Declan Brennan and Conor Gallagher
A man who sexually assaulted his four young daughters in a ‘horror of a home’ has been jailed for four and a half years.
Judge Patrick McCartan said that Mayo native Bernard Cunningham (66) has never shown any remorse for subjecting his children to ‘unspeakable mental and physical cruelty’.
Last April a jury at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court returned unanimous guilty verdicts on eight charges of indecent and sexual assault committed between 1978 and 1992.
Cunningham of Royston, Kimmage Road West, Dublin had pleaded not guilty to the charges. At his sentence hearing, Judge McCartan noted how Cunningham had met the case by instructing his lawyers to put it to his daughters that they were lying.
He noted the ‘absolute absence of any remorse’ and said the victims had been subjected to the most protracted and careful probing during cross-examination of their testimony. The women have waived their right to anonymity so that their father can be identified.
The eldest daughter, who was the first and youngest victim, was subjected to the most serious of abuse, the court heard. Cunningham began abusing her in the late 70s when she was about five years old.
He took her into his bedroom and undressed himself and simulated sex between her legs until he climaxed.
This woman described her father as a ‘very violent man’ and a ‘manipulative, powerful bully’. She said he was a ‘street angel, house devil’ who would brainwash people.
She told Gerardine Small BL, prosecuting, that Cunningham was ‘the nicest person to anyone looking in’ but behind closed doors he was drinking heavily and would get great enjoyment out of seeing his daughter crying and making inappropriate comments when she was physically developing.
A number of references from Mayo people who know Cunningham and knew about his convictions described him as ‘a kind and compassionate man’. His partner of 19 years, who continues to support him, told the court that he was a kind man who cared for her dying brother.
Judge McCartan said that although the referees were well meaning, he could not marry their comments to the evidence of Cunningham's cruelty.
He said the victims were reared in a ‘horror of a home’ where because of their father's drinking they were subjected to ‘sustained abuse, physical, mental and sexual’.
He said in the absence of one word of apology or remorse it was difficult to show the mercy that someone of his age might otherwise deserve.
One of the woman told the court that she had suffered from bulimia, self-harm and mental health problems as a result of the abuse.
Judge McCartan said that Cunningham was of otherwise good character and had no convictions other than these offences. He noted that the maximum penalty for the earliest offences on the first daughter was two years but the law later changed, giving a maximum penalty of five years.
Tara Burns SC, defending, said that unusually for child incest cases, the charges were specific incidents rather samples charges for consistent and sustained abuse.
Cunningham abused his first daughter on three occasions in the most serious of the offences between 1978 and 1979 at the family home in Dublin.
Some time in 1981 he molested his second daughter while travelling from Mayo to Dublin. This victim was aged seven. He also molested this girl six years later in their family home while her mother was in hospital.
On an unknown date in 1991 he molested his 14-year-old daughter in a caravan park in Co Wexford.
The final offending took place on two dates sometime in 1991 and 1992 when Cunningham twice molested his ten-year-old daughter. This girl raised the abuse with her mother in 1997 and her mother said she must have imagined it.
The first victim told the trial: “I am here because when I was a little girl my father took me by the wrist and took me up the stairs to his bedroom. He told me to get undressed and he got undressed and I got into the bed.
“He didn't say anything to me. He told me to get on the bed. He got on the bed and he put his penis between my legs next to my vagina and he squeezed my legs very close together and he simulated having sex with me until he ejaculated.
“He told me not to tell anyone because if he did he would go to jail and who would look after my granddad.”
The court heard that after these incidents Cunningham told the child he had made her happy and that it was their secret which nobody would understand.
Ms Burns told the court that her client had fought cancer recently but that the chemo and radio-therapy had left him with problems, including issues around ingestion of food and excessive saliva. She said there was a significant risk of a tumour recurrence.
She described him as a man on borrowed time. Judge McCartan said this left it all the more remarkable that he had not had the ‘courage and the decency’ to say that he was sorry.
At a young age Cunningham was adopted by a family in Mayo but he left that home in his early teens after his adopted mother died. He went to England and trained as a diesel fitter.
He married and worked hard with his young family and later worked in Saudi Arabia and Tara Mines in Ireland, counsel said. Eventually he set up and ran his own business.
Around 19 years ago he separated from his wife, the victims' mother, and met his current partner and had been a father figure to his partner's daughters, Ms Burns told the court.
In victim impact reports one daughter said she had ‘a monster for a father’. She said all she wanted was an apology and an acknowledgement.
“Dad's mission was to make me as miserable as possible,” she said.
She said the suggestion during the trial from Cunningham that she had organised the whole prosecution was “the final confirmation that what I was doing was the right thing to do”.
Another woman said she now realised it wasn't her fault because she was just a child.
Judge McCartan told the victims they were very brave and stated: “I'm deeply impressed. You never did any wrong.”