The evil in Ferns
By Fergal Keane
October 26, 2005
It takes the Ferns Report 53 full pages to recount the stories of abuse told to them by the victims of the Church in the Diocese of Ferns. Children as young as eight were taken from their classrooms while preparing for their Communion and abused, patients in hospitals were molested, schoolboys were raped in public toilets, a teenage girl was told she would have her child taken from her if she ever told that the father was a priest who raped her, married men were blackmailed into providing sexual favours, and it goes on and on and on.
Never yet in the history of this State has a catalogue of abuse been so faithfully and so terribly chronicled. The child abuse listed in the first report into industrial schools almost pales into comparison, such is the catalogue of horror coming from Ferns. What is more shocking is that the abuse came so recently, it was still happening in the 1990s, yet the church authorities did more or less nothing until forced to act by public exposure.
Nor is the looking away and ignoring the problem confined to the Diocese of Ferns. Almost every senior bishop of the time is named here in some capacity. We are told how when one seminarian went to Bishop Newman of Limerick to complain that Michael Ledwith of Maynooth had abused him, Newman was so abruptly dismissive of the boy that the bishop's own secretary suggested he go to see Cardinal Cathal Daly. At other stages Eamon Casey, Cardinal Tomas O'Fiaich, Archbishop Desmond Ryan, Bishop Kevin McNamara, were all told of allegations, but little if anything was done.
However, most cases were dealt with at a local level and in this context the report's conclusions on the actions of Bishop Brendan Comiskey, and his predecessor, Bishop Donal Herlihy, is utterly damning.
While still a bishop and someone who still commanded some respect as a member of the clergy and as a human being, Comiskey was said by some to be an arrogant bully. That arrogance was fully on display in how he dealt with the abuse perpetrated by Fr James Grennan. Grennan was a paedophile who showed his victims no mercy. In a period of over 20 years he abused children as young as five years old. He started to abuse one girl, known as "Deborah" in the report, when she was five. She said previously she wrote to Comiskey about it in 1993 and received no reply, Comiskey denied ever receiving the letter. Deborah committed suicide in 2002.
In 1988 Grennan sexually assaulted ten girls while preparing them for Confirmation. They complained to their school principal, who in turn brought in the South Eastern Health Board. The board fully investigated the complaints and asked that Grennan be kept away from the school. As the local parish priest, Grennan was the effective boss of the school, and the principal could do little or nothing to keep him away. Disgracefully, the Department of Education did nothing.
Comiskey dismissed the testimony of the girls, without ever meeting them, or without seeing the Health Board reports. He took Grennan's denials at face value, even if no one else in the diocese did. In one of the most bizarre passages in the report, we are told how Mr John Jackman, a Knight of Columbanus and a lay person of some influence in the community, was approached by a garda who was also a Knight, and asked if he could get Comiskey to persuade Grennan to stay away from the upcoming Confirmation. A local garda was asked by his superintendent to try the same thing.
In the end Comiskey accompanied Grennan to the Confirmation, in a day the Bishop described as one being "full of joy". It may have been for him, but it wasn't for the parents of the ten abused children or their families, some of whom staged a walkout of the church. The walkout finally started the wheels in motion which was to bring the whole evil saga out into the open, but the Garda files on the case were buried somewhere, a decision of which the report is highly critical.
Or take the case of Canon Martin Clancy, an abuser for nearly 30 years. The report finds that he used the national school in Ballindaggin, over which he had supervision, as little more than a means of accessing children to abuse. His victims were as young as eight years of age. One girl, who he started abusing at aged 11 in 1971, gave birth to his child after he raped her when she was 14. He told her that if she ever told anyone that he was the father she would have her little girl taken away from her. By way of helping her bring up his child he gave her two cheques each for the sum of £500.
Rumours and suspicions surrounded this evil paedophile for years, yet no one acted. Comiskey was seriously wrong, the report says, in believing he could take no action against him. And in conclusion it finds that the Diocese of Ferns put its own interests and that of its priests ahead of its congregations and the children over whom it exercised influence. Of course the above doesn't mention Sean Fortune, surely one of the most evil abusers we have yet heard of, or the 15 unnamed priests who abused in the same diocese. Fortune has 25 victims listed in the report, the others range from 11 victims down to one. Their tales make very hard reading indeed. They are the stuff of nightmares and the common thread is that almost none of them were dealt with satisfactorily until the arrival in Ferns of Bishop Eamonn Walsh.
You wonder if what happened in Ferns can happen again, if lessons have been learned. As I write this, RTÉ is broadcasting the final instalment of the series Altered States, documenting the gradual and difficult separation of church and state in Ireland over the last forty years. It ends with a recounting of the sweetheart deal made between the 18 religious congregations and the last government, in the person of former Minister for Education, Michael Woods, over the issue of abuse. The Church will pay €128 million, the State will be stuck with a bill of over €700. The congregations' claim that they couldn't afford to pay any more, and Michael Woods's tears as he claimed to have had only the interests of the victims in mind, were vomit inducing. No lessons learnt by the Church there, only how to avoid picking up the tab.