An elderly former Christian Brother who sexually abused 19 schoolboys almost 50 years ago, “instilling fear and embarrassment” in his victims, has been jailed for four-and-a-half years.
Liam Coughlan, 87, pleaded guilty to 19 counts of indecently assaulting 19 boys when he was a teacher in a school in the southeast of the country on dates between 1974 and 1978.
Coughlan, of Pine Grove, Tramore, Co Waterford, is currently serving a sentence of three years and two months after he was found guilty by a jury of 30 counts of indecently assaulting a further five boys at the same school in the 1970s following a trial in May this year.
He had been due to face two further trials in relation to the remaining 19 complainants, but instead entered guilty pleas in July.
Coughlan left the Christian Brothers in the 1990s and got married, the court heard.
Sentencing Coughlan today at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court, Judge Elma Sheahan said the abuse perpetrated by Coughlan not only “instilled fear and embarrassment in the lives and minds of young boys attending school, but has served to torment the men these young boys have become”.
Judge Sheahan said she wished to acknowledge the time it has taken for the abuse to come to light, and she paid tribute to the “determination” of the complainants.
The court heard three of the complainants came forward in 1998, but their allegations did not result in a prosecution.
“The court is of the view that the gravity of the offending is high,” Judge Sheahan said, noting the culpability of Coughlan and the harm done.
She noted he was in a position of power and authority as a teacher and a Christian Brother.
She handed down a sentence of four-and a-half years for the offences, noting the maximum sentence for each offence of indecent assault during that time period is two years.
She ordered that the sentence start today, meaning it will run concurrent to the sentence he is currently serving.
The judge acknowledged that were it not for Coughlan’s serious health issues, she would have reconsidered when the sentence date should start.
Victim impact statements
In a series of victim impact statements read out in court at a sentence hearing earlier this month, ten of the man’s 19 victims outlined the impact of the abuse, which continues to affect them to this day.
Many described how they have struggled with anxiety and have difficulty trusting others and maintaining relationships.
Some struggled with alcohol. A number of them kept the abuse a secret for years.
Patrick McGrath SC, prosecuting, told the court that after the initial investigation did not result in prosecution, a second “extensive” investigation in recent years involving multiple complainants resulted in the former teacher being charged with the offences.
The court heard Coughlan worked in a number of schools around the country.
The court heard he regularly called his victims up to the top of the class, where he indecently assaulted them by touching them inappropriately.
He kept boys back in class at lunchtime or after school under the guise of helping them with their schoolwork before abusing them.
His victims, now men in their late 50s and early 60s, described how they were powerless as children and terrified of Coughlan, who was also physically violent.
One complainant, who read out his victim impact statement in court, said the fact that Coughlan was in a religious order “added salt to the wound”.
“You feared you would not be believed – and worse – be in trouble for making up stories about a holy man,” he told the court. “He was protected not just by his profession, but by the habit he wore. We were powerless.”
The complainant said “everyone knew what had gone on” and in later years Coughlan was remembered as “dirty”, but no one wanted to admit they had been a victim.
He said the fact the man was finally being brought to justice was a relief and a weight off his shoulders.
“47 years was too long to wait,” he said.
A second complainant who read out his statement in court said Coughlan had “cast a dark shadow” over his life.
“He ruined my life and my self-esteem, and I hope he spends the rest of his life in jail,” he said.
A further eight victim impact statements were read out in court by prosecuting counsel.
Some described how they never told anyone except their partner.
Others never told anyone at all until they received a phone call from investigating gardaí.
Coughlan was described by the complainants as “huge” and “scary”.
The court heard he threatened to kill one boy if he told anyone about the abuse, threw another boy against a door when he tried to escape and told a third boy he would have his relatives who also worked in the school sacked if he came forward about the abuse.
A number of the man’s victims described how he ruined their education, with a number dropping out of school early and others describing how they never reached their full potential.
They reported feelings of anxiety, flashbacks and nightmares. One complainant said he suffered severe mental health issues in the wake of the abuse, including PTSD.
One man described how he could never tell his parents because they were “good Catholics”.
Another said he told his mother what had happened to him years later and believed she died “broken-hearted” as a result.
Another complainant said Coughlan “sexually, physically and mentally assaulted me”.
“You’re a monster and I hope you rot in prison,” he said in his statement.
In her plea of mitigation, Kathleen Leader SC, defending, said Coughlan has a number of serious health issues, including prostate cancer and secondary bone cancer.
He is undergoing chemotherapy for these cancers, which are not curable, the court heard. He has heart disease and arthritis
The court heard Coughlan entered the Christian Brothers when he was 16 years old.
He was described by his neighbours as kind and considerate in testimonials handed into court.
Ms Leader said he had no previous convictions until he was found guilty of the other indecent assaults earlier this year.
“I would ask the court not to impose a lengthy sentence that my client will have no hope of ever being released from, due to his advanced years,” the defence counsel said.