A 59-year-old former hospital chaplain who paid €4,000 to three men to threaten his nephew has been sentenced to prison for four years.

The three, who said they were members of the Continuity IRA, told Niall Kelleher to drop a civil action against his uncle, Francis, or he would die.

Francis Kelleher pleaded guilty to four counts of coercion at Cork Circuit Criminal Court today.

Outlining the background to the case, Det Garda Micheal O'Regan told the court that Niall Kelleher had issued civil proceedings against his uncle in May 2012.

The chaplain later told an unnamed individual about the civil action. 

This man, who used to bring a religious relic to sick people in hospital, told him he could sort it out for him saying he had contacts in the IRA.

Garda O'Regan said shortly afterwards Niall Kelleher was visited by three men at work, who had earlier visited his home.

They told him to withdraw his statement against the priest, and drop the case. 

They said they were from the Continuity IRA, and if he did not he would not see the following week.

Over the next six months, he continued to receive threatening telephone calls to withdraw his statement, including calls in which he was told "withdraw your statement or die", "this is your last chance", followed by another call saying "you blew it".

In a final threatening call in January 2013, he was told "Niall, you are a nice guy, but I have been paid a lot of money to take care of you, withdrawn your statement!".

Cork Circuit Criminal Court was told that Niall Kelleher was married with three children. 

Because of the threats he had to increase the security at his home, and he was put under 24-hour surveillance by local gardaí, who took the threats very seriously.

The former chaplain apologised to his nephew in court saying he never meant it to happen like this.

Pleading for leniency, Defence Counsel Tom Creed said his client accepted Niall Kelleher had suffered hugely but that he had never intended this - that his actions had turned into rollercoaster. 

"Kelleher has lost the job he loves dearly - his life's work.  He now has this criminal conviction - a man who had an impeccable character over the years".

Judge Sean O'Donnabhain said this is a profoundly upsetting case. 

He had never come across an offence like this before but that it goes to the very foundation of justice that a witness could be coerced or attempts made to coerce. 

Judge O'Donnabhain said he had to take a stand against "fellows who get cowards to go out onto the streets to threaten people".

This he said was appalling behaviour from a man who was then a professed priest.

He accepted that the chaplain is a fragile, lonely man, and that he is remorseful, that he apologised and is unlikely to re-offend. 

But he had read the victim impact statement and he believed every word of it - the torment the man went through, to keep down a job, to keep his family safe, to be subjected to this behaviour, is wrong.

He sentenced the former chaplain to four years in prison.

In a statement released this evening, the Bishop of Cork and Ross, Bishop John Buckley said: “It is deeply regrettable that such an offence could have been committed by anyone, and particularly by a priest”.

Bishop Buckley said that the diocese cooperated fully with the Gardaí’s investigation into the matter, and that it will now initiate canonical proceedings against the former chaplain.