High-profile curate's actions and attitudes generated a great deal of local resentment
March 15, 1999
Locals in Ballymurn, Co Wexford, thought it strange that there was no announcement in the local paper about the appointment of Father Sean Fortune to the parish. But, true to form, he soon raised his own profile by getting involved in local organisations. They remember him as being full of energy.
"He took the place by storm and wanted to get involved in everything going. He would do huge amounts of work, but nobody could go against him. If things were not going his way, he would appoint his own people to a committee", explained one man from Ballymurn, a curacy in the Crossabeg parish.
Just as he had done in Fethard-on-Sea, Father Fortune became involved in setting up FAS schemes. He established the Ballymurn Development Association and took charge. The association was involved in the upkeep of the village, the church, the graveyards and other communal areas. "There was good work done", said one man.
But rumour had it that the priest was docking money from those on the FAS schemes for "administrative fees". In fact, according to FAS sources, the full amount was being paid, but the workers were "voluntarily" handing over the money - up to £6 a week and £19 for a supervisor. However, since no official complaint was made, FAS did not act.
All invoices relating to the FAS scheme from that time have apparently been checked and are in order. However, the priest was seemingly ordering huge amounts of paper, reportedly for printing the parish newsletter. People now suspect that this was being used by him in broadcasting courses he ran in Dublin, charging £1,000 per student. AS didn't really put them under any pressure", said one man who had been involved with the schemes.
In June 1992, Bishop Brendan Comiskey responded to a Ballymurn parishioner who had expressed concern about Father Fortune's involvement in the FAS schemes. In the letter, seen by The Irish Times, the bishop said that he would "certainly look into the matter raised", adding: "But I think the best thing you could do would be to contact FAS directly."
Two months later, the bishop responded to another parishioner, who has since died, saying that there had been discussion for some time about Father Fortune "dissociating himself from further FAS schemes due to an increased priestly and media workload".
The bishop's letter stated: "This is in no way a reflection on Father Fortune, about whom I received the highest reports from FAS offices in Wexford and Waterford . . ." AS scheme on condition that they no longer call upon the services of Father Fortune specifically in the area of FAS schemes or anything connected with such schemes."
Some people believe that the priest made up to £6,000 over two years from FAS workers. "No one knows the exact amount", said a parishioner. "There was talk that he was apparently going to give it back, but his house was mysteriously burgled and £10,000 was stolen." Gardai investigated, but no arrests were made.
At one point the priest asked a stonemason to carve the names of families buried in the graveyard on a stone plaque. The man agreed to do the work for the "benefit of the parish". However, while carrying out the task, he found out elsewhere that those having their names carved were paying £50 each for the privilege.
A particularly bizarre episode involved Father Fortune and another priest who was conducting a mission in the parish. A local man said that the two priests arrived at his house demanding to know why the man's mother had not attended the mission. "We asked them to leave and they made an almighty fuss, which was very frightening for my mother, who suffers from high blood pressure. They came again the next night."
The man wrote to Dr Comiskey to complain. The bishop responded in November 1993, in a letter seen by The Irish Times. He stated that he wanted to hear Father Fortune's and the second priest's "defence" of their behaviour. "To do that, I will need your permission to send them a copy of your letter." The man also wrote a letter of complaint to Cardinal Cahal Daly. In response, in December 1994, the cardinal said that he was "sorry" for the upset the man and his mother had felt.
The man said it took until April 1994 for the bishop to meet him in relation to the matter. The bishop had told him that there had been a number of complaints about the priest from his previous position, but he could not guarantee that he would do anything.
Another story told in the parish is that Father Fortune double-booked two weddings for the same day because the couples had told him they did not want him to marry them. Such was the anger following this that a petition was signed by some 50 people in November 1994, requesting a change in the curacy. This was sent to the bishop.
In May 1995, Dr Comiskey responded in a letter, months after Father Fortune had left the parish, saying that he was confused because the document had been marked private and confidential. "The person against whom the accusation is made has the right to see who is making the accusations against him. The star chamber is no longer in operation", he wrote. In addition, said Dr Comiskey, "his legal people have asked for a copy of this and I have given it to them since it is recoverable".
There was also a controversy involving the local school. A temporary teacher was appointed who was very popular with children and parents. However, Father Fortune insisted on appointing a different teacher to the full-time position. There was a six-week boycott of the school.
Father Fortune left the parish in March 1995. "He said Mass in a very hurried fashion and was collected by someone. The house was practically stripped of everything", said a parishioner.
The parishioners were told that Father Fortune was on administrative leave and Dr Comiskey paid warm tribute to him in a letter read at Masses in Ballymurn. The congregation was told that he had sought to be relieved of his post. Subsequently, the diocesan spokesman said that he had been suspended from officiating at all church duties.