A priest sexually assaulted a six-year-old girl during her first confession and, when the abuse ended, put his hand on her head, blessed her and told her that her sins had been forgiven.
The victim, who is now in her 50s, said that at the time she believed what had happened to her was part of the confession ceremony.
The now retired priest John Calnan (79) was told by Judge Sean O’Donnabhain at Cork Circuit Criminal Court that his breach of trust had been “phenomenal”.
The judge said it was clear that Calnan was a serial offender – and the fact that some of the girls believed the abuse was part of the ceremony was “obviously an outrage”.
The elderly cleric, who had pleaded guilty to all offences, avoided jail with an 18-month suspended prison sentence for the abuse of three young girls.
Judge O Donnabhain said that given Calnan’s advanced age and serious health problems, a custodial sentence would not be appropriate.
Calnan appeared before the court on a signed plea of guilty in respect of five counts of indecently assaulting three girls in the Diocese of Cork & Ross between 1974 and 1978.
The victims cannot be identified for legal reasons.
The retired priest, who was first ordained in 1964 but hasn’t worked in ministry since 1992, has served several prison sentences since first being convicted of indecent assault and attempted rape of other youngsters in 2012 and 2015.
Judge O’Donnabhain was told by Det Garda Maurice Shanley that an investigation was launched after complaints were received from three women.
All alleged the then-priest had indecently assaulted them during Church ceremonies in Cork when they were aged from six to eight years.
One woman said that when she was six she was taken into a room alone with Calnan at a national school for her first confession.
Calnan placed his hand underneath her skirt while she was saying her prayers.
As she continued with her prayers, Calnan then groped inside her underwear.
In a statement to gardaí, the woman said she remembered looking at Calnan and his eyes were closed as he abused her.
Afterwards, Calnan “put his hand on her head and said: God bless you – your sins have been forgiven.”
In a hard-hitting victim impact statement, the woman said the abuse had devastated her.
“I feel ashamed and embarrassed of my teenage years,” she said.
“I spent my teenage years feeling ashamed and dirty. I had no respect for my body and for myself.
I never go to Mass now – I sit in the church by myself and talk to God. “I just wanted him to admit that what he did to me was so wrong.”
The other two victims were also indecently assaulted during confession either at schools or at churches.
When one girl tried to get away from Calnan, he insisted that he was only trying to tickle her. Another girl complained about how rough Calnan was with her.
One victim said she felt she couldn’t tell her parents what had happened because they were friendly with Calnan and held the Church in high esteem.
“It would kill them to know what he did to me,” she said.
The retired cleric is now resident at The Presbytery, Roman Street in Cork and is under careful supervision.