Email Us My Blog



Time for Healing Through Acknowledgment and Atonement

Irish Times, September 16, 2002

RITE AND REASON:  The State inquiry into child sex abuse in the Ferns diocese must examine what those who had knowledge or responsibility in these cases did - or failed to do, says Colm O'Gorman. 

This week the Government is expected to respond to the proposals by Mr George Bermingham SC for a State inquiry into child sex abuse in the Catholic diocese of Ferns in the wake of the BBC documentary Suing the Pope.

It is five months since the broadcast and it is seven years since Seán Fortune was first arrested and questioned about his abuse of young boys. After all this time, why do we need an inquiry and what can we hope to achieve by yet another examination of these cases?

I have been asked these questions many times over the past seven years. It sometimes seems to me that our desperate need to get over all this and move on is perhaps the best indication of just how traumatic this whole issue is for Irish society. How can we ever come to terms with having to question the most influential authority in our society about its part in the abuse of children?

It has been a painful time for us all: victims, Church and laity alike. In April, a nun was abused and spat on in O'Connell Street and members of the clergy are reluctant to wear their clerical garb in public. Its seems incredible that the institution that was at the centre of our culture and identity, the Church that determined our attitude to ourselves and how we live, could be so undermined, so discredited. So where now?

A focused inquiry into Ferns offers a real way forward. We know that the same failures have happened in dioceses across the Republic but the Catholic Church hierarchy seems to have had unique knowledge about a significant number of cases in Ferns.

Fortune's parishioners, for example, wrote to successive bishops, the then Catholic primate Cardinal Cahal Daly and, finally, to the Papal Nuncio who, in response, confirmed that the Holy See had been made aware of their concerns.

Given that the Church had already received numerous complaints about Fortune's abuse of boys, it seems incredible that the Vatican would not have uncovered allegations of abuse as part of any investigation into his ministry.

An examination of other cases in Ferns - including most notably allegations made against Micheal Ledwith, the then president of St Patrick's College, Maynooth - suggests that many of Ireland's most senior clerics have questions to answer.

It is therefore vital that this inquiry undertakes an examination in detail of what knowledge existed within the Catholic Church hierarchy in Ireland about these alleged paedophile priests.

If it fails to do this, if this inquiry dodges its most vital and groundbreaking work, then it becomes redundant before it even begins. The inquiry must undertake a full and wider examination of what those in all agencies, both at local and national levels, who had knowledge or responsibility in these cases, did or indeed failed to do.

We all know bishops Herlihy and Comiskey failed spectacularly in a number of cases. But there is a wider responsibility to uncover and surely this is the fundamental point that the Catholic Church internationally, and most notably the Vatican, has failed to grasp.

We know that priests raped and abused countless children. The point of further examination is to acknowledge the abuse that Church leaders, all the way to Rome, are responsible for: the abuse of our faith in them, and the abuse of the privilege and trust that we accorded them evidenced by their negligence and failure to act.

In the past seven years, the eyes and ears of the world have cast more than a cursory glance at us in the wake of the Seán Fortune story. We can now show the world that Ireland is not the land of submissive and blind faith that it once was. We can show that those who collude and allow children to be abused will have to explain their actions, be they civil servants, gardaí or even Church leaders.

Most importantly, we can offer a genuine opportunity of acknowledgment and healing to those who we have collectively abandoned and, in some cases, to those who found that abandonment too much to live with.

If I ever need to remember how important this inquiry is beyond my own personal case, all I have to do is recall sitting with the parents of Peter Fitzpatrick, who shot himself in the chest at the age of 23 having disclosed that he too had been victim to Seán Fortune's prolific offending. I remember how Monica and John, for the first time since Peter's death, voiced their heartbreak and acknowledged the reason they always suspected lay behind Peter's suicide.

The devastation caused by childhood rape will never simply go away on its own, It won't get better in time or fade. It has to be lived with and worked through.

What we can do now is offer the only healing possible, the healing that can and will come from acknowledgment and genuine atonement. The kind of healing that the Church taught us all about. The kind of healing that they have so far failed to allow us.

Colm O'Gorman is founder/ director of One in Four, an organisation set up to help those who suffered sexual abuse as children. He also took part in the Suing the Pope documentary.