Con Cunningham (83), a former priest, has been sentenced to nine months in jail for indecent assault of a child, at Donegal Town Circuit Court. Photograph: Joe Boland/North West Newspix

An ex-county Donegal priest who was held in “highest esteem”, who had “simulated sex” with a young girl in his car, was jailed for nine months at Donegal Town Circuit Court, yesterday.

In jailing 83-year-old Con Cunningham, Glen Road, Carrick, Judge John Aylmer said he did not accept that the offences were at the “lower end of the scale”.

The judge said while no penetration had taken place the ex- priest had simulated oral sex and had pushed the child’s face into his crotch until he had satisfied himself.

He had left the child to experience smells and stains and bruising to her genital area from “similar simulated sex”.

The judge said the defendant had climbed on top of the girl and a “significant level of both force and violence” was used.

He accepted that no alcohol was involved which would be an aggravating factor.

The judge said that given the defendant’s position of authority as a priest and accepted by the family, this was “a grievous breach of trust against the young girl and her family”.

And the effect on the victim was on-going after 43 years and the offences were on the higher end of the scale.

Mitigating factors were his plea albeit it late, his age and the fact that prison would be “onerous” on him, although he was a “fit” person.

The defendant had been of previous good character and had no previous or subsequent matters.

The ex-priest was now on the Sex Offenders Register and had a significant “fall from grace”.

Indecent assault

Cunningham, of Glen Road, Carrick had pleaded guilty to two counts of indecent assault against the female on dates between January 1st, 1976 and December 31st, 1976 at a location in Donegal.

The defendant also pleading guilty to a similar third count that occurred at an unknown location between Donegal and Dublin on dates between January 1st, 1976 and June 30th, 1977.

At an earlier sitting Patricia McLaughlin, for the Director of Public Prosecutions, said Cunningham had begun the abuse, when the girl was less than 10 years old, by sitting her on his knee and tickling her in front of her mother who was happy with the attention the girl was getting. It later progressed to rubbing her breasts and getting on top of her in his car while both were clothed while making grunting noises and it was clear he was satisfying himself, the victim said.

Judge John Aylmer initially imposed a sentence of 15 months but suspended the final six months and the ex-priest was bound to be of good behaviour and keep the peace on his own bond of €100 for a year.

Defence counsel Peter Nolan said “apart from this appalling matter he was held in very high esteem by his parishioners”.

He handed in a number of references and testimonials which showed “Fr Cunningham to be an exemplary priest”.

The ex- priest understood that what he did was “vile and wrong” and has “remorse for the fact that he ruined this girl’s life”.

It was a total and utter breach of trust taking advantage of a child and he full accepted that fact, the court heard”.

Donegal people were very disappointed with the statement of the current bishop Alan McGuckian which read:

“The bishop have an extensive interview with Greg Hughes on Highland Radio last Friday answering questions about Con Cunningham. There will be no further statement at this time”.

Parishioners of Carrick were very angry that for 16 years after allegations Con Cunningham was allowed to celebrate Mass, weddings and funerals.

The clergy and the Gardai were told he was still in ministry and did nothing about it.

Parishioners are angry with McGuckian for failing to apologise to the two Martin sisters who were Cunningham’s victims.

They are also angry that McGuckian has not shown his face in Fanad where the abuse occurred.

The PP Fr Pat McGarvey did apologise at Sunday Masses.

The late bishop, Hegarty, totally mishandled the Cunningham case – sending the priest for therapy but not informing the Gardai.

Bishop McGuckian made a fool of himself by saying that the duty to report to the Gardai did not crystallize until 2017.

The bishop after Hegarty, Boyce was also informed.

There is also criticism of the diocese buying a house for Cunningham in 2002 in close proximity to children

Cunningham also had a habit of hanging around the primary school gate at 2 and 3 pm.

In 2009 7 years after his removal for abuse a parent found Cunningham alone in their house with a 9 year old child offering the child sweets and chocolate!

Cunningham also started going to the underage girls football matches and hanging around the dressing rooms!

This case has mishandled and still being mishandled by three bishops, Hegarty Boyce and now McGuckian.