'The Catholic Church Failed Me. I Despised Myself and Lost All Confidence'
An inquiry into child abuse by Catholic priests is published today. Its impact will be seismic, says victim and author of new book, Colm O'Gorman.
In his autobiography, Colm O'Gorman courageously describes being abused by a Catholic priest Photo: ANDREW CROWLEY
Few men have made such an extraordinary personal journey. Raped and abused in his early teens by Father Sean Fortune, one of Ireland's most notorious paedophiles, Colm O'Gorman ran away from home when he was 17 and lived rough on the streets of Dublin. It was the Seventies, when both church and state were in full-blown denial that any priest could be guilty of sexually abusing a child, and Colm felt only shame and fear. His future could not have been bleaker.
Yet, with effort and determination he fought back, spoke out about the abuse, and in 2002 even tried to sue the Pope arguing that, by moving paedophile priests like Fortune to different parishes and deliberately concealing their actions from the local authorities, the Vatican had failed to protect children like him. He was outraged when the Pope claimed diplomatic immunity but, undaunted, continued to campaign that the authority of the Irish church should not be above that of the State.
Today, nearly 30 years since he was abused, Colm's hour has finally come with the publication of a long-awaited inquiry into child abuse by Roman Catholic priests. The investigation has taken nine years, during which time it has heard the testimony of thousands of former residents of state schools and orphanages over more than 60 years in the Irish Republic
A second report, due to be published in the summer, is expected to criticise the handling of sex-abuse complaints in cases involving up to 500 priests. Colm believes the result of the inquiry will be "seismic."
"It will show that the state has an obligation of care to those who live in the country and can no longer declare that religion and politics don't mix, or that the abuse of children by Catholic priests was not a matter for the state."
The report coincides to the day with the publication of his extraordinary autobiography, in which Colm courageously describes the lows and highs of his remarkable life – a life that has included founding a charity for victims of sexual abuse, becoming a Senator, making a documentary for the BBC called Suing the Pope, and being appointed Ireland's director of Amnesty International.
"At the centre of my book is my own dreadful experience and its impact," he says. "But I also wanted it to cover wider issues. I don't want people to assume that when they see someone in a doorway they know who they are, where they have come from and where they are headed. I also wanted to address the importance of the relationship between father and son and how redeeming it is."
Colm, the second of six children, had a distant relationship with his own father, Sean, a farmer turned councillor, when he was a boy, and the two men only became close a year or so before his father died of cancer in his early sixties.
I have interviewed several sufferers of systematic sexual abuse, but Colm, almost uniquely, doesn't come across as a victim. Nor is he self-conscious or bitter. He fixes you with his eyes as he speaks and seems totally at ease with himself as we talk in a smart central London café.
Did he make a conscious decision not to be a victim? "There wasn't a moment when I thought I won't allow this to happen," he replies. "But I didn't dare address my feelings until I was in my early thirties. Until then, I only reacted to the external world, not my internal one. I believe you are only a victim because you are powerless to be anything else, and that being a survivor of sexual abuse is a positive thing to be."
Colm grew up in Adamstown, County Wexford, and was 14 when he first met Father Sean Fortune, then in his late 20s. Fortune cynically groomed the former altar boy and his mother, Josie, now 72, flattering them both and asking Colm to help him with a youth group in his parish a few miles from the seaside resort of Fethard-on-Sea, in the south-west of the county.
When Colm agreed, he drove him to his home and raped him. Colm was too scared to tell anyone. "He made it seem as though it was my fault and I knew it would be my word against his," he says. Colm was then ruthlessly abused for almost two years. The effect was devastating.
"I despised myself, lost all my confidence and any plan I had for my life, such as university and a career, went out of the window. I remember on one occasion when I was 15 and Fortune came to collect me, trying desperately to tell my mother what was happening so that I didn't have to be with him. But I was unable to find the words and, not knowing the truth, she made me go. As I got into his car, I felt absolute hopelessness."
When Colm was 16, his mother decided to leave Ireland and moved to an ashram in India, taking three of her six children with her. Colm and two other siblings stayed with their father. The marriage was effectively over, and a few months later, in February 1984, Colm ran away to Dublin. He had no money and for seven months allowed men to have sex with him in return for a night's sleep in a bed and a hot shower.
Gradually he hauled himself out of the gutter by working first as a waiter, and then fund-raising for a charity. He was reunited with his family when he was 18, confiding then to his sister, Barbara, and his father about the abuse. "My father apologised to me for not knowing what was happening. It was a tremendous thing because I had spent all my life terrified of what would happen if he found out."
His shocked father had no idea what to do and Colm let the matter rest, moving to London in 1986 where he trained as a therapist.
It was only in 1995, however, that Colm found the courage to go to the police. "It was 14 years after I was first abused, but I couldn't have done it before. I went because I was concerned others might be suffering as I did, and that the Church was condoning it by not doing anything. My statement to the detective took me two days to make and was the first time that the truth of what Fortune had done to me began to emerge.
"In the months that followed, others came forward, which was both shocking and a comfort for me because it meant I wasn't alone. It took another 18 months before I began to realise that the Church had received earlier complaints about Fortune, and that they knew that he may have abused boys before he was even ordained. But that they did nothing."
The knowledge made Colm determined to bring the priest to justice. Fortune's trial was set for March 2, 1999 when he faced 66 charges of abusing children. Eleven days into the trial, he killed himself with whisky and prescription drugs, denying his many victims their first chance to be heard.
Colm is neither vindictive, nor forgiving. "Forgiving him isn't in my gift," he says. "My understanding of forgiveness is based on a Catholic model of confession and absolution and I can't absolve him. But I have forgiven myself."
Colm went on successfully to sue the Catholic Church and received a payment of 300,000 euros and a historic public apology in court. "As for the Pope ducking out," he says, "I think it is an obscenity and I remain outraged by the failure of the Vatican. They are not responsible for what Fortune did but they should take responsibility for what they did, in concealing the issue.
"With the stroke of a pen, Benedict XVI could make a law demanding high standards of child protection across the Catholic world and do more to protect the welfare of children than any other human being, but he hasn't done it."
Meanwhile Colm's life has moved on. He has returned to Ireland and for the past 10 years has lived with Paul Fyffe, an IT teacher. They are joint guardians of two children aged 12 and 10, whose mother has died, and who live with them.
"I love family life," he says. "I am now a very happy man personally, but also delighted that there is a major change in Ireland and that people are no longer reluctant to question the authority of the Church."
Beyond Belie' by Colm O'Gorman (Hodder & Stoughton) is available from Telegraph Books for £11.99 + £1.25 p&p. To order, call 0844 871 1515 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk