviewed by gardaí in July and August 2017, they listed a number of family members they said had abused them. The allegations centred around their parents and extended to members of their mother’s family, including their grandmother, their aunt and her husband and their uncle and his partner. There are strict restrictions in relation to what can be reported on these allegations. All seven of the accused were arrested on the same day in March 2018, detained and interviewed.
As a result of the children’s disclosures and these interviews, the children’s now 56-year-old father was charged with 34 counts including rape, anal rape, sexual assault, sexual exploitation and permitting other people to engage in sexual activity with a child, wilful neglect and mistreating his children by medicating them.
Their 34-year-old mother was charged with 25 counts, including sexual assault, sexual exploitation, permitting other people to engage in sexual activity with a child and wilful neglect.
Their 35-year-old aunt was charged with three counts of sexual assault. Her 49-year-old husband - who was the parent’s advocate at case conferences - was charged with 12 counts including rape, sexual assault and sexual exploitation.
The children’s 27-year-old uncle was charged with 10 counts including rape, sexual assault and sexual exploitation. His 32-year-old partner was charged with four counts including sexual assault and sexual exploitation.
Their 57-year-old grandmother was charged with three counts of sexually assaulting her grand-daughter.
They each denied all of the charges against them.
The sexual misconduct charges related to the three older children, who were described as “the fulcrum of the case” in the prosecution trial opening. The charges pertaining to the two younger boys were wilful neglect by both parents and that the father medicated one of them. They were not witnesses at trial.
On May 27th, an enlarged jury panel of 15 was sworn in at the Central Criminal Court before Mr Justice Paul McDermott. The trial was held in a large conference room at Croke Park to enable social distancing between jury members, the accused persons and the 30 or so barristers and solicitors involved in the case.
Each of the accused had a senior counsel assigned to them, supported by one or two junior barristers. Bernard Condon SC and Eilis Brennan SC were for the prosecution, supported by two junior counsel.
The surroundings were comfortable enough but the sound was terrible. Jurors, barristers and even the judge at times all complained that they could not hear what anyone was saying. The air-con had to be turned off to help everyone hear and the room was often hot and stuffy as a result. The barristers and judge stopped wearing their robes as it was too warm. Midway through the trial, the judge complained (again) to the Courts Service and a better sound system was installed.
Throughout the following months, more than 30 witnesses gave evidence, including the children themselves, the social worker, a neighbour, foster parents, teachers, the school principal, various medical professionals and gardaí. There were DVDs of each of the accused’s interviews with gardaí but these were not played at the trial as there were legal issues surrounding what parts should go before the jury. Instead, transcripts that had been agreed by both sides were painstakingly read out in court.
The children did not come to court, but rather gave evidence remotely via videolink. They had a court-appointed intermediary with them for support. DVDs of the girl and the second eldest boy’s interviews with specialist gardaí back in 2017 were played to the court before they were cross-examined by the defence via videolink. The eldest boy gave evidence and was cross-examined via videolink.
As a group, the accused family members remained almost entirely expressionless throughout the trial. Neither parent appeared to show any emotion upon seeing the children taken from them five years ago, or while listening to allegations of their sexual misconduct against the children in searing detail. They sat in court with their arms mostly folded. None of the accused made any notes.
Contrary to the social worker’s description of her first meeting with them seven years ago, the parents appeared clean and tidy. The mother wore tracksuit bottoms, a hoodie and runners most of the time, the father wore slacks and a jumper with the occasional colourful short-sleeved shirt on warmer days.
Much of the evidence before the jury came from people such as teachers, social workers and medical professionals who were in a position to witness signs of extreme neglect rather than abuse.
The woman who lived next door to the family described hearing “screaming, roaring and crying” from the children at all hours, day and night.
“Those kids cried more than they talked in that house,” she said. When asked what kind of language was used in the house, the neighbour hesitantly spelled out c-u-n-t.
“That went on every day. The kids would say it, the parents would say it. That was their love word: c**t.”
She recalled hearing the baby crying hysterically all night one night with no-one coming to his aid until she rang the 49-year-old uncle and asked him to intervene. There was “dead silence” after that. This man appeared to have more control over the children than the parents, the neighbour said.
