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The Four Courts. Sam Boal
Patrick Harte

Former principal fails to appeal convictions for sexually abusing boys over 50 years ago

The Court of Appeal rejected what was described as an “extraordinary” submission by Patrick Harte.

FORMER SCHOOL PRINCIPAL Patrick Harte has failed in a bid to have his convictions for sexually abusing schoolboys in classrooms over 50 years ago overturned on appeal.

In dismissing the appeal, the Court of Appeal rejected what was described as an “extraordinary” submission by Harte that he was prejudiced after it emerged during the trial that he had not sought the blessing of a priest before entering a teacher training course.

Court President Mr Justice George Birmingham had described any such risk as “fanciful” during submissions.

Harte (79) appealed his Circuit Criminal Court conviction of March 2020, when he was found guilty of 11 counts of indecently assaulting seven pupils at the Sancta Maria Christian Brothers primary school on Synge Street, Dublin, between September 1968 and September 1970.

A trial jury found Harte, who was in his 20s and was a teacher at the school at the time, guilty by a 10-2 majority. Harte, of Glendown Park, Templeogue, Dublin, was later jailed for three years by Judge Martin Nolan.

Judge Nolan said that Harte’s victims found him cruel and “too fond of punishment”, while the court heard that the children were molested amidst a classroom atmosphere of severe corporal punishment and verbal abuse.

The court heard previously that when gardaí put the victims’ allegations to Harte in 2015, he claimed they had “a vendetta against him”.

During the appeal, John Fitzgerald SC, for Harte, had told the three-judge court that his client should have had a “severed” indictment, with separate trials for the separate victims who had all “roughly the same allegation”.

Mr Fitzgerald said the trial judge only paid a “cursory” test to the issue of severance, which had been canvassed by the defence at the trial.

Mr Justice Birmingham said that the trial judge, Judge Martin Nolan, was a “veteran” in these types of cases and that the allegations of all the boys related to two classes in the school and all of them involved the teacher’s desk. Mr Justice Birmingham said “it is the strongest case possible for a joint trial”.

The judge said that to argue that collusion of the complainants was a factor in the case was “untenable”, as gardaí looking for witnesses regarding one complainant discovered the other six males who had also complaints to make.

Mr Fitzgerald said “my complaint is not a matter of collusion but whether or not the correct test was applied as a matter of law”.

“I cannot imagine a stronger case for a joint trial,” repeated Mr Justice Birmingham.

A second factor in the appeal, said Mr Fitzgerald, was the exceptional delay in the bringing of the case.

Mr Justice Birmingham said that there were upwards of 50 witnesses available to the defence to call, but they did not, and that the appellant himself “had precise memories” at trial when recalling the period between 1968 and 1970.

The judge said if the court were to accede to the point of delay in this case then “is there any case of historic sexual abuse that can proceed?” He added that the complainants “had significant detail in what they described” at trial.

On a third point of appeal, Mr Fitzgerald said that when the appellant was examined at trial by Anne Rowland SC for the DPP, she asked how he became a teacher. Mr Fitzgerald said this had become prejudicial in front of a jury because the accused said he had not sought the blessing of the local parish priest to enter into a teaching course, which was custom at the time.

Mr Justice Birmingham said that while it might have been custom at the time to seek a reference from the parish priest, to a jury in 2020 it would seem “quite natural” not to do so.

“The risk you’re alluding to is fanciful, there is nothing to say he [the appellant] was not entitled to a reference and in his own evidence at trial he said: ‘I would have got it,” said Mr Justice Birmingham. “The submission is quite extraordinary,” he added.

Ms Justice Isobel Kennedy said she could not see anything “negative” arising for the appellant in the mind of a jury because the appellant did not seek the reference.

Ms Anne Rowland, for the State, said the trial judge had “rightly” shut down the line of questioning about the reference. She submitted that the accused had put himself forward as a “dedicated teacher” yet not seek the reference.

Regarding the issue of a joint trial, counsel said the complainants gave evidence that they were all called up to the teacher’s desk at the top of the class where they would be indecently assaulted while the remainder of the class were told to “keep their heads down”.

On the point of delay, Ms Rowland said there were a large amount of witnesses in the trial and that the appellant had memories of the pupils and interactions with them in detail. She added that the trial was not one “shorn of detail”.

Yesterday at the Court of Appeal, Mr Justice Birmingham rejected all grounds of appeal in the case and said there were “no reasons” to rule that the trial was either “unsafe or unfair”.

Mr Justice Birmingham said that there was no reason to believe that the complainants were “colluding” and that their “strikingly” similar complaints occurred in the same school in either one of two classrooms.

Regarding the question of delay, Mr Justice Birmingham said that “unusually” there were a large number of witnesses available to the defence to call evidence from at trial and that a number of them did not witness the abuse.

Mr Justice Birmingham said that there was no prejudicial element in the trial when the prosecution elicited the fact that Harte did not seek the reference of a parish priest when applying for a teacher training college place.

The judge said that a jury in 2020 would not have been influenced by the fact that a religious reference was not sought but that this might have been possibly prejudicial in the 1970s or 1980s.

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Paul Neilan and Isabel Hayes.