Victim impact statement breaks Cawley family reserve


Celine Cawley’s sister described how terrible images and unanswered questions haunt her

EVEN THE best-trained shorthand writer among us failed to keep up, such was the speed of Mary Ellen Ring’s gallop through Susanna Cawley’s victim impact statement.

Towards the end, we thought we knew why, as the prosecutor’s voice seemed to thicken and tremble a little over the wrenching chronicle of loss: “Our lives are enriched for having known you. We still miss you and will miss you desperately. We shall open our eyes, smile, love and go on . . . All the stars are coming out tonight/They’re lighting up the sky tonight for you”.

The lines in italics were taken from a Take That song, Rule the World, sung at Celine Cawley’s  funeral by her daughter’s school-mates. As Eamonn Lillis’s hand kneaded his lips and his gaze remained firmly on the floor, the pop reference underscores the layers of grief in the room. It resonated through the dry, over-heated surroundings, shaking the most stoical spirit and hard-chawed journalist.

This was partly because it was revelatory, coming from a family who have managed for the most part to remain reserved, distant and composed throughout the trial. But it was also because of the words that had preceded them, words charged with bafflement, anger, frustration. A hint of the desperate conflict and balancing act maintained by the Cawley family in the 13 months since Celine’s death, was glimpsed in Susanna’s painful perception of her own inadequacy in her efforts to secure the future of her sister’s 17-year-old daughter; the sense of “absolute” powerlessness and lack of legal entitlement to have a role in the girl’s future, and the fact that there was “no opening given to even assist” from Eamonn Lillis’s side.

Later, in discussing sentencing, Brendan Grehan said that “hopefully” matters would resolve themselves in a way “that will enable her interests to be looked after” and intimated that Lillis had put arrangements in place. But when asked by Mr Justice Barry White what position he should give to the daughter in decision, Mary Ellen Ring said she was “unaware” that arrangements had been put in place – but “the Cawley family will provide for her, with or without the assistance of Eamonn Lillis”.

A second painful thread was Lillis’s betrayal of 80-year-old James Cawley, who had shown such loyalty to his son-in-law.

Mr Cawley sat with his hand to his mouth and Joanna, the student daughter of Chris and Sorca Cawley, dabbed her eyes as Mary Ellen Ring read Susanna’s words about “my wonderful, honourable, 80-year-old Dad”, who of all of them, “deserves to know the truth. . .”.

With his elbow on the writing top in front of him and his hand to his face, Lillis listened as the statement detailed the agonising unknowns of such a death, when night after night, terrible images and unanswered questions come to haunt Susanna, about her “terrified” sister, “slipping in the blood and the frost, fighting for her life on the patio of the house of her dreams . . . Did she think of [her daughter]? Did she know she was dying?”

Earlier, the court heard Lillis had never expressed remorse to gardaí or to the Cawley family. But when his defence counsel Brendan Grehan rose to speak, it was to say that Lillis still speaks of his wife in the present tense and that he was “extremely sorry and regretful” for what happened.

“He loves her very much and will love her for the rest of his life . . . ”.

He is also “extremely sorry and regretful for what happened . . . and for the lies told and in particular the lies told to Celine’s family who took him in afterwards”.

Character references were given by Gerry Kennedy, an advertising copy-writer who is godfather to the daughter of Celine Cawley and Eamonn Lillis, and by Siobhan Cassidy, a teacher, whom Lillis met more than 30 years ago while they studied English literature in UCD. They each chose him to be godfather of their first-born children and said he continued to be an excellent godfather.

“I do know he misses Celine a lot”, said Mr Kennedy.

In a mitigation plea, Brendan Grehan introduced media coverage as a factor. The home of Eamon Lillis and his daughter had been “staked out”, photographers were on step-ladders and up trees, following Lillis’s daughter to a riding school, following them into town and following him to the Garda station where he went as part of his bail requirement. The prosecution argued he brought it upon himself but defence counsel suggested he was being made to “suffer additional punishment” .

MR Grehan also drew attention to criticism directed at Mr Justice Barry White for permitting Lillis to “stand out for six days” following the verdict. Mr Justice White seemed rather unperturbed. “I have broad shoulders and thick skin. I can take criticism”, he said.