She recalled one dismal Christmas morning when one of the children spent the day crying because Santa hadn’t brought them the present they had asked for. She described regularly seeing the father lining up the children in the garden to medicate them, noting that the children would then be quiet from between 6pm and 11pm, before the noise would start up again until 2am or 3am.
Noise monitoring equipment installed by the local council following the neighbour’s complaints confirmed there was excessive noise coming from the family home.
Both the social worker and a family support worker from a charity who also worked with the family described a lack of emotional connection between the children and their parents. The social worker said she was looking for “affection, soothing, warmth and emotional connection” between the parents and their children. “I was not seeing that.”
On one occasion when one of the younger boys was clinging to the mother’s leg, she shook him off forcefully, leaving him screaming hysterically. Another time, she was doing homework with her eldest son when he became upset. She got up and walked away while he climbed on top of the table and got into the foetal position. He stayed in that position crying for quite some time.
The crying of the children was particularly distressing to listen to, the charity worker said.
The social worker suspected there were non-diagnosed intellectual disabilities at play and she arranged for the parents to be assessed. A psychologist found that both the mother and father had intellectual deficits and neither of them had the capacity to pick up the slack of the other. The mother was more challenged, he found.
The social worker’s view was that parents with intellectual disabilities are still capable of caring for their children.
The children appeared to be wild around their parents, always climbing on top of presses and appliances and generally out of control, according to a number of witnesses. The neighbour regularly saw them urinating in her garden and, on one occasion, defecating there.
The social worker believed the second youngest boy was disconnected. He was always off climbing something, she said. “He never seemed to be part of the family. To me he seemed very lost.”
The three older children were polite, friendly and had “personalities” she said. They loved talking to the social workers and revelled in the novelty of activities like baking. But outside the home they were “a little bit withdrawn”, which she felt was a risk factor.
The family support worker regularly came across the parents alone with one of the older children in a room with the door locked. She would hear whispering going on but when she got into the room, the conversation and tone would change. She never heard what they were saying behind those closed doors.
At the local national school, the children’s teachers, school principal and deputy principal were all extremely concerned at the state of the three older children. The school liaised regularly with Tusla in an attempt to keep them abreast of what was going on in the family.
One teacher who taught the eldest boy described him as extremely well-behaved, quiet and very obedient. She said he took great notice of what she said and liked to be praised for his efforts. But from the start, it was clear everything was not as it should be at home.
“I felt sorry for him, I always felt he wasn’t allowed to be a child at home and he had a lot of responsibility for himself,” she told the trial. “He never spoke much about home. There didn’t seem to be any joy in his life. I never saw a happy little boy in front of me, but he was happy at school.”
On the day of his annual school tour one year - a big event in the life of a child - the eldest boy had to be sent back home with his father as he was so badly sunburnt. The father said the boy refused to let them put sun cream on. Teachers who applied sun cream to him before letting him go home said he made no complaint about it.
One morning, the eldest boy did not want to come into his classroom. He lay curled up on the ground - again in the foetal position - and wouldn’t talk to his father and uncle, who were both present. The teachers sent the men home but they could not coax the child out of this position or persuade him to talk to them.
The teacher said he eventually spoke to her when she started talking to him about a match she had been at the night before. “He came to then and he was fine for the rest of the day.”
The second boy was described as “extremely nervous” of speaking with adults. He struggled a lot with school work.
The girl was described by her teacher as a “lovely little girl” who was quite confident and got on well with her peers. She often arrived in school in a dirty state, with stains on her clothes.
One day a teacher noticed the girl had vomit on her jacket. She pointed this out to the mother and spoke to her about hygiene, but the vomit stain remained on the jacket for the next couple of weeks.
On another occasion, the father brought his daughter to school in a distressed state with a cut lip. She wouldn’t tell the teacher what happened, and her father said she had fallen on the way to school. He told the girl: “That will teach you not to do it again.”
“I was alarmed by that,” the teacher said.
‘The most basic plan’
Both of the parents came from a low socio-economic background, the trial heard. He left school at a very young age and didn’t work due to a medical condition. She had a mild to moderate intellectual disability and a low IQ. There was no evidence of alcohol abuse or illicit drug-taking in the household. The father told gardaí he never drank, due to his condition.
