When her house was searched by gardaí, a large volume of diaries were found in which O'Brien had written things like: “Dear universe, please give me €1million”
Avril O'Brien (51) engaged in “total betrayal” when she stole the money from Loreto playgroup in Tallaght, Dublin, leaving the centre in difficulty paying staff wages and bills, the playgroup director, Sister Teresa McCullagh, said in her victim impact statement to Dublin Circuit Criminal Court.
“Knowing I had been betrayed by someone I thought of as a friend made it even more difficult,” the nun said.
O'Brien, of Raheen Crescent, Tallaght, Dublin pleaded guilty to 11 sample counts of stealing money from the 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 towards the start of the trial.
The court heard that a total of €119,000 was lodged into O'Brien's personal accounts during the time period, but that the figure of €80,000 theft was agreed by both parties as O'Brien was owed some of the money.
When her house was searched by gardaí, a large volume of diaries were found in which O'Brien had written things like: “Dear universe, please give me €1million”, and had indicated she wished the problem would go away.
When asked how the money was spent, Sergeant Geraldine Ross told the court that O'Brien had carried out a lot of renovation work to her home, owned a mobile home in Wexford and took several family holidays to Florida.
She had not paid any of the money back up until this week, when the court heard she had €12,000 to give to the playgroup. She has no previous convictions.
Sentencing O'Brien today, Judge Martin Nolan said it seemed O'Brien was recruited by Sr McCullagh, that they were “very friendly” with each other and that Sr McCullagh placed a huge amount of trust and confidence in the accused woman.
Judge Nolan said he accepts there is strong mitigation in the case as outlined by defence counsel.
He said he has come to the conclusion that the accused woman is unlikely to reoffend to this degree in the future.
He said stealing from an employer “is a serious matter”, particularly in this case were the relationship was personal. He said there was “a sense of betrayal” there, which he could understand.
The judge said while he was satisfied the accused woman is remorseful, he felt a custodial sentence was warranted. He said it was a “prolonged thieving” and that cannot be condoned.
Judge Nolan sentenced O'Brien to three years imprisonment, but suspended the final 18 months of the sentence on strict conditions, including that the €12,000 be transmitted to the organisation within a month.
Sgt Ross told Marc Thompson Grolimund BL, prosecuting, that the charity-run playgroup helped single mothers return to work.
O'Brien was first employed by Sr McCullagh through a community employment scheme, before being promoted to office manager of the playgroup.
As office manager, she paid all the bills, the court heard.
However, she started transferring money to her own personal accounts in October 2013, marking them under fictitious names like 'wages'.
The playgroup, which is also reliant on state funding, got into financial difficulties as a result, with the board of management initially unable to figure out how they were losing money.
Gardaí were notified in February 2017, when O'Brien's actions were discovered.
When interviewed by gardaí, she falsely claimed she had permission by Sr McCullagh to carry out the transfers.
In her victim impact statement which was read out by Sgt Ross, Sr McCullagh said she was devastated and put in a “desperate position” when she discovered the financial situation the playgroup was in.
She said she used money from her own pension to pay off some of the money owed.
The court heard Sr McCullagh and O'Brien were friends, who visited each other's houses for birthdays and other family occasions.
“It was difficult to come to terms with,” Sr McCullagh said. “It was a total betrayal by someone who I thought to be the essence of honesty and trustworthiness.”
Under questioning from Garnet Orange SC, defending, Sgt Ross agreed that O'Brien was in significant financial difficulty.
She had a number of hire purchase items and her family had an account with a door-to-door money lender. There was a lot of “extravagant spending”, Sgt Ross said.
“Her family was involved in the spending as well,” she said.
Mr Orange said it was a very difficult case and his client was “absolutely broken by this experience”. He pointed to the fact that O'Brien was visibly shaking in the dock throughout the sentence hearing.
He said O'Brien was suffering from stress-related and mental health issues.
He handed up a report which found she suffers from a major depressive disorder.
“Her life is tied up in all sorts of knots, of her own making,” Mr Orange said.
He said O'Brien was conscious of the harm she has done “to herself, her family and her employer”.
“She also has lost a friend.”
He submitted his client “enjoyed the responsibility and it went to her head”. He handed up 40 testimonials to the court.