Garda acquitted of forging a letter about sex abuse from the DPP

Garda Catherine McGowan
Garda Catherine McGowan

A Wicklow detective has been acquitted of forging a letter from the Director of Public Prosecutions in relation to the investigation of a priest accused of sexual abuse.

Detective Garda Catherine McGowan (48), who is based at Bray Garda Station, had pleaded not guilty to one count of forgery on January 15, 2009 at Bray Garda Station and two counts of using a false instrument at Bray Garda Station and at Harcourt Street Garda Station between June 21 and 22, 2011.

The instrument was alleged to have been a letter from the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), dated January 14, 2009.

After a 14 day trial a jury of six men and six women deliberated for just over three hours before returning unanimous verdicts of not guilty on all three counts. Judge Mary Ellen Ring thanked the jury for their service and said it had been a “long and not an easy trial”.

The State had alleged that Gda McGowan had forged the letter to “hoodwink” gardaí who were reviewing whether she had acted properly in investigating allegations of sexual abuse by a priest of a teenage girl.

The investigation of her handling of the case was prompted by the publication of the Murphy Report which investigated clerical sexual abuse in the Dublin area. The priest in Gda McGowan’s case was one of the clerics mentioned in the report.

A 44-year-old woman from Co. Wicklow told the trial that in the 1980s she was the victim of a sexual abuse by a local curate from the age of 16.

In March 2007 she said she decided she was prepared to go ahead with a garda investigation she met with Garda McGowan in March 2007. She said the only contact after that with the garda was through text messages and phone calls.

In September 2009 she sent a text to the detective asking for an update. She said Gda McGowan rang her back and told her that the DPP had said there would be no prosecution against her alleged abuser. She said she became very upset at this news.

“After that I had a melt down. I couldn’t believe it. I really thought it would go somewhere. I went back to counselling. I had suicidal thoughts,” she testified.

In 2011 the woman was contacted by Sergeant Diane Swift who was part of a special task force investigating the handling of sex abuse cases by the church and state authorities. The alleged victim said that she came to learn that the file on her allegations had not been sent to the DPP.

The State presented evidence of a copy of a letter, supposedly from the DPP, which stated that a prosecution of the priest would be “impossible” because of “conjecture” in the alleged victim’s statement. Sergeant Diane Swift said this letter was given to her by Gda McGowan after the sergeant had asked her for the investigative file on the case.

The sergeant said that Gda McGowan told her she was still working on the case but “that it was going nowhere anyway.” Sgt Swift said the accused told her she was “satisfied there was no cover up” in the case and that the complainant had not told anyone about the abuse while it was going on.

The sergeant requested the case file and any directions that had been received from the DPP. The accused said she would get them to her and after several delays she received the documentation.

Sgt Swift told counsel that she received statements relating to the abuse case and a photocopy of a letter purporting to be from the office of the DPP.

The letter read: “Dear Sir, I (illegible) to yours. In (illegible) the statement of the complainant…could not possibly form the basis of a prosecution given that the complainant’s allegation of rape is only conjecture.”

The letter was signed by a person with the title of “professional officer”. The State’s case was that this letter was a bogus document and that Gda McGowan never sent the case file to anyone including the DPP, Chief State Solicitor or her superintendent.

The detective repeatedly denied that she forged the letter to cover up the fact that she had failed to complete a clerical sex abuse investigation. She insisted she forwarded the relevant case file to the DPP for it to rule on whether charges should be brought against the priest.

In formal interviews investigators put it to her that she had “ample opportunity” to forge the letter. They alleged that she combined parts of several other documents, including a letter from the DPP relating to a different case, and photocopied them together to make the fake letter.

“I would never do such a thing”, Gda McGowan told them.

Her interviewers put it to her that she forged the letter “in an effort to hide your failure to complete the investigation.” She denied this. They also put it to the accused that her alleged actions in not sending a file to the DPP could have “exposed others to sexual abuse” by the priest.

Patrick Marrinan SC, defending, said that exhaustive inquiries by gardai had failed to establish any link between Gda McGowan and the priest which might provide a motive for her to lie to people in 2009 about the prosecution against the cleric.

He said that there was no evidence to suggest that his client was anything other than diligent in her handling of the investigation in 2009.

“She had taken out all the investigative techniques one would expect,” he said. Detective Inspector Frank Keenaghan agreed that substantially all the work had already been done by Gda McGowan when the investigaiton file went  to the DPP in 2011.

Det Insp Keenaghan said that in April 2011 Superintendent Tom Conway informed him of the letter and he then went to Gda McGowan with the letter and told her to “go away and think about it for an hour”.  The inspector testified that Gda McGowan was adamant and said “I couldn’t have forged it”.

Gda McGowan said the letter was a copy of what she had received from the DPP and that she had delivered a copy of it to the Murphy Tribunal herself.

Det Insp Keenaghan said that he asked Gda McGowan to think about it, “because on the face of it, we were misleading the Murphy Tribunal, and this was now the time to talk about it and put things right.”

He denied a suggestion from defence counsel that, on discovering that the letter was potentially forged, he told the accused that if she admitted wrongdoing she would be “looked after”. He accepted that it was “a politically sensitive case”.

Detective Sergeant Eamonn O’Neill said that in March 2007 he assigned the case to the accused. He said that in July 2007 the accused asked him to sit in on a formal garda interview with the priest.

He said that apart from these two occasions he didn’t inquire as to what was happening with the investigation. John Fitzgerald BL, defending, put it to the witness that it was unreasonable for the jury to accept that he didn’t ask what was going on with this “serious” investigation.

Det Sgt O’Neill said he didn’t recall asking Gda McGowan for an update. He said that this case was one of many that the detectives under his supervision were dealing with.

Mr Fitzgerald said: “People who should have known didn’t. This was the file that nobody seemed to know anything about. You are saying the reason you didn’t know is because you didn’t ask.”

The witness said he knew Gda McGowan had the file and he knew it was ongoing. He said he couldn’t recall if he ever asked about the file going to the DPP.

Mr Marrinan described the filing system at the station as “fairly haphazard” and there was no record of three letters that should have been logged in the correspondence registrar. Thirty percent of files requested in a Garda Professional Standards Unit review of the station could not be found.

Sergeant Diane Swift told the jury that a special task force was set up in the aftermath of the Murphy Report by the garda commissioner to investigate how sex abuse cases were handled by the church and state authorities.

Sgt Swift said the unit, which was based in Harcourt Square, investigated allegations in relation to 46 priests named in the Murphy report and that she was assigned one priest who had 500 documents relating to allegations against him.

Sgt Swift said she contacted one of the alleged victims who said she was sexually abused by the priest for three years from when she was 16.

The sergeant said she contacted Gda McGowan who said she was still working on the case but “that it was going nowhere anyway.” The accused allegedly later told Sgt Swift that she believed the complainant was 18 years old at the time of the sexual encounters.