After the first case conference, the parents were provided with a plan of what they needed to do to try and care for their children. “It was the most basic plan, “ the social worker told the trial, her frustration now palpable. “It was so clear.”
The parents were told to help their children wash their faces and hands, ensure they had clean underwear daily, had a bath twice a week and enough food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Extended family members, which included their co-accused, were enlisted to provide support and assist them in these tasks.
The mother regularly asked professionals when they were going to close the case on the family. She wanted them out of there, the prosecution would later tell the jury. She claimed she was bathing them not just twice a week, but every night. She said she was giving the children roast chicken, roast beef, roast vegetables, “roast everything”, when it was patently clear to the social worker that this was not the case.
Coca-Cola was seen frequently around the the house, the trial heard. The children drank it regularly instead of water. On one occasion, the mother insisted to the social worker that she was giving the youngest child water to drink. She turned on the tap to demonstrate this point, before absentmindedly filling the baby bottle with coke and handing it to the toddler.
“At this point, they were portraying a house to me that was not the house I could see,” the social worker said. “They were portraying a family life to me that was not the family life I could see and was not the family life that was being reported to me.”
The children’s evidence
The children were the first to give evidence and their testimony formed the chief of the prosecution case in relation to the sexual abuse allegations.
DVDs of the little girl’s garda interviews from July and August 2017 were played first. She was nine at the time. She chattered readily enough about school - “I get like two full pages of sums right in maths” - but when the interviewer moved to abuse matters she clammed up somewhat.
She outlined some allegations relating to five of the accused, including her parents, before becoming distressed, leading to the interview being terminated.
In the second interview the following month, she had handwritten notes in a folder with her and moved through the disclosures with more ease. She first named her 27-year-old uncle and his 32-year-old partner as abusers in this interview. She said her father had told her not to say anything about the abuse or she would be in trouble.
For the girl’s cross-examination by the defence, it was agreed that she would only give evidence in the morning. However, when asked by the trial judge at lunch break if she wanted to carry on into the afternoon, she agreed. The court-appointed intermediary told the court that the girl wanted the evidence to be done within the day, but it meant she ended up sitting for a full day instead of just the morning, as initially agreed.
The girl was cross-examined by five defence counsel throughout the day. There were strict rules in place in terms of how the children could be questioned and it was gentle and non-specific when it came to the abuse allegations. She agreed it made her sad to have to talk about “this stuff” and that it was difficult at times to remember.
Towards the end of the day, under cross-examination by the fourth defence counsel, Seamus Clarke SC, for the uncle's 32-year-old partner, she said she "may have made a mistake" and that she didn't think this woman was involved. Following this, under cross-examination from the fifth and final defence counsel, Maria Brosnan BL, she agreed that she couldn't remember her grandmother doing anything either.
The jury was next played the DVDs of the second eldest boy’s garda interviews in 2017, when he was eight years old. This DVD had to be stopped and started as the sound in the court room was too bad. During this interview, the boy made a number of disclosures in relation to sexual abuse before he got fidgety and distracted and the interview was terminated. Like his sister, he had notes in the second interview and made more detailed disclosures, also mentioning the 27-year-old uncle and his 32-year-old partner for the first time.
The boy was cross-examined by four defence counsel. Like his sister, he agreed his memory was fuzzy at times, but for the most part, he did not resile from the allegations he had made in 2017. At the end of the fourth cross-examination, by Mr Clarke, he agreed he might have been mistaken in relation to his uncle’s 32-year-old partner doing anything.
Now aged 14, he gave evidence via videolink and the intermediary again asked that the questions be asked in a slow, calm pace.
For the most part, the children did not appear emotionally distressed when giving evidence at trial, despite the subject matter at hand. To some extent they were almost matter-of-fact about what they alleged had happened to them. They were compelling witnesses.
The prosecution would later say there was a “banality” to the way the younger two children in particular described the abuse to gardaí, indicating their abusers had corrupted the children and broken down their moral boundaries from a very young age.
Towards the end of the trial, the case against the 32-year-old woman - the children’s uncle’s partner - was also dropped on the basis the children had said they may have made a mistake about her being involved.
