Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Natasha O’Brien didn’t go to court to hear Cathal Crotty’s guilty plea

His guilt was clear to her and anyone who witnessed the attack. She went to court seeking justice

While in court, Cmdt Togher was cross-examined about Crotty’s character. He said Crotty was 'courteous' adding that he was 'exceptionally disappointed and surprised' about the attack

Last week’s decision in a Limerick court to fully suspend the sentence of Cathal Crotty, who pleaded guilty to assault causing harm to Natasha O’Brien, has been met with understandable dismay. Our judicial system – and by extension the State – is now complicit in the abuse of victims of violent crimes in the sense that the system can appear hostile to victims, while judicial decisions sometimes inadvertently support criminality by failing to offer sufficient deterrent.

Judge Tom O’Donnell’s statement on sentencing Crotty last week explicitly gave credit to the serving soldier for his guilty plea. This idea that a guilty plea is a good thing for victims has taken hold in recent years. But Crotty’s guilt was not news for Natasha O’Brien or for any of those who witnessed the violent assault she endured. She didn’t go to court to hear his guilty plea. She went seeking justice.

Guilty pleas began to be seen as helpful for victims around the same time that we accepted that criminal prosecutions can be re-traumatising for victims, particularly because of the adversarial nature of the system. But it is not true to say that victims of crime do not want justice and their day in court.

Prof Orla Muldoon, Dept of Psychology, Centre for Social Issues Research, University of Limerick. Photograph: Alan Place

And herein lies the first issue with a guilty plea being seen as “credit” for a perpetrator as the judge in this case suggested. A guilty plea may be entered for many reasons. It may reflect genuine remorse. However, we cannot assume that this is the case. Perpetrator remorse and guilt are two very different things and need to be assessed separately.


To my mind, this is a clear flaw in our judicial system. Where the evidence against someone is convincing or even damning, as it was in this case, those accused of a crime are often advised to enter a guilty plea because it is looked on positively by the courts come sentencing.

And so we reward violent people who show no regard for the rule of law for no other reason than it helps to serve the purpose of unblocking the logjam in the courts. In this way, we allow violent men to game the system.

O’Brien was abused by the system in another way too. The version of justice she encountered included listening to an army Commandant, from another key institution of the state, attest to Crotty’s character.

Cmdt Paul Togher was not in court to give a reference for Crotty. As Tánaiste Micheál Martin has made clear, he was there under Defence Force regulations, with two purposes: to co-operate with the court if the court required it, and also to report back to the Defence Forces.

If we really cared about the distress of victims in our court system, we would dispense with character references altogether

While in court, Cmdt Togher was cross-examined about Crotty’s character. He said the soldier was an “exemplary”, “courteous”, “professional” and “disciplined” officer, adding that he was “exceptionally disappointed and surprised” about the attack because it was, in his opinion, “very out of character” for the defendant.

While Cmdt Togher was clearly there in his capacity as the Defence Forces’ court liaison officer, rather than to give a character reference, there was still, to many observers, a resonance with the Kyle Hayes case.

Hayes was convicted of violent disorder last March in a case also heard in Limerick. On that occasion, our judicial system offered a platform to senior members of the GAA and the University of Limerick to attest to the character of man guilty of an attack so vicious he left his victim with a fractured eye socket.

I know all I need to know about Crotty’s and Hayes’s character because of their convictions. Crotty may well be a good soldier, but there was little of the defining “courteous” behaviour in the attack that rendered O’Brien unconscious. This was a violent performance of hypermasculinity that he considered impressive enough to boast about online.

As a psychologist, I know that all behaviour is context dependent. None of us behave at home as we do at work, or with our friends as we do with our boss. We are highly unlikely to behave in the same way with our peers as we would with those who have direct influence on our careers. And so these men occupying very serious and senior roles in sporting, military and educational organisation are unlikely to be able to comment reliably on the behaviour of accused men – whether they’re there in an official capacity in line with Defence Forces regulations, or of their own volition to offer a character reference, a practice that is a relic of a sexist, classist, bygone era.

If we really cared about the distress of victims in our court system, we would dispense with character references altogether. After conviction is not a time for a show of solidarity with perpetrators. It sends entirely the wrong message to victims and the wider public.

Judge O’Donnell seemed to believe that a guilty plea protected Natasha O’Brien from the trauma of the judicial process. But lots of people look forward to their day in court. Victims of violence are often stereotyped as weak, distressed by their experiences and needing others to help them navigate the system. This could not be further from the truth. People affected by violence, however heinous, evidence all sorts of post traumatic responses well beyond the cowering victim. Many become activists and are central to social change. Think of Lavinia Kerwick, Alexei Navalny, Luke and Ryan Hart. And in recent days Natasha O’Brien joined their number.

Orla Muldoon is a professor of psychology at University of Limerick. She is the author of The Social Psychology of Trauma: connecting the Personal and the Political and is European Research Council advanced awardee