A 55-year-old man from Nova Scotia's South Shore has been sentenced to 18 months in jail for sexually abusing his two daughters when they were toddlers, crimes kept secret for years even after he confessed to his wife.

The abuse ended 17 years ago and only came to light recently when his oldest daughter went for counselling and reported her experience, according to a Nova Scotia Supreme Court ruling released Tuesday. The man was charged and pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual interference.

He had told his wife about the abuse years ago, but she forgave him and didn't report it for fear his arrest would deprive them of his income as the chief breadwinner. Court was told he worked in farming and fishing.

"When I look back again, when I look at the threat that if the older daughter said anything that the family would break up," Justice Mona Lynch wrote in her sentencing decision. "That is a responsibility that should not have been put on a child."

'Screaming inside'

Court was told the man, identified in court documents by the initials G.H.E., began abusing his oldest daughter when she was about two and half years old and continued over a 10-year period.

The prosecution estimated he abused her at least 50 times over that period. The abuse consisted of him touching her genitals and encouraging her to touch him.

The abuse only stopped when he switched to her younger sister, who was three years old at the time. That abuse continued for about two more years. The younger daughter does not have many memories of the abuse.

The man stopped himself, but only told his wife of abusing the older daughter. Lynch said the abuse took a terrible toll on the older daughter, who is now married with children of her own.

"She spent much of her childhood, as she described, screaming inside," the judge wrote. "She has nightmares, low self-esteem, struggles with trust on a physical and emotional level with her husband."

Robbed children of innocence

Both the younger daughter and his wife described the man as a good father, a description the judge disputed.

"I am concerned with that because good fathers do not sexually abuse their children, and you were not a good father to the older daughter and the younger daughter when you robbed them of their ability to trust and their innocence," the judge wrote.

"Good fathers do not sexually abuse their children."

The Crown had asked for a sentence of two to two and a half years in prison. The defence had asked for a conditional sentence.

"There is no sentence that I can give that would give the older daughter and the younger daughter back what was taken from them," Lynch concluded. "They are in no way to blame."