Two sisters abused by former priest Con Cunningham have spoken of how their shame was lifted by bringing their abuser to justice.
Cunningham, now 86 years old, was jailed two weeks ago for the sexual abuse of Paula and Margaret Martin, who were between nine and 12, and 11 and 13 years old when it happened.
Cunningham pleaded guilty to eight counts of indecent assaults between 1971 and 1975 and was jailed for 15 months.
The abuse took place at a number of locations in Donegal, including at the girls’ home, at the parochial house in Fanavolty in Fanad and also at the Loreto College buildings in Letterkenny.
Paula spoke of how that sense of shame was transferred to their abuser during their legal battle up to his sentencing at Letterkenny Circuit Court.
She said: “All through my teenage years and my twenties I put huge energy into hiding this part of me because I was so ashamed.
“During this process, the legal process, and going to court, I feel I left my shame with the person that needed to carry it, which was Con Cunningham.
“So by being able to talk publicly about it now is actually part of owning that shame and releasing myself from it as well because I had to let it go.”
She added: “I think as a child for me, I couldn’t tell the difference between an appropriate touch and an inappropriate touch.
“As I became aware of what actually was happening, I was really embarrassed. I was so self-conscious about it. I think I just felt that it was my fault that this was happening, that I didn’t stop, that I didn’t do something.
“That just builds into a real powerful sense of shame about yourself, so I felt so ashamed.”
The women first went to the Bishop of Raphoe Seamus Hegarty in 1994, who sent Cunningham to the Granada Institute for Sex Offenders in Dublin but then allowed him to return to the priesthood after it was declared he posed no danger to children.
In 2002, the Ryan Commission meant Gardai received their case and Cunningham admitted his guilt, while in 2018, he was sentenced for another indecent assault.
Margaret said she also agreed to go public after the stress started to make her sick.
She said: “It began to be really detrimental to my health after the case in 2018 because Con Cunningham was able to claim that this was not normal behaviour for him and it was a once-off.
“After a period of really struggling mentally, I realised part of that was my lack of courage in speaking up actually allowed that to happen so in some way I almost felt kind of caught in the whole thing.
“And I couldn’t bear that, I couldn’t swallow that lie any longer, so it became really important for me in the process of trying to get well again, that I would speak and this time I would not hold anything back because I didn’t want to be left with the residue and I think that Paula would agree with that too.
“That being clear of the residue of this, where there seemed to be no closure really from 2002, there was still a weight from that time.”
The women told RTE they had no idea at the time that each other was going through the same horrific abuse, with Paula only finding out in her twenties.
Margaret added: “I was absolutely shocked and devastated when I discovered that this had happened to Paula because I had left the family home and gone to boarding school and had no idea I had left her at home being abused.
“So it was quite heartbreaking to discover that it happened to her as well…think that it took a lot of the light and the liveliness off my childhood and into my teenage years. It left a feeling of really low self-esteem , which really expressed itself then through my teenage years.”
Both sisters said they have struggled to trust people throughout their life and have lived with hatred and fear.
But they praised the Gardai who took their case seriously and helped them get a sentence of 15 months for the pensioner.
They also thanked the Judge John Aylmer, who they said made them feel like “we were heard and listened to.”
And they urged other people who have been abused to come forward.
Margaret added “That was another reason why we wanted to waive our anonymity because for anyone who listens to this story, I’m sure there will be a piece of it that sounds familiar and we would encourage people just to talk to someone.
“It may not be a Guard or a counsellor or anything, just to someone. Because that small step can be a very positive one.”
Now that he has been sentenced, Paula said it has “brought peace” but it is “a constant work in progress to free yourself from the hooks that were there and have controlled you for your life.”
Margaret added: “I actually feel quite free. It is very recent and of course I’m aware of a vulnerability too, in having made that part of my life public. I feel like I am walking on the same ground but slightly differently. But it’s not a fragile vulnerability.
“I know that I will gradually feel stronger but I do feel free and I am no longer bound by any connection to secrecy or lies and that’s really important to me.”