A former treasurer of Crossmaglen Rangers GAA club was jailed on Friday for 16 years over a “predatory campaign’' of sex crimes against young boys dating back three decades. Ex-postman Thomas McKenna (62), formerly of Woodside Park, Bessbrook, Co Armagh, pleaded guilty to a total of 162 sex offences a week before he was due to go on trial on the first of three sets of charges.
McKenna pleaded guilty to a litany of offences which included multiple counts of indecent assaults, sexual assaults, gross indecency offences and voyeurism of males aged from 12 to 26 between 1988 and 2018. McKenna, who was assessed as posing a danger to the public in the future, had told some younger boys that what was happening to them was part of team-building within the club and he made promises about them being promoted to senior teams.
The campaign of “sexual violence and abuse” started to emerge in 2018 when the parents of a teenage player at the club contacted the chairman and reported covert filming by his abuser. An investigation followed, with other victims coming forward, sparking a “tsunami of sexual complaints”. When his devices were seized by police, a large number of covert videos and stills were found of young men either naked or partially clothed and “doing private acts’' or training.
Despite his initial denials, and after he finally confessed to his criminality, McKenna told a Probation Officer that after choosing a victim “if it worked out, fine. If not, I’d go to the next one”.
Passing sentence on Friday, Judge Patricia Smyth described this remark as “chilling”. She told the defendant, who sat with his head bowed in the dock: “You targeted boys and young men – 23 in total – manipulating them to the point where they felt utterly powerless and unable to disclose what you had done.
“The psychological harm you have inflicted is immeasurable. There is no sentence that this court can pass that will repair that damage.”
Judge Smyth said the parents of victims had “entrusted them in your care. They wanted their children to take every opportunity to succeed in life”.
“In a small community like Crossmaglen, GAA, and in particular Crossmaglen Rangers, 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.
“No parent bears any responsibility for the harm that their children have suffered. They and their sons are completely blameless. The control you exercised over these young boys and men did not end when you were finally caught. The way in which you chose to defend these charges is further evidence of that coercion.
“In many of the charges, you denied anything of a sexual nature occurred, accusing your victims of lying and fabricating accounts in an attempt to harm you. In other charges you contested that the sexual activity was consensual. Every aspect of your defence was to continue the psychological power games that you played for years.”
Judge Smyth said the survivors of the abuse had written personal accounts to her to explain the impact of the sexual abuse.
“None of the men are alone in feelings of fear, anxiety and hopelessness. So many describe these emotions along with the lack of trust in people generally, being forced to lie to parents and close partners in order to conceal the abuse,” she said.
“Some relationships ended and some may never recover. Addiction issues have been endured. Suicide attempts made. Intimacy in 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 these accounts. Guilt that it happened. Young men tortured that they were in some way to blame but in truth they bear no responsibility. They are haunted by guilt that they could have saved others from the same fate. Shame that images recorded by you covertly might be viewed by other strangers.
“In the darkness of some of these accounts they express pride in each of you coming forward and refusing to back down in the face of the pain of disclosing the intimate details,” she said.
The judge said McKenna “recruited” his victims to help him with his duties as a postman and paid them up to £30. Some of his victims were plied with alcohol. Offences were also committed in the credit union, in the GAA club, in pubs and hotels, in toilets both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic, in his own home and the homes of some of his victims.
“The sheer scale and duration of this offending elevates this case to an unprecedented level. You groomed and manipulated these boys and young men. You used your position within the club to provide you with opportunities for abuse.
“This sexual activity was ingrained in every part of your life. You preyed on the vulnerabilities of young boys.”
Passing sentence, Judge Smyth told McKenna that he will spend a further seven years on supervised licence on his release from custody. McKenna was placed on the sex offenders register for life.
Following the sentencing, DCI Kerry Brennan of the PSNI said: “Thomas McKenna was a respected and influential member of the Crossmaglen community, who used his positions of trust to gain access to young males to carry out the litany of abuse as outlined in court today.”
He said McKenna had caused long-lasting psychological damage to his victims and their families. “I’ve no doubt that learning of the severity of his offending today will ricochet through the Crossmaglen community,” he said. “Predators of this type are incredibly manipulative, and invest a lot of time building trust and embedding themselves within communities to carry out their offending under the radar. Hidden in plain sight.”
The victims in this case released a joint statement today, saying: “We thank Her Honour Judge Patricia Smyth for the sentence handed down earlier today. As a group, we sincerely thank our families, our community and the members of the Crossmaglen Rangers Club for the unwavering loyalty, support and care you have provided us.
“We want to thank the Police Service for the empathy and swiftness in which they dealt with the crimes committed against us from when they were first informed almost five years ago. In addition, we also wish to thank the Public Prosecution Service and the prosecution team for their professionalism and diligence in preparing the case for Court and ensuring we received the guilty pleas for the litany of crimes committed against us when we were children.
“And most importantly, to ensure this individual will never be a part of our community again. While there were many difficult days as we relived the crimes committed against us, we as a group are immensely proud of the strength, dignity and unity we’ve displayed throughout this process to get the justice we deserve and ensure that the pain and suffering inflicted upon us will not be felt by another generation in our community.”
The victims urged anyone else who had suffered at the hands of McKenna to come forward.
Speaking outside court, Eamonn McMahon of Crossmaglen Rangers praised the victims for coming forward.
“Crossmaglen Rangers, and GAA president Larry McCarthy, wish to state that this conviction was only possible because of the courage and determination of those individuals who reported their concerns. Your actions have made our club and community safe. And for this we owe you a huge debt of gratitude,” he said.