A number of other counts were withdrawn due to a lack of evidence at trial, leaving the jury with 78 counts against five family members.
The mother’s admissions
As with most trials, there was extensive legal argument in the absence of the jury.
Dean Kelly SC, defending the mother, made lengthy submissions on the admissibility of the mother's garda interviews. In the course of her detention, the mother made a series of damning admissions in relation to the sexual abuse of her three children.
The mother described a number of separate incidents, including one which she said happened when her husband and the 49-year-old uncle were present. She said the abuse happened “maybe once a week or two times a week” and that she felt “disgusting”.
At the end of her final interview, she told gardaí: “I’m sorry for what happened and I have been truthful with you.”
In the absence of the jury, Mr Kelly argued that the mother’s arrest was unlawful and that the admissions she made to gardaí were involuntary. He argued there was a fundamental failure in the fairness of her treatment by gardaí.
The court heard that on the day of her arrest, gardaí knocked on the parent’s door, which was answered by the father. They asked where the mother was, to which he replied: “Upstairs.” The gardaí then entered the home, went upstairs to where the mother was in her bedroom and arrested her.
Mr Kelly argued that this amounted to trespass on the part of the arresting gardaí, who he said failed to get consent to enter the home.
In relation to the mother’s detention, he made a number of arguments including that the gardaí failed to make sufficient accommodation for the mother’s intellectual disability, which he said was known to gardaí.
Mr Kelly argued that the admissions were made after a “long, heavy, emotionally pressurised, hectoring interview process” and they were not consistent with her children’s allegations.
In rebuttal, Mr Condon, for the prosecution, pointed out: “If this whole sordid saga is true, a lot more things were done to [the girl] than she can remember.”
Ultimately, in a blow to the mother’s defence, Mr Justice McDermott ruled that the arrest was lawful and that the garda interviews were admissible and should be heard by the jury. It formed a key part of the prosecution case against the mother.
The garda interviews
In his interviews with gardaí, the father repeatedly denied any sexual wrongdoing against his children.
He told gardaí their financial situation on social welfare was “hard enough” but that his children had “everything they wanted - food, clean clothes”.
“I’d nearly go without fags to get the kids what they wanted,” he said.
He claimed he didn’t know where the abuse allegations were coming from, unless it was from someone who was babysitting the kids. He said some of his co-accused used to mind the children. He suggested some of his children were lying.
When asked by gardaí what the first job of a parent is, the man said it was to “protect the child.” When asked by the interviewer if that was done, he replied: “I don’t know. Probably not and I didn’t investigate about it.”
In her interviews with gardaí, the mother repeatedly denied the allegations at first, saying: “They are hurting us with these allegations”. Halfway through her fifth interview, she started to make admissions. She said she witnessed her mother sexually assaulting her daughter and that she “called her out on it”.
She then told gardaí that she herself abused the three older children. With almost every admission the mother said “it only happened the once” before elaborating on further incidents.
In his closing speech to the jury, Dean Kelly SC, defending the mother, was highly critical of the garda process in these interviews.
He suggested the officers turned away from the questions those admissions should have raised, some of which were not consistent with the children’s allegations. He submitted that instead of asking further questions about her admissions, they simply “dropped it into the evidence bag” and drove on.
The mother’s sister, when interviewed, also initially denied the allegations against her before telling gardaí that what the children were saying was truthful.
However, following a consultation with her solicitor, she returned to the interview room and told gardai that she had not done anything to the children and did not see anything going on in her home.
“I know I told you it was the truth but it actually isn’t,” she told gardai.
Her 49-year-old husband consistently denied all of the allegations against him, saying all he ever did was try to help the children.
The 27-year-old uncle was the only one of the accused to take the stand at trial. He also repeatedly denied the allegations against him. He distanced himself from the family, saying he did not get on with his sister and was only ever in her house once or twice.
He said he had contact with the children “briefly” if they called to his house but said there were no regular visits. “I witnessed nothing and I did nothing,” he said. “Nothing ever happened like
In their interviews with gardaí, the boy and girl alleged that their parents and other family members took photos of them and posted them on Facebook. The girl said she knew her mother did this because she "peeked" at her phone one time and saw the photographs. She said she did not know her mother's account name.
