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Woman reveals lifelong impact of chimney sweep’s child sex abuse

The terror instilled in a ten-year-old child by a grown man almost thirty years ago – that he could violently rape and kill her any time he liked – can still be triggered by a smell, a sound or a childhood image, instantly turning a strong, successful woman into a terrified little girl again.

Chimney sweep and odd-job man Dermot O’Hara was a familiar figure on the streets of Ballinasloe for decades. No-one knew he had a previous conviction for a sexual assault in 1982. He was untouchable, until one day four years ago a young woman walked into Ballinasloe Garda Station and was believed when she gave her account of what he had done to her as a child.

“Four years ago, I went to the Garda station expecting not to be believed but I was met with a warm and sincere response,” the now 37-year-old woman told O’Hara’s sentence hearing at Galway Circuit Criminal Court last week, urging all victims of abuse to come forward and make their complaints to Gardaí.

“Since speaking up about the abuse, however, I have been deeply disappointed by the response from Tusla. I truly believed that he was a danger in the community and was extremely let down by their lack of action. However, I am eternally grateful to the dedication and care that I have received from the Garda investigating team. Four years ago, I went to the Garda station expecting not to be believed and I was met with a warm and sincere response,” the woman said, reading her own victim impact statement into the court record.

O’Hara, who is now 70, with an address at Poolboy, Ballinasloe, had initially denied 36 charges of sexually assaulting the girl when she was aged between nine and thirteen, on various dates between 1995 and 1998.

He was due to stand trial last May but pleaded guilty to 17 of the charges moments before a jury was empanelled.

Detective Aiden Heneghan gave evidence last week the woman made her complaint on January 2, 2019 to Sergeant Orla Keenan that O’Hara had sexually assaulted her over a four-year period in the 1990’s.

She said that from the age of nine she used to babysit for O’Hara and his wife who worked outside of the home at their then-address in Brackernagh, Ballinasloe.

O’Hara would always come back to the house after his wife had gone to work.

He often brought the girl off in his car to buy her sweets, bring her to Supermac’s or to the playground. He made her feel like it was their secret.

Back at the house, O’Hara made the child watch hardcore pornographic videos, where victims were violently raped, tortured and sometimes killed.

“He would take pleasure in extreme sexual violence, and she feared he had a hold on her by getting her to watch these videos,” Det. Heneghan said.

The grooming and coercion escalated one night when the girl was sleeping over in the house. O’Hara came into the bedroom, got on top of her and groped her all over.

She began to struggle to get away from him and he started laughing, saying to her: “Did you think I was going to rape you?”

Det. Heneghan said that from 1995 to 1998 a pattern emerged whereby O’Hara would grab the girl and grope her breasts and buttocks outside her clothes at every opportunity.

O’Hara denied all of the allegations when he was arrested and questioned in September 2019. He continues to deny he made her watch explicit pornographic videos, the court was told.

The detective confirmed O’Hara had nine previous convictions, including one for indecent assault which was recorded at Eyrecourt District Court in January 1982, for which he served six months in prison.

There were others for having implements used in the commission of burglaries, assaulting a Garda, thefts, drink driving and careless driving.

In her victim impact statement, the woman said her life was ‘completely altered by the actions of this man’.

“The grooming process I was subjected to was centred on isolating me and then instilling a fear of violent sexual attacks. Because of this grooming and the sexual assaults, I have lived with an intense fear of particular situations. Logically I know that these fears are irrational, but they are so engrained I cannot shake them off as they happen.

“I find it very difficult to be alone in a house, especially at night. To this day, I check under beds, in wardrobes and behind curtains to ensure there is no perpetrator waiting for me before I can sleep. I continue to have an intense fear of the dark. I cannot walk in a wooded area alone, during night or day. I fear that I will be raped in a public toilet, because of a rape scene that he forced me to watch as a young child.

“As a young adult I had several male bosses. I was convinced that each boss and other men in positions of power were inevitably going to sexually assault me. I feared that random men I walked past on the street were going to follow me and attack me.

“I believed my body was for the pleasure of older men and I had no say in this. I was often surprised when an encounter with an older man in a position of power did not end with a sexual assault.

“In my twenties, I was in a very violent relationship. In this relationship, the pattern I had learned about keeping secrets meant that I stayed for four years without one person being aware of the intense violence that I was experiencing. This person often threatened to rape me, and I regarded this as an acceptable part of what I deserved.

“I am a successful, strong adult who can turn into a scared little girl with a smell, sound or image that reminds me of what he did.

“I am in my late thirties and it is only now, with a lot of therapy and a very supportive group of family and friends that I can maintain healthy relationships without freezing in fear or becoming submissive after being triggered.

“It is difficult to describe how fearful I am of being in his presence today. He has a twisted mind, and he takes great pleasure in being feared by the vulnerable. He got such pleasure out of creating fear.

“I will carry the weight of what he has done with me for the rest of my life. I will need to continue in therapy and other supports into the future. However, regardless of the outcome of this case, I am confident that I have been believed and I no longer have to cover up someone else’s wrongdoings.

“The court cannot underestimate the message of hope this case can give for survivors of abuse. I intend to live the rest of my life as a very proud survivor,” she concluded.

Bernard Madden SC, defending, tendered an apology on behalf of O’Hara. He said his client had pleaded guilty 18 months after he was initially charged, sparing the woman from having to give evidence at a trial.

Referring to the findings of a probation report, counsel said that while O’Hara posed a medium risk of reoffending, his only previous conviction for a similar offence was committed 40 years ago.

Judge Brian O’Callaghan quickly pointed out the 1982 indecent assault conviction was recorded just twelve years before these offences took place.

He noted the apology, the plea, and O’Hara’s age as the main mitigating factors before proceeding to impose two, concurrent headline sentences of three years for each of the first two sexual assaults when the girl was aged nine. He reduced those three-year sentences to two years each after taking mitigation into account.

The judge said that given the potential for rehabilitation, he would suspend the final six months of each two-year sentence, giving a net total of 18 months to be served in prison.

The six months was suspended on condition O’Hara enter into a bond to keep the peace and be of good behaviour for two years on his release from prison, remain free from alcohol, and engage with the probation service for 18 months post release from prison.

The remaining 15 charges before the court were taken into account, while the State entered a nolle prosequi for the 19 outstanding charges.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune:

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