Catholic Ireland’s saints and sinners
A story of faith, love and abuse.
Colm O’Gorman is a man in demand. When we met him, Amnesty International Ireland had just released a report on public attitudes to abortion, still illegal in Ireland, and as executive director he has to field inquiries from the media.
He regularly writes for national newspapers and appears on TV and radio championing the poor and marginalised; he’s also one of Dublin’s most sought-after public speakers.
“Don’t worry, Colm will make time for this,” his assistant says assuredly.
It wasn’t always this way. O’Gorman grew up in the tiny crossroads village of Adamstown, Wexford, in southeast Ireland. His father harvested barley, raised livestock and ran a construction business.
In Adamstown, as in a hundred other Irish towns and villages, the local Catholic church was the centrepiece building, and the parish priest’s house always nearby and prominent.
“Ireland was first and foremost a Catholic country. The Church was everywhere. Looking back now, Ireland was a place that demanded conformity; it was a homogenous country because there was a demand that it be so,” O’Gorman says from his office in central Dublin.
Meeting Father Sean Fortune
O’Gorman left home at 17, and for years roamed Dublin and London, living rough in doorways, sleeping in Burger King restaurants and later doing jobs as a barman, taxi driver and hair salon manager.
For months at a time his family had no idea of his whereabouts. All because of a chance meeting which would, after unimaginable physical and emotional pain, change his life – and, in some ways, the course of contemporary Irish history.
When O’Gorman was 14 he met a Catholic priest at a local youth group event in his native Wexford. That priest, in his late 20s, was Sean Fortune.
“A few weeks later he turned up at my parents’ home and asked to speak to me,” O’Gorman remembers.
A week later, O’Gorman was invited to Father Fortune’s house. It wasn’t considered an unusual request at the time.
When he arrived, he says, the priest explained that he didn’t have enough furniture, adding: “We’ll be all right in one bed, won’t we?”
O’Gorman was petrified. That night, he says, the priest sexually assaulted him. In the months and years that followed, O’Gorman says Fortune would rape and sexually abuse him, as well as subject him to emotional torture.
“The annihilation of any remaining ability to defend myself was devastating,” he later wrote in Beyond Belief, a chronicle of this turbulent time in his life.
“Not only did it mean I was now entirely at his mercy but it also led to my inability to defend myself in other situations.”
He says he didn’t feel able to tell anyone what was happening because the priest shifted the blame – and shame – on to him and threatened to tell his father.
READ MORE: Dead babies and Ireland’s dark past
Three years later, O’Gorman left Adamstown.
No one mentioned the abuse
His mother had already moved to India with several of his siblings, and his father’s business was facing collapse. Alone, he headed to Dublin, where he sought shelter in public toilets and sometimes engaged in chance sexual encounters with men much older than himself. At that time, all that mattered was finding somewhere to sleep and maybe a hot meal.
“I now had a way off the streets when I most needed it,” he explains.
Years passed. O’Gorman moved to London. He was always running from something, but his family was permanently fixed on the fringes of his thoughts. When he found out that his 18-year-old sister had become a single mother, he vowed to return to Wexford.
But upon arriving home, O’Gorman felt gripped by fear – homosexuality was still illegal in Ireland and he had previously told his sister that he was gay.
But, to his relief and surprise, he was welcomed. “Where were you?” his father asked. “Where were you, Colm?”
His family had grown suspicious that Father Fortune had done something to him years before, but no one mentioned the abuse. In the Ireland of that time, it was almost unheard of to question the Church or its representatives.
‘Catholic first, Irish second’
For most of the 20th century, Ireland was one of the most fervently Catholic countries in the world.
When a healthcare scheme, popular elsewhere in Europe and intended to help women and children, was proposed in 1950, the Church feared it would lead to birth control and saw it destroyed at the outset. Ireland’s then prime minister or taoiseach, John A. Costello, felt he spoke for the country at the time when declaring: “I am an Irishman second, I am a Catholic first.”
