A state counsel yesterday criticised a cleric for coming into court to give character evidence on behalf of a homeless campaigner convicted of stealing €26,852 from an 88-year-old care home patient.
At Ennis Circuit Court yesterday, Josephine O’Brien walked free for the four-year long theft from St Joseph’s hospital patient Stephen O’Halloran after Judge Gerald Keyes imposed a three-year suspended jail term on the 60-year-old.
Ms O’Brien used some of the proceeds of the €26,852 to open a drop-in centre for the homeless at Chapel Lane in Ennis where soup and sandwiches were provided.
In court yesterday, Church of Ireland cleric Canon Bob Hanna gave character evidence, stating that Ms O’Brien has been involved in helping the homeless, destitute, and down-and-outs in Ennis for a number of years.
The Ennis-based cleric described Ms O’Brien as “a beautiful and gentle person” and “a grandmother who dotes on her grandchildren”.
He said Ms O’Brien was filling some of the holes no one else has been filling in the care of the homeless locally, stating that she has done everything for the homeless except take them in to her own home.
Canon Hanna said state services close at 5pm on a Friday, but Ms O’Brien works through weekends to help the homeless.
In cross-examination, state counsel Stephen Coughlan BL asked Canon Hanna how did he square Ms O’Brien’s work with the homeless “with the fact of her taking money from an old man in a residential home?”
In response, Canon Hanna said: “As a cleric, you can imagine how I feel about that. You can be a neighbour of someone and see how a glass can be two thirds full.”
Mr Coughlan told Canon Hanna: “It ill becomes you to come in here to give character evidence for someone who was using stolen money for a particular purpose.”
Counsel for Ms O’Brien, Mark Nicholas BL, immediately objected to Mr Coughlan’s statement and said: “I wonder has the Director of Public Prosecutions issued a missive about character reference testimonials. I don’t think she has.”
In evidence yesterday, Det Garda Beatrice Ryan said that the victim in the case, Mr O’Halloran, “is a frail man and wouldn’t wish Ms O’Brien any harm and wouldn’t like her to get a custodial sentence”.
Det Ryan said that Ms O’Brien’s theft “left him with no money and nothing to care for himself. He is very disappointed by what happened.”
Det Ryan added: “Looking at Ms O’Brien’s lifestyle and visiting her home, it wasn’t lavish and there were no signs of luxury goods and it’s right to say she helped other people with the money taken.”
Judge Keyes said that he would like to acknowledge the generosity of Mr O’Halloran, who did not attend yesterday’s hearing.
Judge Keyes said that Mr O’Halloran “may have been aggrieved and disappointed at the breach of trust, but he bears no ill will towards Ms O’Brien”.
He told Ms O’Brien: “What you did was very, very wrong.”
The sentencing took place yesterday after a jury last April found Ms O’Brien of Bridge View, Roslevan, Ennis, guilty on nine of the 10 counts of theft between July 2006 and October 2010.
Ms O’Brien, who has no previous convictions and is on disability, had lived with Mr O’Halloran as friends prior to his admission to St Joseph’s and had used his bank card without his consent to withdraw monies over a four-year period while he was resident at the care home.
Imposing sentence, Judge Keyes said he accepted that Ms O’Brien used some of the monies to help others and continues to help the homeless, “which is to your credit”.
Judge Keyes said society or anyone would not benefit from a custodial sentence for Ms O’Brien.
Judge Keyes ordered that she pay back Mr O’Halloran €100 per month, or a total of €3,600, during the three years of the suspended jail term.
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