Retired priest avoids jail term after losing control of his car which struck four people outside a church – killing one 

by Gazette Reporter
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By Sonya McLean

A retired priest who lost control of his car and struck mourners gathered outside a church leading to the death of one man and serious injury to three others has been given a suspended sentence.

Father Denis Foley (93) arrived to the funeral mass of the son of a parishioner at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Convent Road, Clondalkin in June 2018. A man then noticed the priest struggling to get out of his vehicle and offered to help.

He held the priest’s walking stick as Fr Foley struggled with his seat belt but the priest’s vehicle rolled into the car parked in front before coming back and swinging to the right. The man who had been assisting him jumped out of the way before the vehicle took off at speed.

The court heard that the incident which followed lasted about two minutes with the car speeding through the crowd, hitting off vehicles and ploughing into people before it ultimately crashed into bollards with three people pinned under the vehicle.

Christopher Phillips (78) who was seriously injured in the accident died in Tallaght Hospital the following month. A post mortem examination concluded that he died of multiple organ failure as a result of being struck by the car.

Fr Foley pleaded guilty at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court to driving a vehicle in a manner which was dangerous to the public and thereby causing the death of Christopher Phillips and causing grievous body harm to Jason Kelly, Martin Cawley and Rebecca Meredith on June 25, 2018.

He had been the parish priest in nearby Walkinstown but had retired 13 years earlier. He now lives in a nursing home.

The court heard that Fr Foley’s vehicle initially struck about ten people, seven of whom were knocked into the air, with the other three people going under the car. Witnesses later described the sound of the car driving over those people.

Eoin Lawlor BL prosecuting said the car essentially ricocheted along before it struck and mounted bollards in the church grounds, pinning three men in the process.

The court heard that Ms Meredith had eight fractures to her left foot, severe bruising and tissue damage to her back. She has not recovered any feeling to the back of her left ankle and needs a wheelchair to get around.

James Kelly had multiple fractures to his legs and knees and required an operation, while Martin Cawley suffered broken ribs which led to his lungs being punctured in a few places. His pelvis was also cracked in two places and he walks now with a walking frame.

The court heard that when the car ultimately came to a stop, a member of the Dublin Fire Brigade who happened to be at the church, approached Fr Foley and found him to be dazed and confused. He had an injury to his nose. The man took the priest’s foot off the accelerator and put the car into park.

The priest later said he was terribly sorry. He said it is an automatic car. “I must have pushed the stick the wrong way,” he said.

He later told gardaí that the car moved quickly forward and he didn’t know what caused it to move so fast.

He said he was not confident in the car. He thought he could find a better parking space and was attempting to move the car but he told gardaí “It took off on me”. He said he would have to live with the consequences of his actions for the rest of his life and expressed concern for those who had been injured.

A victim impact statement from the Phillips family was read into the record. They spoke of how their father was always one “to please others” and “support others around him”. They said he would have wanted his family to get on with their lives.

They said they understood that nobody set out to hurt anyone that day but spoke of their disappointment that nobody from the church had reached out to them following the death “of our wonderful Dad” considering the accident had happened on church grounds and the driver was a priest.

The family spoke of how their father was a huge support to their mother who had been living in a nursing home at the time and she never got to see him after the accident.

The death of their father was “a true breaking up of our family home” they said and they spoke of how he treasured his grandchildren’s visits and was “always willing to do anything for them”.

They said watching their father “decline, while hoping he would get better was heart-breaking”. “Not a day goes by when we don’t wish to have him with us,” the family continued and said their father’s death has left “a hole in their hearts”.

The described him as being an active man who had a zest for life.

Other victim impact statements from those injured that day were handed into court but not read out.

Judge Martin Nolan said it was a terribly tragic situation and Fr Foley’s driving caused “mayhem” and people had to “scamper for safety”.

“He killed a lovely man and caused considerable injury to many others,” Judge Nolan said while he offered his condolences to the Phillips family who were in court.

“Thank you all for coming. It is obviously a devastating loss and I hope life is going well for you all,” he said.

He noted that it was mainly due to confusion and the priest’s lack of experience with driving his hybrid car which led to him driving his vehicle in this particular way and losing control of it as a result.

“It should not have happened. No doubt if he had been calmer, he could have controlled the situation but his bad driving led to these devastating consequences,” Judge Nolan said before he acknowledged that Fr Foley had not intended to drive in this way.

He said however that Fr Foley did not deserve a custodial sentence. “He will not drive again. Whatever time that is left to him he will probably spend in a nursing home,” Judge Nolan said before he imposed concurrent sentences of 18 months which he suspended in full.

Mr Lawlor said it was later confirmed that alcohol consumption had not been a factor and there had been no defects in the car. Fr Foley was treated in hospital for the injury to his face.

Kathleen Leader SC defending said her client, who is now wheelchair bound due to mobility issues, was supported in court by his niece.

She handed in a number of testimonials which spoke of the priest’s ability “to help out people who were in need in a quiet way”. One man wrote that Fr Foley helped him secure employment that he stayed in for the rest of his life.

Ms Leader said that Fr Foley retired at 75 years old but continued chaplaincy work in Crumlin. He is now a resident in a nursing home since June last year. He has mild cognitive impairment following a number of small strokes.

She said that day Fr Foley never intended to hurt anyone that day when he got up to go to the funeral and asked the court to accept his immediate admissions at the scene.

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