Ex-priest jailed for sexual assault of vulnerable woman after suspended sentence overturned

Ex-Priest Jailed For Sexual Assault Of Vulnerable Woman After Suspended Sentence Overturned
Joe Dunne (82) was previously sentenced to four years in prison, which had been suspended in full by the trial judge. Photo: Collins
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Paul Neilan

A former priest who violently sexually abused a young woman as he drove her to the Rape Crisis Centre for counselling has been jailed after his fully suspended sentence was overturned by the Court of Appeal.

At the Central Criminal Court in March 2023, Joe Dunne (82) was sentenced by Mr Justice Paul McDermott to four years’ imprisonment, which was wholly suspended after he pleaded guilty to five counts of indecently assaulting a young woman on dates between January and December 1989 when she was already “extremely vulnerable” and when he was a priest.


The woman told the trial of how meeting Dunne when she was a young woman who already suffered abuse at the hands of another individual began “34 years of hell” for her.

In her victim impact statement, the woman said she thought she would be safe when she told Dunne of the previous abuse because he was a priest.

At the time of his guilty pleas, Dunne, of Ballycrystal, Geashill, Co Offaly, had no previous convictions.

At the Court of Appeal on Monday, Mr Justice John Edwards said the trial judge exhibited “considerable mercy and compassion” towards Dunne and his sister, for whom he is the sole carer, who would be “unquestionably impacted” if Dunne was to be jailed.


However, Mr Justice Edwards said the “violence” of the sexual offences were “terrifying” for the woman, had long-lasting effects on her, and merited a custodial sentence.

Mr Edwards said for a trial judge to feel the need to show “appropriate mercy and compassion” in sentencing an offender was “a good thing and commendable”, but that this mercy and compassion must be at an appropriate level and not one that “undermines primary sentencing objectives”.

“A sentence to be imposed should be proportionate both to the gravity of the offending and to the circumstances of the offender,” Mr Justice Edwards said.

Cynical exploitation

Mr Justice Edwards noted that Dunne indecently assaulted the previously abused young woman on a number of occasions after befriending her in hospital.


Dunne later asked her for forgiveness but then assaulted her again, which the trial judge described as “shocking behaviour”.

Mr Justice Edwards said Dunne “cynically exploited the victim’s damaged state and vulnerability”.

“The victim was already damaged by virtue of having been previously sexually abused – this was known to the respondent,” Mr Justice Edwards said.

The judge said Dunne’s subsequent “purported apology” to the victim for his behaviour towards her before abusing her again amounted to “weasel words”.


“He exploited his chaplaincy role to secure an opportunity to abuse his victim. This was not one-off offending either,” Mr Justice Edwards said.

The judge added that while there was nothing penetrative in the abuse, the victim’s breasts and genitals were touched and felt “in the most intimate of ways”, and that he had ejaculated during one assault.

Mr Justice Edwards said the abuse happened in “remote and secluded locations” and occurred with “considerable violence that must have been utterly terrifying for the victim”.

Mr Justice Edwards said the three-judge court was satisfied that the case merited a custodial sentence “notwithstanding his great age, his medical difficulties and the dependency upon him of his even more elderly sister”.


Mr Justice Edwards said it was “not proper and appropriate” to wholly suspend the sentence.

In re-sentencing Dunne, Mr Justice Edwards said a headline sentence of six years was appropriate and discounted two years to reflect the guilty pleas and Dunne’s personal circumstances.

In taking Dunne’s elderly sister’s circumstances into account, Mr Justice Edwards said he would suspend a further two years of the sentence for two years, leaving him with a two-year jail term to be served.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can call the national 24-hour Rape Crisis Helpline at 1800-77 8888, access text service and webchat options at drcc.ie/services/helpline/ or visit Rape Crisis Help.

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