A Fine Gael TD has told a court she had to question her personal safety for the first time while campaigning during the last general election because of “unsolicited sexual content” she received online.
Jennifer Carroll MacNeill was speaking at the sentence hearing of Gerard Culhane (43) from Marian Place, Glin, Co Limerick, who admitted harassing her on various dates between January 13th 2020 and March 26th 2020.
At the time, she was running as a candidate in the Dún Laoghaire constituency; a seat she went on to win.
“Trying to deal with this incident in the middle of a campaign was extremely difficult,” she told the court.
“I do not wish to be here with every fibre of my being but because a man decided to send me unsolicited sexually-explicit videos during a general election campaign and afterwards, we all have to be here,” she added.
The court heard Gerard Culhane set up a number of fake Facebook profiles and used an alias to harass Ms Carroll MacNeill. Aside from the explicit videos, he also bombarded her with messages. On one occasion, he sent her a screenshot of a photo of her in a swimming suit on Christmas Day with the message, “You look so sexy Jen. What a great body you have.” At no point did she engage with him or reply to any of his messages.
After what was described as, “three days of a barrage of messages and explicit content,” Ms Carroll MacNeill went to Gardaí for advice. With the co-operation of Facebook, they were able to reveal her harasser’s true identity and in July 2020, they called to his parents’ home in Limerick, where he lived. Culhane immediately knew why they were there and confirmed sending pictures to other Facebook users and celebrities. He said he downloaded the explicit videos from a porn site.
In her victim impact statement, Ms Carroll MacNeill said she didn’t choose to be sexualised in this way. She said she didn’t want to be a victim.
“I am a private person and I just don’t like it,” she said.
She also spoke about how the online harassment affected her while on the campaign trial. She said she felt afraid for the first time.
“What happened gave me an awful fright at a time when I was very much in public, trying to make myself available personally to as many members of the public in Dún Laoghaire as humanly possible.
“I had to question my personal safety for the first time and that’s something I have never been confronted with in my life before in such a direct way. I don’t like to admit it but it rocked my personal life and my sense of security,” she said.
She said she also found herself wondering what her harasser’s motives were. She asked herself if the messages were a precursor to something else and she wondered if this person was going to attack her.
“For the first time, I felt there was a real, actual risk to me. I felt it and I couldn’t see it. I didn’t know where it was. I didn’t know what the nature of it was,” she said.
Ms Justice Patricia Ryan was told that Culhane hasn’t worked since 2004 and has been paying a weekly rent of €50 to live under his parent’s roof. When he stopped drinking in 2017, she was told his social outlets began to shrink and he turned to the internet for conversations with strangers, which he found “emotionally satisfying.”
The court heard he wrongly believed there was a chance Ms Carroll MacNeill would respond to him because she hadn’t blocked him. On his behalf, his barrister said he was “not in a happy place in his life” at that time and is sorry for what he did.
He will be sentenced in October.