THE SUPREME Court has dismissed, by a four to one majority, an appeal by a west of Ireland farmer and church sacristan against his conviction for sexual assault of a young girl.
The case of Gerald McNeill raised issues concerning the admissibility of background evidence and about how indictments should be framed in cases involving repeated sexual abuse of a young person over years where complainants are rarely able to distinguish separate incidents of abuse.
Mr Justice Donal O’Donnell said the issues identified had troubled the court and would “benefit from a comprehensive review, perhaps by the Law Reform Commission” which could take account of Irish and international jurisprudence and “the best contemporary learning in the field of psychology and sociology in relation to this troubled area”.
Mr Justice Nial Fennelly, the dissenting judge, said he believed the background evidence was inadmissible and a greater level of fairness would have been achieved in this case if the Oireachtas had responded to a 1994 Supreme Court judgment (DPP v EF) suggesting a “pragmatic” approach to the “intractable” problem of framing indictments in such cases.
As the law stands, repeated abuse of a person cannot be charged as a single offence. Each charge on an indictment must contain a single offence.
McNeill (64), Castlerea, Co Roscommon, had asked the Supreme Court to determine if background evidence of an ongoing sexual relationship between him and the girl – in relation to which he was not charged – was correctly admitted into evidence during his 2004 trial. He claimed the admission of that background evidence was prejudicial.
The woman, now in her thirties, alleged McNeill began abusing her at the age of nine and it continued until the age of 17. He was arraigned on eight counts related to abuse between 1989 and 1997 and convicted on seven counts.
The jury found McNeill orally raped the girl, now in her early 30s, in a turf shed on a date in 1991 and also convicted him on two charges of sexually assaulting her in 1992 and 1993. He was jailed for 11 years and the court was told the victim wanted McNeill named in reports of the case.
While rejecting his appeal against conviction, the Court of Criminal Appeal certified the case involved points of law of exceptional public importance which should, in the public interest, be determined by the Supreme Court.
Yesterday, the majority court ruled the exception to the normal rule preventing admission of background evidence was correctly applied in this case.
Justice Susan Denham said the background evidence was “necessary to render comprehensible facts in this case” and Ms Justice Fidelma Macken, Mr Justice Joseph Finnegan and Mr Justice O’Donnell concurred.