The girl said she was in touch with her father on Facebook after she was taken into care and that she sent him a photo of herself at his request.
The second oldest brother said he witnessed his father setting up a Facebook account but he didn’t know the account details.
In August 2017, the oldest boy ran away from his foster home early one morning. He was discovered later that day and taken home. No one ever found out where he went.
After this incident, the three children’s tablets were seized and examined. Nothing of evidential value was found in relation to these devices, the lead investigator told the court, although a number of pornographic images were found on the oldest boy’s device. The second eldest boy’s foster mother also discovered that he was looking up pornographic websites. The photograph the girl said she had sent to her father was not found on her tablet.
In September 2017, a total of 66 devices were seized from the homes of the accused and analysed.
These devices included mobile phones, old mobile phones, tablets, USB sticks, digital cameras and video cameras. The devices were analysed by a specialist unit and were re-examined some time later after a software update. Once again, nothing of evidential value was found, the court heard.
The inspector told the court that phone numbers and email addresses associated with the devices were identified and a request was made to access data held in the US in relation to Facebook, Microsoft and Google. The US Department of Justice did not accede to this request.
An email address linked to the boy was identified and a request was made to the US to access the data, but this was also refused, citing “improbable cause”.
The court heard that most of the devices had been acquired by the accused after the children were taken into care. The prosecution case was that there was ample time for the accused to get rid of any incriminating evidence.
The defence case
The credibility of the children’s evidence was at the core of much of the defence case pertaining to the sexual abuse charges.
In his closing speech to the jury, Mark Nicolas SC, defending the father, pointed out that there was no supporting evidence to the children's allegations. In other words: it was their word against his.
Anthony Sammon SC, for the 35-year-old aunt, referred to diary entries made by two of the children’s foster mother which read: “The children can have the same convincing way of telling or making up stories. My concern is that they could make up things about us as a family or about family members.”
The diary also referred to the girl’s behaviour: “She has many different personalities, different personalities for each of us. She is an actress.”
Mr Sammon also referred the jury to evidence of an incident during which the girl asked if she could jump on her foster father’s lap and - when he refused - threatened to tell his wife that he had hit her.
This demonstrated “a capacity to be malicious and to lie”, Mr Sammon said.
Andrew Sexton SC, defending the 49-year-old uncle, said the children’s evidence in relation to the sexual assault allegations had “all the hallmarks of a childish muddled-up imagination”.
The garda specialist interviews came under scrutiny from defence counsel in the trial. Along with the delay in interviewing the children about the allegations, a 63-page book of guidelines was also frequently referred to.
Conor Devally SC, for the 27-year-old uncle, zoned in on the fact that his client was only brought into the case during the children’s second specialist garda interview, when they arrived armed with notes.
He queried the practice in which the children were told by the gardaí that they could make some notes if they thought of anything else. This was not in the guidelines on interviewing child complainants, the court heard.
The garda interviewer defended the practice and said she did this regularly with child interviewees in her 12 years of working in this field. She said that after talking to gardaí, children often continued to make disclosures and she advised them to write it down if it would help them remember.
In his closing speech to the jury, Mr Devally submitted that little was known about how these notes were made or how the children came to include their 27-year-old uncle in the case.
It was a case where “brutalised” children had been mismanaged, he suggested.
A number of the defence also relied on the fact that at no stage did any social or family support workers express any suspicion that sexual abuse might be going on in the family home. The charity family support worker gave evidence of witnessing some sexualised behaviour by the children, but ultimately the children were removed from their parents on the grounds of neglect alone.
The defence submitted that a “mini army” of professionals had access to the house, that the family home was under a “microscope”, and that it was almost like a “police helicopter was hanging over the house, where everything was illuminated”.
They questioned how this kind of sexual abuse could have been going on unnoticed right under the noses of so many people.
In relation to the wilful neglect charges against the parents, no one attempted to deny that the children were living in abjectly terrible conditions. But the prosecution had to prove that this neglect was deliberate.
The mother was “an inadequate mother, a hopeless mother,” Mr Kelly said of his client. Mr Nicholas for the father said it was undoubtedly the right decision to place the children in care.
