This is not punishment — and it’s not justice
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