Belfast Telegraph

Ex-principal on child sex charges could face 'fact-finding' hearing

By John Cassidy

A judge has refused to halt proceedings against a former Catholic school principal facing historical child sex abuse allegations.

Lawyers for Co Antrim man Richard Duffin (78) said he was too ill to stand trial on eight counts of indecent assault, two charges of cruelty to children under the age of 16 and two counts of common assault.

Judge Gordon Kerr QC said yesterday that although he was refusing to grant the abuse of process application, one remedy to the case instead of a trial could be to hold a "fact-find hearing'' in which it would be decided if Duffin had committed the acts as alleged by three male complainants.

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 denies all the charges.

Last week, Duffin's legal team advanced an abuse of process application stating the accused was not fit to stand trial due a number of medical conditions, and asked for a stay in the proceedings against him.

Defence counsel Neil Connor QC said Duffin, formerly of Ballysallagh Road, Cargan, Ballymena, faced charges dating back 42 years.

When the accused appeared in court last September he was able to attend 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.

He continued that, according to medical reports, Duffin suffered from a number of medical conditions, including Parkinsons Disease "which is at an advanced stage'', and also epilepsy. The reports also stated that he suffered a stroke in 2014 and had previously suffered three heart attacks.

Mr Connor added: "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, including 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 he was not able to attend court, a live video link could be provided from his nursing home so he could follow proceedings and give his oral evidence to the jury.

Giving his ruling, Judge Kerr said the difficulty for the defence was that procedures exist to deal with the medical issues raised.

He added: "In considering the interests of justice, as I must in dealing with this discretionary remedy, I have to have regard to the fact that a stay would be an end to the proceedings, leaving the complainants in this case practically without a voice.''

He said a 'fact-finding hearing' would not apportion guilt to the accused. Instead, a jury would decide whether or not the accused had "committed the acts'' as alleged by the complainants.

Refusing the stay, Judge Kerr adjourned the case until next month for mention at Antrim Crown Court.

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