A former treasurer and kitman of a trophy-laden Co Armagh GAA club, who carried out a predatory campaign of sexual violence and abuse against young men – and in some cases, children – has been handed a 16-year sentence.
Appearing at Belfast Crown Court on Friday afternoon, Thomas McKenna, who was the local postman in Crossmgalen for years, was told he will serve at least eight of those behind bars before being considered for parole.
The 62-year-old, who was described as “dangerous” and “calculated” will also serve an extended period of seven years on license, meaning he could, if the Parole Board deem him a continued risk to the public, remain locked up for the 16 years.
The former Crossmaglen Rangers treasurer pleaded guilty to 162 sexual abuse offences including serious sexual assault involving penetration, indecent assault, voyeurism and possession of an indecent image of a child.
His offending spanned over a 30-year period from 1989 to 2018 and involved 23 male victims, ranging from 14 to 39 years of age. He will be placed on the Sex Offenders’ Register indefinitely.
Her Honour Patricia Smyth KC, in passing down the sentence, said she wanted to acknowledge the victims whose names did not appear on any charge on the indictment.
“Those are the parents who entrusted their children to your care,” she said. “They wanted their children to take every opportunity to succeed in life, and in the small community of Crossmaglen, and in particular Crossmaglen Rangers Club, which was the bedrock. You manipulated those parents, just as you manipulated their children.
“You befriended them, disguising your true nature under the mask of respectability. You were the postman, a director in the Credit Union and part of the very fabric of the club. It is the experience of these courts that there is no stereotypical perpetrator of sexual abuse, that sexual offences can take place in almost any circumstances.
“It is a myth that child abusers are loners, or strangers, or people instinctively to be avoided. In truth, as this case demonstrates, they are people to whom you would entrust your life and no parent bears any responsibility for the harm that their children have suffered.
“They and their sons are completely blameless. The control that you exercised over these boys and young men for decades, did not end when you were finally caught….every aspect of your defence was an attempt to continue the psychological power games that you’d played for years.”
McKenna befriended each of the victims as they progressed through the GAA club, building a rapport with them, recruiting many of them to help you carry out his duties as a postman as he travelled around in his van.
The court heard how they would be paid sums of money up to £30. He engaged in playful wrestling, or play fighting with them, which progressed to sexual touching, convincing them that this was part of team building, and that it was good enough for older team members, whom he named.
McKenna had a key to the Credit Union where he would carry out the offences after persuading his victims to help him out. He carried out offences in the Gaelic club and there he covertly recorded the young males for his sexual gratification.
Judge Smyth said he carried out offences in hotels, when he was travelling with the club, in pubs and toilets in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, in his home and in the home of some of the victims.
He used sexualised language with many of the young males, buying alcohol for many of them, facilitating Credit Union loans, and telling some of them that he could help their football careers and get them promoted to the senior team.
Judge Smyth added: “Your approach to the abuse, or abuse of potential victims, as recounted by you, is chilling, and I quote, “If it worked out, fine. If not, go on to the next one’.”
McKenna’s explanation for his offending centred around his “inability to accept your gay sexual orientation”.
“You knew that you were gay from your teens, but felt unable to reveal it due to cultural and religious influences,” said Judge Smyth.
“Even when emotional issues drove you to seek medical help, you could not bring yourself to reveal the true cause, because the GP was from the community and was also a member of the club. When you began to take alcohol in your late 20’s, it’s this inhibiting effect resulted in overtures towards adult males, which were rebuffed, leading you to use teenagers and young men to satisfy your sexual urges.
“It is ironic that why you felt that being gay was wrong. You did not appear to have had any compunction about sexually abusing children.
“You have expressed regret and now appear to have some understanding of the reasons for your offending.”
Judge Smyth spoke of the impact McKenna’s late plea would have had on the victims.
“This trial would have attracted a great deal of public interest, and the victims would have find the court process enormously distressing. The prosecution has gone to great lengths to protect the victims’ confidentiality by using random cyphers to ensure that the description of the abuse of each victim has suffered remains private.
“That is an indicator of the degree to which a public hearing would have caused enormous additional distress. On the other hand, the lateness of the plea means that these young men had the spectre of a trial hanging over them for a very considerable period of time.”
And she spoke of the impact his actions unduly had on his many, many victims.
“Some relationships ended and some may never recover. Addiction issues have been endured, suicide attempts made, intimacy and personal relationships affected, education disrupted, lifetime events such as weddings, marred by your presence, and the delight at so many Gaelic successes is now absent, because all are reminders of the abuse.
“A sense of guilt and shame permeates many of the accounts, guilt that it had happened; young men tortured with thoughts that they were somehow to blame, when in truth they bear no responsibility.”
McKenna was led away and returned to Maghaberry Prison where he will begin to serve out his sentence.
Related: ‘Thank you for hearing our voices’ – Crossmaglen victims react to Thomas McKenna sentencing