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Profile: Champion for the Abused Valiantly Joins Political Fray: Colm O'Gorman

The Sunday Times [Ireland], April 30, 2006

It was July 1984 and Colm O'Gorman wanted to tell his sister that he had been sexually abused by Fr Sean Fortune. But the words wouldn't come. Instead, he told her he was gay and that he had been having an affair with the priest, a monstrous character who eventually committed suicide in 1999 while facing 66 charges of molesting young people.

A few years earlier, when he was 15, and the abuse was going on, O'Gorman tried to tell his mother what was happening. Fortune was waiting downstairs in their home in Wexford, about to take him away for a weekend. It was the third such trip and O'Gorman knew what would happen, but such was the fear that the words wouldn't come on that occasion either.

Fortune had told his young victim that he was the one with the problem. At the time the tactic worked. O'Gorman believed that seeking help or telling someone what was really going on would be an admission that something wasn't right with himself.

He compared his situation to hanging from the edge of a swimming pool. Because "the words didn't exist" to tell, he just let go — and drowned.

O'Gorman, 39, is no longer short of the confidence to speak out or the courage to jump into the deep end. Last week the director of One in Four, a charity devoted to helping victims of abuse, announced that he would stand for the Progressive Democrats in Wexford at the next general election. He was joining the PDs, he said, out of conviction and a belief that the party was prepared to change things.

It wasn't until a New Year's Eve party in 1995 that O'Gorman finally managed to find the words to tell Barbara, his sister, what Fortune did to him in his teenage years. It was the start of a process that led to the lid being lifted on the most disgraceful and shocking episode in the Catholic church's history in Ireland. But for O'Gorman it was the first step in his development into a strong-willed and eloquent representative for thousands. Little wonder that he was described last week as a "trophy candidate" for the PDs.

The step into national politics is a controversial one and leaves O'Gorman open to more critical scrutiny than he has received to date. On Friday a tabloid newspaper slyly reported on how the "kind-hearted politician" and his partner, Paul Fyffe, are the guardians of two Kenyan children whose mother became too ill to look after them.

O'Gorman had chosen not to talk about the matter because his family had a right to privacy. But the story will have served as a rude awakening to the rough and tumble world of politics.

Deirdre Fitzgerald, who has worked with him for four years at One in Four, says O'Gorman has a "wicked sense of humour, remains calm and focused and deals with whatever comes his way".

"Colm is not afraid to confront things that other people find too difficult. He has huge courage and he can take on challenges within himself and outside too," she said. "He has the inner belief to take this step and sees it as another job that has to be done. He will measure up to it."

Born in 1966, he grew up on a farm in rural Wexford. When he was 11 his family moved to Wexford town, where he became active in church folk groups and youth ventures. Fortune began to abuse him at the age of 14, while he was a student at St Peter's College. O'Gorman had intended to study hotel management in Cathal Brugha Street college in Dublin. As he tried to raise the money to go, his abuser offered him ?300 if he found someone else — someone younger — as a replacement. He fled.

After hitching to Dublin, O'Gorman stayed with friends in Crumlin, but then drifted onto the streets for months, unable to settle. He remembers sleeping under a bush in Ranelagh and in a cubicle in the lavatories in Burger King on O'Connell Street. He was picked up some nights and got a bed.

When his sister Barbara tracked him down in 1984, he had found a job in a restaurant and a place to stay. Even though he couldn't tell her the truth, just telling someone he was gay helped. He became part of the gay scene in Dublin. Previously, when confused about his sexuality, he had thought of himself as "something sick and wrong and evil", but now this changed. "I will never forget the first time I walked into a meeting and realised, 'My God, all these people are like me'," he has said.

On a whim he moved to London in 1986, drifting from one job to the next. He became a restaurant manager in a hotel in Bath, but then quit because he felt he didn't deserve success. Things improved in 1994, after he trained as a physical therapist and, for the first time, began to think deeply about his teenage experience.

Word reached him that Fortune was going to celebrate a family wedding, so he didn't attend. But the priest, according to his sister, was surrounded at the event by a crowd of teenagers. The news triggered O'Gorman into action. He went home, told his father what had happened, and then walked into Wexford garda station and made a statement in March 1995. That action triggered an investigation into Fortune's activities and led to the uncovering of the widespread sexual abuse in the diocese of Ferns and elsewhere.

Back in London, O'Gorman started counselling, trained as a psychotherapist and created a "space that he could move into", something he admits sounds "so bloody Californian".

He realised he was neither a victim nor a survivor of sexual abuse, but someone "who had experienced it". One in Four was established in London in 1999. The organisation took its name from the number of people estimated to suffer some kind of abuse in their lives.

In his new role, O'Gorman contributed to the BBC's Suing the Pope, and when the documentary ignited controversy over clerical abuse, he was there to represent victims, detailing allegations, dealing with inquiries, and being very clear on what needed to happen next.

He has now returned to Wexford and lives near Courtown with Fyffe and their two children in an ecofriendly, timber-framed home. He met Fyffe from Omagh on a blind date in 1999, "and I knew that he was someone special . . . that life would never be the same again".

As a voice for others, he has proved effective, clear-minded, and passionate despite the emotionally draining nature of his work. He has never shied from confrontation, but approaches it in a level-headed way.

When the diocese of Ferns offered O'Gorman a settlement of ˆ300,000 in April 2003, he demanded and received an admission and an apology before accepting it. He fought the state for funding for his charity and won. He recently tackled Bertie Ahern when it seemed the taoiseach was trying to defend the Catholic hierarchy over its failure to respond to abuse revelations. Ahern met O'Gorman to assure him that the comments had been misinterpreted.

When One in Four was struggling to stay open in 2003, U2 pledged ˆ40,000. At the time questions were raised about O'Gorman's own motives. Why, for example, was he paying himself a salary of ˆ80,000 a year while seeking extra funds from the government? He argued that this was an appropriate salary for the director of a charity and the story died.

In 2003, he was presented with an award at the Labour party's annual conference in Tralee. Labour tried to get him to run for the party, but the PDs nipped in and wooed him away.

There are those who see his new political career as a cop-out, and others who feel it will distract him from necessary work with victims.

But political experts believe he has a chance of winning the PDs their first seat in Wexford. Noel Whelan, a political analyst, expects O'Gorman to do well next spring.

"He is clever enough to realise he has work to do and that he has to build a platform for himself. There are five seats in that constituency and some are safe, but others are not, and they are less so now that he has declared his intention to run," Whelan said. "O'Gorman has shown competence and strength, albeit on a single issue."

Whelan thinks the PDs was a shrewd choice. "He could have run as an independent, but it's better for him to have a political infrastructure and to gain publicity by being a central part of the PDs' national campaign," he said.

When he received his compensation payment from the church in 2003, O'Gorman spoke about the closure the outcome of this legal fight had brought him. "For the first time in eight years, I don't have to think about going into a courtroom, waiting to go into battle. For the first time in my life, I feel that it is one worth living," he said.

He has found another battle now, but this time it is one of his own choosing.,,2091-2158143,00.html