nun the wiser | 

Nun says 'I'll forgive theft' after office manager stole €80k from pre-school

O'Brien spent the money holidays to Florida and on a mobile home in Wexford

Avril O Brien, 51yrs, of Raheen Crescent, Tallaght, Dublin pictured arriving at the Criminal Courts of Justice (CCJ) on Parkgate Street in Dublin yesterday

Patrick O'Connell

THIEF Avril O'Brien "never offered to pay back a single penny" of the €80,000 she stole from a pre-school until her sentencing, the nun who runs the community group this week told the Sunday World.

Office manager O'Brien spent the money on family holidays to Florida, renovating her own home and on a mobile home in Wexford while complaining to her boss the money wasn't there to pay the wages of the group's staff.

Avril O’Brien spent the stolen money on holidays and her home

Nevertheless, kind-hearted Loreto nun Teresa McCullagh - who had to borrow €25,000 from her order and withdraw funds from her own pension to keep the group going after the thefts were discovered - says she will forgive the 51-year-old thief.

In an interview with this newspaper, Sr Teresa said despite O'Brien's horrific betrayal of a friendship stretching back 15 years, she felt sorry for her as she was led away to prison this week.

"I feel sorry for her. I really do," she said.

"It was awful to see the state she was in going away to prison.

"And, you see, I liked the rest of her family because her husband and children are very decent people.

"In a way, the personal betrayal is almost as bad as the financial side of it, because I trusted her and we were friends.

"She's made such a muck of everyone's lives - her family's lives, including her own.

"Her father and mother are still alive, and they are respectable people too, so what this must be like for them I cannot imagine.

"I do forgive her because I am not the kind of person to hold grievances.

"It's just I feel I was totally misled."

Sister Teresa McCullagh, director of the Loreto Playgroup, Tallaght speaking with SW's Patrick O' Connell

On Wednesday of this week, O'Brien, of Raheen Crescent, Tallaght, Dublin, was jailed for 18 months after she pleaded guilty to 11 sample counts of stealing money from the local playgroup on dates between October 2013 and March 2016.

A total of 220 counts were before the court.

O'Brien stood trial in June this year but pleaded guilty to the 11 counts at the beginning of the trial.

The court heard that a total of €119,000 was lodged into her personal accounts during the time period, but that the figure of €80,000 was agreed by both parties as O'Brien was owed some of the money.

However, Sr Teresa said it was not true that the playgroup had owed O'Brien any of the money.

She said she had only agreed to O'Brien pleading guilty to stealing €80,000 when she had refused to plead guilty to stealing the entire amount, in order that the matter could be concluded.

Outlining how O'Brien gained her position of trust in the organisation, Sr Teresa said she had "been working with me for 15 years".

"I took her on as a community employment CE worker. And she was good, hard-working and clever," she said.

"She had good computer skills, which is important nowadays, and she went up the levels there through Fetac.

"So, when the position came up of Community Employment supervisor, which included running the pre-school, she got the job.

Sr Teresa said O'Brien was being well compensated for her role, earning an average of €650 a week and that as the years went by they became friends.

"I was working in the same office as her so, of course, we became friends and I got to know her whole family.

"I never realised that she was going on three holidays a year.

"But I was often up at her house and I knew there was huge amounts of money being spent on it, but she would always make excuses.

"Her first husband had died, and she said she got a legacy from him and that there were payments from that.

"She always had an excuse."

Sister Teresa McCullagh, director of the Loreto Playgroup, Tallaght speaking with SW's Patrick O' Connell

Inevitably, because of O'Brien's non-stop pilfering, problems began to materialise with the group's cash-flow.

"Several times, when I was up home with my family in the North, I got a phone call from her to say there was no money to pay the wages that week."

After inquiring with the bank, it transpired that O'Brien had withdrawn the sum of €4,250 from the group's account, writing in the online banking notes that the money was going to the primary school for rent, but she deposited in her own account.

Further investigations, which at this stage involved the gardaí, revealed that O'Brien had been doing this "a lot".

"The actual amount of money she took was €119,000," said Sr Teresa,

"The rent hadn't been paid, suppliers hadn't been paid and a lot of them were owed money.

"Initially we worked out that roughly €25,000 in bills were outstanding, but that grew to €30,000 when it was all worked through."

Sr Teresa and her fellow board members prevented the group from closing by contributing from their own resources while the Loreto nun also withdrew money from her own pension and borrowed €25,000 from her order to stave off closure.

Asked if O'Brien had ever said sorry or offered to pay back the money, Sr Teresa said she hadn't until the matter came to court.

"She never apologised to me … not until the first day we were in court and then she passed me a hand-written note, but again it contained a hundred excuses.

"I don't think she could ever admit to herself that she was a thief.

"She never offered to pay any of the money back. She never even acknowledged to me what she had done.

"She used to keep saying 'I'm not a bad person' … but deep down she must have known what she was doing was wrong."

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