The public backlash against those who provided character references for disgraced former journalist Tom Humphries could have serious consequences for future cases according to a leading barrister.
Humphries was yesterday jailed for two and a half years for sexually abusing a teenage girl after grooming her for two years.
The leniency of the sentence has been slammed by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and by victims of sexual abuse.
Meanwhile, former Cork hurler Dónal Óg Cusack and Sunday Times sports journalist David Walsh have both come under fire for their decision to provide character references for Humphries.
Speaking today however, senior counsel Michael O’Higgins warned that references “have to be put in context” adding that providing one to the courts in no way condones the actions of the accused.
He said criminal sentences are made up of five or six components – adding that while character references are taken into account, they are “at the back-end of the queue.”
“In every reference; in any case; a person providing the reference will be directed to say, ‘I know the circumstances of the case and I absolutely abhor and do not condone the behaviour,’” he said.
“They then go on to comment on that aspect of the personality that they know - and it is to put a full picture before the court.
“I think people get angry because in some way or another they think it is an insult to the victim or in some way or another they think they are condoning the actions and it is neither of those things.
“It is a way of putting down one piece in a rather large jigsaw. It has a place but its place can be very easily overstated.”
He said there is “no doubt” that the backlash against Walsh and Cusack will make people hesitant to provide references in the future.
“If you give a reference and the next thing is you are being attacked left right and centre and being told you are being grossly unthinking and unfeeling towards victims of sex crimes or in some way or another endorsing implicitly the conduct of the accused – nobody wants to be associated with that,” he said.
“People don’t want that and they don’t want to be subjected to it and I think if anyone was asked to give a reference now they would be hesitant.”
He said character references are important mitigating factors in sentencing hearings and warned that it would be wrong to see that right to a defence inhibited by public outrage.
“I think this is something that there is a lot of anger about at the moment but I think when people analyse it a bit more they will be less likely to be critical,” he said.
Yesterday Mr Cusack announced that he was resigning from his position on the board of Sport Ireland and from his role as a coach and selector with Clare hurling.
Prior to the sentencing, he issued a statement saying that he had shown a lack of judgement, adding that he was “genuinely sorry.”
Mr Walsh issued a statement yesterday saying he “unequivocally condemned” Humphries actions, adding that in writing a reference he was “not in any way condoning the crime.”
He said had every sympathy for Humphries’ victim adding that, “Tom did a terrible wrong for which he has now been given a custodial term.”
Reporting from Juliette Gash ...