Ex-principal ‘robustly denies’ child abuse allegations

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A Judge will rule next week on whether a former principal of a Co Antrim Catholic primary school is fit to stand trial on historical child abuse allegations.

Richard Duffin (78), formerly of Ballysallagh Road, Cargan, Ballymena, is awaiting trial on eight counts of indecent assault, cruelty to children under the age of 16 and two counts of common assault.

The offences are alleged to have taken place on dates between June 1975 and June 1981 against three males while he was principal of St Joseph’s Primary School in Ballymena.

He “robustly’’ denies all the charges. Today (Tuesday) at Antrim Crown Court, sitting in Belfast, his legal defence team advanced an abuse of process application stating Duffin was not fit to stand trial due a number of medical conditions and asking for a stay in the proceedings against him.

His defence counsel Neil Connor QC said Duffin faced charges dating back 42 years and he was now a man of ‘advanced years of 78’.

He told Judge Gordon Kerr QC that the pensioner was interivewed five times by police in 2013 and said that for whatever reason ‘it has taken some time to get this case to court.’

“During the course of these interviews he was able to answer the questions and participate in the interviews,” said Mr Connor.

“But since then his condition has rapidly deteriorated. In fact, my instructing solicitor spoke coherently with him in September last year and he was able to attend court with the help of a walking aid.

“However, he is now confined to a wheelchair and remains in that wheelchair throughout the day until he goes to bed.”

Mr Connor said that according to medical reports, Duffin suffered from a number of medical conditions, including Parkinsons Disease ‘which is at an advanced stage’ and also epilespy.

The reports also stated that he suffered a stroke in 2014 - a year after he was interviewed by police - and had previously suffered three heart attacks.

“He was hospitalised in 2016 and as a result he is incapable of looking after himself and has been in a nursing home ever since. His condition has deteriorated over the last three to four years.

“I have attempted to consult with him this morning. He can indicate ‘yes’ and ‘no’ but in terms of any interview it is hard to make out what he is actually saying.

“There are times when he is more articulate than others and it is very difficult to predict whether he will be able to take part in the court proceedings and instruct his lawyers with his defence.”

A doctor’s report for the defence stated that he did not believe Duffin would be fit to stand trial and also instruct his lawyers during his trial.

Asked by Judge Kerr whether a registered intermediary could assist the defendant during his trial, Mr Connor said he did not believe one would be appropriated given Duffin’s medical condition and the deterioration in his cognitive behavour.

He added: “His speech is almost intelligible. I can honestly say from the Bar I can scarcely understand much of what he said to me this morning. Mr Duffin’s conditions are both mental and physical but more physical than mental.

“I fail to see how the accused could give intelligible evidence to a jury given his condition and for those reasons we say he is not fit to stand trial.”

Prosecution counsel Tessa Kitson objected to any stay in the proceedings saying that measures could be put in place to assist Duffin with his trial given his ongoing medical conditions.

She said such measures included the use of a registered intermediary, his interviews could be played to the jury and he could be given regular breaks during the trial.

The prosecutor said that if was not able to attend court that a live video link could be provided from his nursing home so he could follow proceedings and give his oral evidence to the jury.

“He has given very robust answers to the questions at police interview. Over the period of five interviews he robustly denied every single allegation in very considerable detail, outlining where he was at the time the offences were alleged to have been committed.”

Asked by Judge Kerr why the case had taken four years to get from interview to trial, Mrs Kitson said she did not know but would endeavour to find out from the Public Prosecution and inform the court.

“There are three complainant in this case who have done everything that was required of them. The reason for the delay is that the complainants were children at the time the allegations took place.”

Judge Kerr said that he wanted to ‘consider all the papers in the case’ before giving his ruling on the abuse of process application next week.