Decades later, when Pope John Paul II visited Dublin in 1979, a third of the country’s population descended on the city in a single day in the hope of getting a glimpse of him.
Baby boys born that year were named John Paul in the thousands, and such was the pride in the fact that His Holiness had chosen to visit the all-abiding, all-praying Irish that a plaque was placed on the exact spot where he first stepped on Irish soil. It remains there to this day.
For the first time ever the Pope had come home to the land of “saints and scholars”, a country where the Church owned more property – more than 10,000 parcels, including schools, farms and shops – than any other institution in the state.
“Everyone in our parish, and in the next parish, went to Mass; there was just total devotion [at that time],” says 70-year-old Mary Clare Reynolds, a Eucharistic minister who lives in a large country house in rural County Galway with her husband, Michael. “There were people for whom going to church was the only social outlet; people got dressed up for devotions.”
Her husband Michael recalls a different experience of the Church while in boarding school during the 1950s and 1960s: “The two great precepts of the Catholic Church were love God and love thy neighbour. Well, I didn’t see much love for thy neighbour when a priest would come into a dormitory at 11 o’clock at night, and beat 36 12 and 13-year-olds.”
Since then, revelations about decades of child sexual abuse, the fathering of children and illicit behaviour by clergy members, from bishops to lowly priests, have uncovered a world more akin to a macabre mafia than to keepers of the house and word of God.
Suing the pope
The net result was that Ireland’s confidence in the Church was demolished. Mass attendance figures in Dublin, Ireland’s capital, fell to 14 percent by 2011. There were just two priests aged under 40 in the 199 parishes. The number of nuns ordained fell by 23 percent in the decade to 2012.
The fabric of Irish society, etched in subservience to British rule for centuries and then dominated by the Catholic Church through its running of the national education system, was uprooted.
Back in England, where he returned after spending the weekend with his family, demons began to plague Colm O’Gorman. He had a stable job but felt scant personal purpose. By 1994, a terrible horror began to dawn on him: what if Sean Fortune was still doing the same thing to other young boys? He knew he had to do something.
He decided to write to the local bishop, but never put pen to paper. Then, on a trip home at Christmas, O’Gorman’s father, who had replaced windows in the local bishop’s residence a year before, called him and his sister into a room with a detective. O’Gorman had confided in his sister as a child and she had told their father. Now, after all these years, he had reported it. He broke down in tears, finally crumbling under the realisation that he had failed to protect his son.
O’Gorman was interviewed by the Irish police, and further allegations emerged about Fortune. The Father was suspended from his priestly duties – but the official reason given was not suspected child abuse, but rather financial wrongdoings.
By 1997, the number of abuse allegations against members of the clergy in Ireland had mushroomed. As more reports made the national press, yet more people came forward. Victims felt the veil of silence had been lifted.
But the Church seemed unwilling to do anything about it. So O’Gorman decided to pursue a legal case – against the pope.
As the Church failed to take his case seriously, it dawned on O’Gorman: what if high-ranking people within it in Ireland had known of the abuse?
“I started to get really angry,” he says. “I’d assumed the Church would have questions to answer about how it had failed to see what Fortune was doing, but I never imagined for a moment that they might have actually known what he was doing to children.”
O’Gorman concluded that if the Vatican had known about what was happening among the clergy in Ireland, he should sue. The Vatican responded by saying that it had full diplomatic immunity and could not be sued in an Irish court.
Bishop Brendan Comiskey, who had been Fortune’s superior but had refused to be interviewed by police, even as Fortune was facing charges, was, in 2002, forced to resign. O’Gorman received 300,000 euros from the Church.
But, while out on bail after being charged with 66 counts of sexual abuse against 29 boys, Fortune penned two letters, one to his family and another to Bishop Comiskey, that a state investigation later concluded had been destroyed, before swallowing a cocktail of pills and alcohol. He died on March 13, 1999, having never gone to trial for his alleged crimes. Comisky delivered Fortune’s funeral homily in Wexford and called for forgiveness.
