The mysterious case of the missing child-porn computer seized by Gardaí

The bishop wanted his computer returned.

He wrote to Supt Gerry O’Brien of Bailiboro in Sept 2010, requesting that a hard drive seized from the parish house in Kill, Co Cavan, be returned to the diocese. The computer had been taken in the course of an investigation into a priest suspected of child abuse.

The priest, Michael Molloy, was subsequently convicted of child abuse and child pornography, and sentenced to five years in prison. Now, Bishop Leo O’Reilly was requesting a return of the hard drive as, he said, he suspected there might be some evidence of fraud contained in it.

“Computer? What computer?” was the initial reaction in the gardaí. A cursory examination soon established there was no such computer in possession of the force. This was a serious matter. A computer which had been seized from a by-now notorious abuser and child pornographer had gone missing in Garda custody.

Somebody had to be held accountable. And before long, the whole focus bore down on one individual, a turbulent cop who had been making uncomfortable waves, a whistleblower who had broken ranks within the force to report on alleged wrongs.

Seized

They came looking for Fr Molloy on Sept 14, 2007. A warrant had been issued by Judge Sean McBride for the search of the parish house in Kill, Cootehill. This followed on from a complaint by a teenager claiming he had been abused and filmed by the priest.

Three detectives, from Monaghan and Bailiboro, attended and searched the house. They took a computer and a TV/DVD set, brought the stuff to Bailiboro station, and handed them over to the exhibits officer. At the station, it was deposited in the property room, and labelled POS1.

The sergeant in charge of the station that day was a man who wishes to remain anonymous, but whom hereafter will be referred to as WB. The following year, he made a series of complaints about individual officers and operations that he felt reflected badly on the force’s professionalism and honesty. Among his complaints was the operation of the penalty points system, which ended up in the Dáil, and was the subject of a series of investigations.

That would all be later. In Sept 2007, there was nothing to distinguish him from his colleagues. A standard chart, drawn up by the exhibits officer, detailing the flow of exhibits, noted that WB had taken possession of the computer.

This would be standard procedure and didn’t infer that WB took physical possession of it. In fact, the exhibits officer wrote in her notebook that she had deposited the items in the station’s property room. WB says he knew nothing of the computer at this stage, and there is no reason why he should, as he had nothing to do with the investigation.

Then the computer vanished. It didn’t just physically disappear. There is no reference to it in the subsequent investigation. There is no record of an inquiry into its disappearance. It wasn’t sent to Dublin for forensic examination, as per strict policy.

There is no reference to it in the file that was sent to the DPP about the priest.

The file prepared for the DPP, and seen by the Irish Examiner, does state that the warrant, which was used in searching the parish house, was defective. Therefore, any evidence taken from the house would have been inadmissible.

This scenario had played out in the case of Judge Brian Curtain, who had been charged with possession of child pornography. His trial in Apr 2004 had collapsed over a defective warrant. If such a scenario were to unfold a few years later in a case involving a child-abusing priest, it would have been highly embarrassing for the force.

In any event, the evidence from the parish house was not crucial. Molloy pleaded guilty in Nov 2009 at Cavan Circuit Criminal Court to two counts of defilement and possessing images of the abused teenager.

He was sentenced to five years, and that was the end of the existence of the computer, or so it seemed, until the bishop came calling.

RESPONSIBILITY

After being contacted by the bishop on Sept 21, 2010, Supt Gerry O’Brien of Bailiboro carried out an initial investigation which established that there had been a computer. The responsibility for such an item would rest with the officer leading the investigation, and certainly not the officer in charge of a station where it was deposited.

According to the Garda Síochána Charter: “The responsibility for any property seized lies with the member in charge of any such investigation.” Yet, pretty soon, the focus was on the sergeant in charge of the station at the time of the investigation, the turbulent cop, WB.

The first he heard of the computer was a letter from Supt O’Brien asking whether he had any knowledge of POS1. He didn’t know anything about it, and wouldn’t be expected to.

What happened thereafter in the quest to track down the computer is unclear. There is no record of any investigation into what actually happened to a hard drive that could likely contain child pornography. There is no record of interviews with the officer who led the Molloy case. There is absolutely nothing to suggest that there was a proper investigation into what exactly had happened a dangerous and sensitive piece of evidence.

