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John McClean leaving the Criminal Courts of Justice in February 2021
Court of Appeal

Ex-rugby coach John McClean claims consecutive jail terms for child sex abuse were too severe

Seán Guerin SC contended that the decision by Judge Martin Nolan in February 2023 to impose a consecutive four-year sentence was an error in principle.

THE STATE HAS urged the Court of Appeal to consider whether allowing former Terenure College rugby coach John McClean to serve no additional jail time for abusing 22 additional victims who came forward after the serial offender was first jailed in 2021 would have been “fair and just”.

McClean (79), who was convicted of sexually abusing a total of 45 pupils – the highest number of complainants in a case before the Irish courts – over a period of more than 20 years has complained that the decision to impose consecutive sentences on him totalling 12 years was too severe.

However, counsel for the State today told the Court of Appeal that any decision to make a second sentence imposed on him last year concurrent to a previous term “would not have been a reflection of (the victims’) suffering”.

McClean, of Casimir Avenue, Harolds Cross, Dublin, was sentenced by Judge Pauline Codd at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court in February 2021 for the abuse of 23 victims, before being further sentenced by Judge Martin Nolan in February 2023 for the abuse of 22 other victims.

When passing sentence, Judge Nolan said McClean’s four-year sentence will begin when his first sentence is served in February 2027. McClean will be approximately 84 years of age upon his release from prison.

The charges related to indecent assault and sexual assault committed between 1971 and 1993 when the appellant was a teacher at Terenure College, and all the complainants were pupils at the school. The vast majority of offences involved the groping or rubbing of the pupil’s penis, testicles and buttocks, often during treatment for injuries received while playing rugby.


Launching an appeal against the severity of the sentence imposed at the Criminal Courts of Justice last year, Seán Guerin SC contended that the decision by Judge Martin Nolan in February 2023 to impose a consecutive four-year sentence was an error in principle.

Guerin said that where there are a great many victims, depending on where on the scale the gravity of the offending falls, it may be necessary to construct a sentence “with some care that reflects all of these variables”.

He said that when the appellant was sentenced in relation to the first tranche of victims, the sentencing judge imposed sentences of four, three and four years, adding up to a total of 11, before suspending the final three years, arriving at a final sentence of eight years.

“That reflected the appropriate sentence for an elderly person for offending of this nature and gravity,” said Guerin.

Mr Justice John Edwards interjected to say that the second tranche of offences that then came before the court almost doubled the number of victims, with 23 victims initially and then another 22.

“What would it say to those 22 who came forward and showed immense courage in coming forward if there were to be nothing additional? One has to be proportionate, but proportionality is a double-edged concept,” said Mr Justice Edwards, adding that it could not be contended that there should be no uplift to the sentence.

“But for a man of his age, an eight-year sentence is a considerable one, and the court could have marked that without going as far as it did,” said Guerin.

Paul Murray SC, for the State, said that this was a unique case in Irish courts as he was not aware of any other case involving 45 victims in a period of over two decades, and he suggested that this had to be reflected in the sentencing approach by the courts. He said that 22 new people came forward after the first sentencing in 2021 and asked if it would have been fair and just to them if the new sentence had been run concurrently.

“It would not have been a reflection of their suffering, of their lifelong memories,” said Murray.

Murray said that when Judge Codd imposed the sentence for the abuse of the first 23 victims, she was not dealing with 22 more, so it was 45 in total and Judge Nolan had to deal with that.

He said that there had to be a consecutive element to the sentencing, adding that the sentencing had to reflect the suffering of the 22 victims, some of whom only made their complaint when they read what had happened to the other victims.

Judge Nolan, in passing sentence, was fully aware of the sentences imposed by Judge Codd and fully aware of the appellant’s release date, said Murray.

“If one were to stand back and say what is the appropriate sentence for someone in their 70s who stands accused and pleaded guilty to offending 45 children over 20 years, an actual custodial sentence of 12 years would not be too harsh or too severe,” said Murray.

Victim impact

Mr Justice George Birmingham said that while this case may involve the greatest number of complainants, there have been other cases that gave rise to several prosecutions where the offending was on a different scale, with some of them being as bad as anything the court has seen.

However, he noted that some of the victim impact reports in this case indicated that while the physical act of abuse may not have been that serious, the victims suffered appalling lifelong effects.

“It isn’t the nature of the abuse, but as far as the victim is concerned it may be the most important thing that happened to them in their life,” said Mr Murray, going on to say that the offending involved locking boys in rooms, digital penetration, situations where boys were selected to come to the appellant and were isolated, and “gratuitous sexual abuse” where boys were naked and McClean was naked.

He said the offending was quite varied and the sentencing court had indicated that if it were to impose a suspended sentence, it would have made the sentence longer. As the court decided to take a straightforward approach, Murray said that could not be considered an error in judgement.

Mr Justice Edwards said that the difficulty with the sentencing was that there was no layered analysis to know the judge’s thinking to determine where the age factor of the appellant fitted in.

“What sentence would have been imposed on a younger Mr McClean in the prime of his life? I don’t know,” replied Murray.

He said that the jurisprudence of the appeal court makes it clear that discretion is to be afforded to the sentencing judge, who felt that this was the appropriate sentence to reflect the additional number of victims. Murray also said that the appellant had been protected by his status as a teacher and rugby coach.

Mr Justice Birmingham said that the court would reserve judgement in the case, adjourning the matter for the Court of Appeal to listen to the DAR recording of the proceedings before Judge Codd and also to read the victim impact statements.

In January 2023, McClean affirmed guilty pleas to four counts of indecent assault relating to two boys during the 1980s, before going on the following month to plead guilty to a further 23 counts of abusing another 20 boys at the college between 1971 and 1992.

Most of the charges were of indecent assault, while two are of sexual assault which was carried out against a student in the 1990s. He had 96 previous convictions, all for indecent assault of young boys under the age of 18 who attended Terenure College.