Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland doctor: 'I felt absolutely sickened when I read what Milly Dowler went through'

Dr Caoimhe McAnena works with murderers for a living but she is not unshockable

By Ivan Little

Londonderry woman Dr Caoimhe McAnena - who insists she rarely takes her harrowing work as a clinical and forensic psychologist home with her - admits she was haunted by her discoveries of what murderer Levi Bellfield did to English teenager Milly Dowler after giving her professional assessment about the killer on television this week.

The 43-year-old former Thornhill College pupil, now based in London, was approached by ITN to give an independent psychological view of the brutal strangler and sex attacker on screen three nights ago. After reading up on the case, she couldn't erase his evil actions from her mind.

Earlier in the day the family of Bellfield's 13-year-old victim Milly issued a statement responding to the heartless killer's belated but sick confession to police of how he raped and murdered the helpless girl over a nightmarish 14-hour period after kidnapping her on her way home from school in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, in 2002.

Bellfield also murdered two other girls in England. Marsha McDonnell (19), whose father Paul McDonnell was originally from Enniskillen, died after being hit over the head with a blunt instrument near her home in Hampton, London, in February 2003. And Amelie Delagrange was a 22-year-old French student visiting the UK. She was found at Twickenham Green in London in August 2004 with serious head injuries and died in hospital the same night.

Police said Bellfield confessed to raping Milly in his flat before driving her to his mother's house, where he assaulted her for a second time. He later tortured and raped her a third time and strangled her the next day.

The killer made his admissions on the condition he could describe what he did only to female officers. Speaking on ITN, Dr McAnena said of his demand: "He's still gaining some sort of sadistic pleasure from that, so his choice of insisting to speak to a female officer might be about his attempts to control women in a sadistic and sexualised way."

Police sources say they conceded to his stipulation to talk only to women officers in a bid to win his confidence, so that he might confess to a string of other murders they suspect he committed.

Dr McAnena never met Bellfield. If she had, she wouldn't have been able to talk about him to ITN, which sought her opinion because she's regarded as being one of the most experienced psychologists in England.

As a forensic clinical psychologist in the NHS, she specialises in the assessment and treatment of high-risk, mentally ill offenders, some with severe personality disorders.

And even though she has come face-to-face with murderers and sex offenders for almost 20 years, she says: "I'm not unshockable. You can't be completely desensitised, and once I read Bellfield's statement in advance of the interview I felt absolutely sickened about what he subjected Milly to. I even told my mum, who was sitting up back home to see me on the news, not to watch the start of the ITN piece because it was so disturbing.

"In my own cases, I usually find ways of processing and dealing with them in work so that I don't take them home with me to my husband and the kids."

Bellfield's cruel depravity reminded many observers of the brutal killings - including that of Ballinderry schoolgirl Jennifer Cardy - which were carried out by Robert Black, who died in Maghaberry Prison last month

"I wasn't aware of him until I saw something about him in the papers this week, but, yes, there were similarities," says Caoimhe.

She adds that killers like Black and Bellfield are the exception rather than the rule: "They are very, very rare. They are so few and far between that it is difficult to see patterns. The vast majority of people in jail for murder and sexual offences are ashamed of what they've done. They're not serial killers and their offences have usually come about as a result of a series of catastrophes in their own lives where they've been victims themselves before then becoming perpetrators. Most of them are motivated to change and never want to do anything like that again, which is not to say they won't, but everyone who works with them is there to help as far as possible to ensure that they don't reoffend."

Caoimhe has been working in London since graduating from the University of Ulster in 1996.

Since 2001 she has been involved in forensic mental health with mentally disordered offenders. "And within that time I have specialised in working with serious violent offenders," says Caoimhe, who grew up in the Pennyburn area of Derry and initially thought about pursuing a career that could hardly be further removed from her current line of work.

"I wanted to be a ballet dancer," she says. "I used to do modern dance and ballet and I appeared in the Derry pantomimes in the Orchard Hall, but my teacher moved back to Belfast and I stopped going to classes at the age of 13. I knew that my dream of becoming a ballerina was a great delusion."

Caoimhe says she fell into psychology after leaving Thornhill to go to the local technical college. "There was an A-level in psychology there, which was quite unusual, and I chose it because it was something new to me. I didn't really know what psychology was but something about it appealed to me."

She progressed to university largely, she admits, because that's what her peers were doing. However, when she transferred from Magee College to Jordanstown the psychology bug really took hold. "I was in love with it," she says. "I wanted to understand everything about people and why they did things, ordinary things."

But as she delved deeper into her subject, Caoimhe became fascinated by clinical psychology, particularly with extreme behaviours. She was hooked, she explains: "Sometimes I wonder if growing up in Northern Ireland in the 70s and 80s had an impact on me, though the Troubles didn't directly or personally affect me," adds Caoimhe, who was born a year and a day after Bloody Sunday. "So I grew up in its shadow. But by the time I was in my teens the worst of the Troubles were happening away from Derry, in Belfast."

At university Caoimhe read a paper in a seminar group about the Serbian conflict. It left a lasting impression. So much so that its name - The Transgenerational Transmission Of Trauma - still trips off her tongue.

"It was about how the old stories that people told kept the wounds alive for generations, and how Slobodan Milosevic had harnessed them to fire people up to do what they did. That really touched a nerve in me about how, in this 500-year-old conflict, people still felt things as acutely as their parents and other ancestors did.

"Obviously it made me think about Northern Ireland, but I never studied it academically."

In her intensive training as a clinical psychologist, Caoimhe completed a three-year doctorate and later joined the Forensic Service, working with women who had previously been placed in mixed-sex wards in specialist units. But four years ago she changed her sphere of work, and now divides her time between working with offenders and lecturing at Goldsmith's University.

Caoimhe admits her job has at times been stressful and emotional. Due to confidentiality, she can't name the prisoners, including murderers, with whom she has come into contact.

One of her roles has been to assess inmates applying to the Parole Board to be released after lengthy spells behind bars.

"I go in and assess whether or not I think it's safe to release them from jails, including high-security prisons like Wakefield and Belmarsh," she explains.

Caoimhe is also called upon regularly by solicitors as an expert witness during trials including murder and serious sexual assault cases, again giving her assessments of defendants in the dock. But she also uses her skills to help prisoners to settle back into the community on their eventual release from jail.

She says: "I run a specialist service for people who are coming out of prison - maybe after a long time - and it can be a very difficult process for them to adjust to living in the community again.

"Very often their old problems will come back - coping with different family dynamics, perhaps drug and alcohol use and relationship issues.

"It can be an existential crisis for them as they think about what life holds for them on the outside.

"We face those challenges with them and every day something takes you by surprise. But it can be rewarding work."

Caoimhe, who is married to a Donegal man and has two children, has toyed with the idea of returning home, tempted by fresh professional challenges in Belfast and the attractions of a new peaceful and vibrant Northern Ireland, but she and her husband have decided to stay where they are, for the moment at least.

However, Caoimhe gets back home as often as she can. And, for relaxation, she still pursues her passion for ballet, attending dance classes. But another of her hobbies isn't quite so refined: "I also do a bit of boxing," she laughs. "I did three rounds this morning with a friend but it's all very light-hearted and low-key because I'm too old to lose any more brain cells."

Meanwhile last night, in a bizarre twist, Bellfield denied confessing to the abduction, rape and murder of Milly Dowler.

His solicitor Julia Cooper has asked Surrey Police to explain their statement that he had confessed, and has requested tapes and notes from her client's meeting with officers.

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