However, the process of fingering somebody to blame gathered momentum. In early 2012, a superintendent was appointed to investigate “an alleged breach of discipline” by WB, arising from the “loss of a computer”.

It had effectively been decided that WB was the man at the centre of the affair, and it was now a question as to whether there was enough proof to discipline him.

Det Supt Tom Maguire, from the Special Detective Unit in Dublin’s Harcourt Square, was appointed to determine whether WB should be disciplined. He would eventually report that he “carried out a full and thorough investigation into this allegation against... WB”.

There is no reference in his report to any interviews, other than with WB. There is no reference to asking any officers involved in the case: “What happened the computer?” There is no reference to asking any officers: “Why was there no mention of the computer in the file prepared for the DPP?” There is no reference to any prior investigation establishing what had happened.

In fact, there is no reference to even obtaining statements on the matter from the officers involved in the case. Supt Maguire notes that he sought statements from three named gardaí. “These statements were supplied for the Fr Molloy investigation and were later obtained by Supt O’Brien in his initial investigation into this matter.” The statements referred to had actually been taken some three years previously when the priest was being investigated.

In other words, the only statements used in investigating responsibility for the disappearance of the computer were those prepared back before the disappearance became an issue.

Nowhere in his report does Supt Maguire make any reference to interviewing or obtaining a statement from the detective who actually led the initial investigation. Under the Garda Charter, this man would bear ultimate responsibility for seized property.

Instead of inquiring what exactly happened, the focus was on deciding whether there was evidence that WB was culpable.

Supt Maguire met with WB and arranged for a formal interview. After a few false starts, the interview went ahead in a Midlands hotel. According to the report compiled by the superintendent, WB was responsible for most of these delays.

However, the Irish Examiner understands that WB disputes this version and claims that 10 adjournments were initiated by Supt Maguire. The whistleblower also claims the whole process was dragged out for an inordinate length of time.

At the interview, WB was accompanied by a representative of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors.

By then, WB had been alerted by other members in the force as to what exactly was afoot. He made inquiries into the original investigation, and established that there appeared to be little or no record of the computer. He was shocked, but decided to fight to protect himself.

He requested of Supt Maguire copies, statements, and interviews that had formed part of the investigation into the missing computer. Natural justice would demand no less. He also requested sight of case conference notes from the investigation into the priest, which might give a clue as to what had actually happened the computer.

Sharing this information would be a matter of course in any legal process which involved potential discipline. Natural justice would demand no less. Supt Maguire referred the request to the head of legal affairs in the force. Eventually, word came back that no information of that nature was to be forwarded to WB.

By then, WB had taken legal advice. A legal opinion, provided to him by counsel, outlined what was afoot.

The lawyer wrote: “I think we are all agreed the investigation has most likely been promoted by virtue of the fact that ‘WB’ availed of the confidential reporting regulations and charter. Indeed the investigation has all the hallmarks of a shambolic exercise.”

NO ACTION

Had WB been disciplined thereafter, it is likely that a High Court challenge could have been mounted citing unfair procedure, opening up a vista in which the dirty linen of the case might be aired in public.

In the end, Supt Maguire decided that no action was warranted.

He reported: “Having regard to all the foregoing and specifically the obvious inconsistency in the evidence of [the exhibits officer], the only evidence against ‘WB’, I believe that finding ‘WB’ in breach of discipline in this case would be unsafe.”

If WB had not been alerted by colleagues as to the actual existence of the computer, and thus prompted to make inquiries as to what had happened, he would have had no defence, and would therefore probably have been subjected to sanction.

If he had been disciplined, it is likely that the whole affair would have ended up in the media. Headlines with “whistleblower”, “discipline”, and “missing child porn computer”, would, for the casual reader, tell their own story. His credibility would have been compromised, and his good name smeared.

According to a spokesman for the diocese of Kilmore, they last recorded contact with the gardaí a week after the bishop’s written request for the return of the computer.

The spokesman said there may have been a call from the gardaí, relaying that the computer was missing, but there was no official contact.

Questions remain about the computer. How could it, and any reference to it, disappear? Why, when the bishop came calling, was the detective who headed up the investigation not even formally interviewed? And who is responsible for property seized?

It might well also be asked whether the whole action against WB had any real foundation, or whether it was merely as a result of WB blowing a whistle on errant behaviour within the force.

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