A Tusla employee who was caught with thousands of child pornography images did have access to children during his career as a social worker, despite previous evidence to the contrary.
Denis O’Donovan, 34, was sentenced to three years with the last two years suspended on a charge of possession of child pornography contrary to Child Trafficking and Pornography Act which stated that on March 9, 2017 at his home at 40 Forest Ridge, Doughcloyne, Togher, Cork, he did knowingly possess child pornography, namely 2,350 images and 14 video files.
Defence barrister, Sinéad Behan, clarified at the outset of the sentencing hearing that in the three or four months prior to the detection of the crime, O’Donovan had been in a desk job with Tusla and did not have access to children. However, she clarified that he did have such access over his 20 years with Tusla and the HSE.
Judge Ó Donnabháin said that a recent decision by the Court of Criminal Appeal about the leniency of an entirely suspended sentence in a child pornography case and the imposition of a custodial sentence instead, was also a new factor to be considered in the sentencing of Denis O’Donovan.
O’Donovan initially claimed to gardaí that he downloaded child pornography in an effort to figure out paedophiles and sex offenders as part of his work. The judge did not consider this claim to be an aggravating factor and said it was said in panic at an early stage before he made full admissions to gardaí.
Judge Seán Ó Donnabháin said: “Unfortunately, it appears the ground has shifted rather a lot. Since I heard the outline of the facts previously the law has been clarified. The question of access to children has been clarified. A support that was available to the defendant is gone.
“He was open and forthcoming in relation to his involvement.
“It is worrying that a person of his training and in his employment would have and hold this type of material.
“There had been some reliance on the fact that he was desk-bound with no access to children but that is now not the case,” the judge said.
However, he noted that child pornography had not been accessed by the accused while in work. He had done so only at home and there was no distribution of the material to anyone else at any time by the accused.
The judge said he had taken particular note of the support available to the defendant from his wife but that this was no longer available.
Ms Behan said the marriage was now over and had not survived the strain of this case.
The judge acknowledged the prolonged treatment the accused had undertaken to deal with his problems.
A total sentence of three years was imposed with the last two years suspended.
Detective Garda David Noonan of the Protective Services Unit of An Garda Síochána which deals with online sexual offences said that all of the videos were of the most serious category 1 type and that most of the images – 2,104 – were also category 1.
Gardaí were alerted by the National Child Exploitation Co-ordination Centre and an address was identified at 40 Forest Ridge, Doughcloyne. What triggered the centre’s initial interest in that address was the use of a particular messenger app associated with the sharing of pictures and images. It was at this point that, it was stressed by defence barrister Sinead Behan, that there was no distribution charge.
The detective said, to give a sense of the content, one of the video files was 43 seconds long and showed a four-year-old girl being subjected to penetrative and non-penetrative sexual acts by an adult male.
“(In initial interview) he acknowledged he was in possession of these images. He aligned himself with an anti-child pornography group and described the images as tame saying each child was not in distress. He said he worked with sexual offenders and paedophiles and was trying to figure them out.
"He would masturbate to these pictures. It was always pictures he would have preferred,” Det. Garda Noonan said.
Ms Behan said the defendant had made two suicide attempts since the matter came to light. He is now in alternative employment and has undergone counselling for issues related to this problem.
Following the case, Tusla said it noted the determination of the court in relation to Denis O’Donovan "who was previously employed by Tusla as a social worker, working in our children and family services".
"Tusla took immediate action once notified of the seizure of materials. It is very concerning to any organisation that an employee would act in such a way, and given the sensitive nature of the work that the agency does it is particularly concerning. However, the agency does not have control of the unknown actions or behaviours of its employees,” it said.