But far from being “bad folk”, the defence painted a picture of two parent with intellectual disabilities who were struggling to cope. They pointed to the fact that the parents failed to keep themselves clean as well as their children. When the children were removed from care, the parents were better able to manage, the jury was told.
Truth of the children
For his part, Mr Condon, for the prosecution, urged the jury to believe in the victims. The prosecution case was “an edifice built on the strength and the truth of the children”, he said.
The children had given “compelling, clear, harrowing account” of their lives, he said. Nor was it likely they could have colluded or kept their story straight over the years if they were making it all up.
“Atrocious things” were done to them, he said. While the jury could “nit-pick away at discrepancies here and there”, he urged them to remember “the difficulties of recounting the sheer number of [things] done to these children, by the sheer number of people who did these things to these children over a period of time - of years - in many different locations”.
“These children telling what was done to them in their experience of their childhood - that is what I ask you to recall,” he said. “If you recall anything else, it is the extraordinary nature of this case and the extraordinary consequences of communicating that to you.”
“It is very strong evidence,” he said in his final words to the jury. “There’s a great strength in these three children. I ask you to resolve this case in favour of convicting all of the people on all of the counts based on the evidence.”
Jury deliberations and verdicts
Such was the length and complexity of the case, that the judge’s charge - where the judge outlines all of the evidence in the case and the legalities that must be considered by the jury - took four full days.
At the end of the charge, there was due to be a random lottery to decide who among the enlarged jury panel would get to stay and deliberate. The panel was by now down to 13 as two jurors had been discharged for personal reasons. Prior to the lottery taking place, one juror said they had a prior commitment and couldn’t deliberate. Accordingly, a jury of six men and six women retired to the jury room.
During deliberations, juries tend to have a number of questions about legal matters or requests to listen back to the evidence that was given at trial. Not this jury. Despite the fact they were trawling through nine weeks of evidence, they didn’t have a single question until the end.
They went out on Thursday, July 29th. On Friday August 6th, after a total of 18 hours and 40 minutes of deliberations, they indicated to the judge that they had reached a number of verdicts, 41 in total.
They found the parents, the 35-year-old aunt and the 49-year-old uncle guilty of a number of the sexual abuse allegations against them. They found the 27-year-old uncle not guilty of one count of sexually assaulting his niece.
The jury then asked for further guidance from the judge on the definition of wilful neglect and the element of recklessness. It would appear the defence’s assertion that the parents had not deliberately neglected the children was a sticking point for the jury. The guidance was duly given and the jury was informed they could return with a majority verdict if they wished.
One hour and 14 minutes of deliberations later, the remaining 37 verdicts were in. All guilty, all majority verdicts, mostly 11 jurors against one (save for one unanimous count and one 10 to two). The trial was over.
In keeping with the preceding 10 weeks, the defendants made almost no reaction as the verdicts were handed in. The 27-year-old uncle, who may have been given some hope by the initial acquittal, bowed his head and shook it. His partner - the 32-year-old woman whose case was withdrawn by direction of the judge - could be seen crying as the guilty verdicts came in.
The five will be sentenced at a later date, subject to victim impact and psychological reports. Ahead of sentencing, they were all placed in custody immediately. Some of them already had their bags packed.
For the three older children, the verdicts are vindication. They are believed. The ramifications for the younger ones, who may or may not have been aware of the trial that took place this summer, are less clear.
What is known is that all of the children now appear to be thriving. Their foster parents spoke of them with love and affection. There are ongoing issues arising from their traumatic early childhood, but they now have stable lives and routines, close friends, playdates, party invitations, trips to the cinema and family holidays. Santa brings them what they ask for.
Until they were placed in custody, the parents were still living in the same family home that so dismayed the social worker seven years ago. When gardaí raided the house for devices back in September 2017, they took photos. The dark brown walls were still there, but now it was cleaner, with photographs of the children on the previously bare walls, toys laid out in their bedrooms.
It was “a shrine” to the kids and “a window into the [parents’] soul and their heart of their lost children”, the defence claimed.
When interviewed by gardaí, the father at least seemed to have accepted that the children were not being returned to them. But he did appear to have future relationship with them in mind.
“We won’t get the children back until they are 18,” he said.