This is not pun­ish­ment — and it’s not jus­tice

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - DR CIARA KELLY -

THIS week we saw con­victed child rapist John Joe Kiernan re­ceive a sus­pended sen­tence for his crimes against two small chil­dren many decades ago. He was con­victed on 11 sam­ple counts of in­de­cent as­sault and one count of rape. One of his vic­tims — who was as young as four when he started to prey on her — said he told her if she ever told any­one about what he was do­ing, he would bury her where no one would ever find her bones.

Truly, for the chil­dren in­volved, this for­mer farm labourer was the bo­gey­man come to life. He was the stuff of child­hood night­mares. As­sault­ing them. Hurt­ing them and then ter­ri­fy­ing them into si­lence. A si­lence they main­tained for most of their lives, up un­til now. A fear that stayed with them, colour­ing their world. The fear child vic­tims feel, the shame, the con­fu­sion, it doesn’t just go away when they’re old enough to ra­tio­nalise it. It causes such dam­age that the av­er­age pe­riod of time it takes for some­one to re­port child­hood sex­ual abuse is 35 years. A fear that lasts 35 years be­fore you feel ready to speak about it is not a small thing.

The judge praised the in­cred­i­ble courage of the vic­tims in com­ing for-

‘He got away with spend­ing those years as a free man’

ward. But still saw fit to let John Joe Kiernan walk free on a sus­pended sen­tence which per­haps in the eyes of the law car­ries some weight — but to most of us looks like he has gone un­pun­ished for his truly heinous crimes.

And I, for one, am sick of see­ing vic­tims of vi­o­lent crimes go through the sig­nif­i­cant trauma of a court case only for the crim­i­nal to get a sus­pended or pal­try cus­to­dial sen­tence that seems to bear no pro­por­tion­al­ity to the life sen­tence that was passed down on the vic­tim. Praise for vic­tims is cold com­fort when judges don’t see fit to lock peo­ple up for the ter­ri­ble hurt they have caused.

John Joe Kiernan is 86 and his age was con­sid­ered the main mit­i­gat­ing fac­tor in the fact he got a sus­pended sen­tence. That and his un­like­li­ness to of­fend again. But the truth is, whether he of­fends again or not, the crimes he has al­ready com­mit­ted merit him be­ing put away.

And it was his very good for­tune he wasn’t con­victed for this crime many years ago. It was his good for­tune that, if he was go­ing to pri­son, he didn’t go in his prime, dur­ing the best years of his life. He got away with spend­ing those im­por­tant years liv­ing as a free man de­spite be­ing a rapist of chil­dren. If he man­aged to elude pri­son un­til old age then he was a very lucky man in­deed.

And it is also true that to be in pri­son as a very el­derly man would not be the worst thing in the world. He would have com­fort, care, his meals pro­vided, his health looked af­ter, his own room. He would live a life not un­like many other el­derly peo­ple around the coun­try in res­i­den­tial ac­com­mo­da­tion. He might even like it. I’m all for re­spect­ing older peo­ple but be­ing old is not a rea­son to get away with hor­rific crimes. Be­ing old be­fore you’re caught and con­victed means you were lucky enough you’ll only go to jail when it won’t make that much dif­fer­ence to you.

The le­gal sys­tem is al­ways telling us we don’t un­der­stand all the fac­tors they take into con­sid­er­a­tion when pass­ing sen­tence on a crim­i­nal. But I think the flip-side is that they have be­come so de­sen­si­tised to dread­ful acts they some­times no longer recog­nise how truly aw­ful they are.

A cus­to­dial pri­son sen­tence be­ing passed on Kiernan might not have im­posed much hard­ship on him at his age — it might even have pro­vided him with a se­cu­rity and com­fort he wouldn’t have liv­ing out his days alone. But what it would have done is ac­knowl­edge how se­ri­ous a crime was per­pet­u­ated against his vic­tims and said that this is so bad we must pun­ish the per­son who did it.

Kiernan was lucky he got a sus­pended sen­tence. He was lucky he wasn’t even con­victed for these crimes — let alone locked up for them — un­til he was a very old man. It is a shame his vic­tims weren’t as lucky. Their age was never taken into ac­count by him. And the sen­tence they saw passed isn’t jus­tice in any true sense of the word.

@cia­rakel­ly­doc Ciara presents Lunchtime Live on New­stalk, week­days 12-2pm

John Joe Kiernan was con­victed of sex­u­ally abus­ing young chil­dren

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