‘Sense of betrayal’
For O’Gorman and the others who allege that Fortune abused them, including one who committed suicide in 1988 at the age of 23, justice was never served.
“I was devastated, I just wept,” says O’Gorman. “This wasn’t what I wanted.”
Though many lost the faith, many more held tight.
By 2011, Pope Benedict XVI had issued an unprecedented papal decree apologising to the victims of Ireland’s clerical abusers. “I can only share in the dismay and the sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts and the way Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them,” said his letter to Irish Catholics, read aloud at Sunday morning mass around the country.
A sense of responsibility, some argued, was finally emerging.
Restoring the faith
On the frontline of this quest to regain Ireland’s confidence in Catholicism is Eamon Roche.
He is sitting quietly in a restaurant booth in Mallow, County Cork, carefully studying a book of prayers several inches think. Two weeks earlier, the 44-year-old was ordained a Catholic priest.
“It’s been great,” he says. “At the end of every mass I invite people for blessings. It’s a nice moment, you can see their faith coming through.”
An engineering student at university during the 1990s, Roche felt there were many areas of his life he wanted to explore. Going out and drinking heavily, as many fellow students did, just didn’t appeal to him. “It was a turbulent time; there was disillusion,” he reflects.
“I, too, share in the dismay and sense of betrayal in the way Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them. I think the majority of the faithful feel the same. Thankfully, Church authorities in Ireland have now put a solid Child Protection Policy in place,” he says, referring to the cases of child sexual abuse.
Despite the Catholic Church’s public humiliation over the abuse and the collapse of mass attendance figures, from more than 90 percent in the 1970s to just 34 percent in 2013 – in part a reflection of the increasing secularisation of Irish society -, many here still identify as Catholic. According to the most recent national census, that number stands at 84 percent.
Three years ago, the Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland, Diarmuid Martin, told a gathering of theology students that there “will be fewer priests and the place of the priest in society will be different. Those priests will have to be men of a strong and outreaching faith.”
When asked what his faith means to him, Roche pauses before again reflecting on his college days. “[It] was the most difficult part of my life, but it was when I discovered my faith in the most profound way …. I started going to Mass daily and even taking confession.”
A chaplaincy service helped him with what he refers to as his “inner turmoil”, but it would be more than a decade before he began thinking of joining the priesthood.
Despite the scandals and predictions of the end for Catholic Ireland, figures show only a 13 percent drop in diocesan priest ordinations between 2002 and 2012. And, among the middle-aged and older, a tangible attachment to the faith remains.
But what about Ireland’s youth, those too young to have read about the revelations of priests’ sexual predation first-hand? What does faith mean to them?
Galway city is the gateway to Ireland’s Atlantic coast and was, for years, a magnet for the young – drawn there by its university and secular, multicultural atmosphere.
“I’m more of a spiritual person, though I used to go [to church] a lot,” says 18-year-old Doirann Fahey, who these days attends Mass only on “special” occasions. “I stopped when I was 13 or 14 because I had the freedom to do what I wanted, though my grandparents still force me to go when I visit them. But Ireland still is a Catholic country.”
Sixteen-year-old Erin Flaherty-White also felt pressure from her family to attend Mass. “I think as people get older they move closer to faith,” she says. “When you’re my age you want to do what you want, but when we reach our 30s we might end up going back to church.”
So, what does faith mean to Colm O’Gorman, who before becoming executive director of Amnesty International Ireland had trained as a psychotherapist and started his own charity helping victims of child sexual abuse?
“I heard a story once,” he says. “A long time ago a small boy was found sleeping in the doorway of a grocery shop in a town I drive through every day today. Someone asked the boy why he was sleeping there. The boy said: ‘I was told to go get sugar from the shop, but the shop was closed.’ The boy was so afraid to go home to his parents empty-handed he preferred to sleep on the street.”
He takes a low breath and looks forward.
“That boy was Sean Fortune.”