A Catholic priest was jailed today for indecently assaulting three sisters at their home in the North more than 40 years ago after befriending their parents.
At the time, Father Eugene Lewis, now aged 76, was based at the College of the Society of Missionaries of Africa, which was also known at the Order of the White Fathers in Blacklion, Co Cavan, when he abused the young girls in Co Fermanagh between 1963 and 1973.
He denied 11 charges of indecent assault but a jury at Omagh Crown Court was unanimous in finding him guilty at the end of a six-week trial in May, when he was living in Dublin.
He was sentenced to four years in prison in Belfast today.
Immediately afterwards his legal representative said he would be appealing against the conviction.
In his judgment, Mr Justice Babington said Lewis was introduced to the girls’ family by a fellow cleric who was related to them.
Lewis would from time to time call at the family farm and while there was no particular pattern to his visits it appeared that they generally took place in the evening.
The court heard that the girls’ parents welcomed the visits, not only by Lewis but by the other White Fathers and students. They felt they would be beneficial for the children because of their experiences in life, in travelling the world and their Catholic ethos.
The court was told that Lewis in particular would spend time with the girls, telling them stories.
The judge said the sisters did not tell each other or anyone else of the offences at the time.
They told the court they did not feel able to say anything because the White Fathers were, to an extent, revered by their parents.
The catalyst was when one of the sisters found a photograph which brought back memories. She subsequently made a complaint to the police. Her sisters became aware of this and did likewise.
Lewis consistently denied all the allegations and suggested they were motivated by a family conspiracy or compensation claims.
He claimed in a pre-sentence report that his visits to the family home were “primarily to visit the girls’ father, acknowledge the children, tell a story, have a cup of tea and go”.
The judge today referred to statements given about the good character of Lewis.
He said there was no doubt that he was held in high regard by ex-students and colleagues and those he met while working in Africa, Germany and Britain.
He noted, however, that the type of offending behaviour he engaged in usually took place in private and well away from the eyes of colleagues, family and friends.
The judge also took account of the facts that Lewis is 76, of generally good health and had a clear criminal record.
Judge Babington said it was clear from impact statements that the girls had all been adversely affected by the abuse and found the trial, which had to take place because Lewis denied the offences, deeply upsetting and stressful.
The judge said there were a number of aggravating factors in the case.
The three complainants were “very, very young” when they were abused. He said that there was a “blatant and very serious breach of trust” as the complainants were abused in their home while their parents were in the house by a person seen as a figure of authority.
Other factors were that the abuse continued for more than 10 years and some of the offending was of a very serious nature.
Mr Justice Babington also disqualified Lewis from working with children indefinitely and ordered him to sign the sex offenders register for the rest of his life.