|Lawsuit Filed over Abuse Allegations
By Tom Mooney
June 17, 2008
PROVIDENCE — A Massachusetts man yesterday filed suit against the Catholic Diocese of Providence, alleging he was molested as a second grader in the late 1960s by an Irish priest who served as pastor at Our Lady of Mercy in East Greenwich.
The accused priest, the Rev. Brendan Smyth, became a notorious figure in the annals of clergy abuse before his death in prison in 1997. His admissions to assaulting numerous children in Ireland are said to have figured prominently in the collapse of the coalition government there in the 1990s.
Smyth's cases in Ireland also included an extraordinary written acknowledgment on the part of one of his supervisors that he and others had known for decades about Father Smyth's "problem" with children.
Yesterday, Jeff Thomas, a 47-year-old contractor, said Smyth molested and sodomized him in 1967 or 1968. The assaults, said Thomas' lawyer, Jeffrey R. Anderson, came either before Smyth left or soon after he returned to Rhode Island from Ireland, where he had received "treatment" for his pedophilia.
The suit, which also names as a defendant Smyth's order of the Norbertine Fathers, alleges that the "defendants knew that Smyth had sexually molested numerous children and that Smyth was a danger to children before Smyth molested and/or sexually abused" Thomas.
Said Anderson yesterday on the steps of Superior Court: "They have known about this guy and [his] pedophile behavior for five decades. This isn't about Brendan Smyth. He was sick. He couldn't control himself." The suit is aimed at those supervisors who "could have controlled him and they chose not to."
In a statement yesterday, the diocese said it "takes very seriously all allegations regarding clergy abuse and has been in the forefront of instituting and improving policies and procedures for preventing sexual abuse, educating personnel and investigating allegations."
The diocese declined to comment on Thomas' specific charges, saying the case is now in litigation and its lawyers had not had an opportunity to review the entire claim.
Thomas said the memories of the alleged assaults came back to him last year after a former neighbor and fellow student of Our Lady of Mercy School called. She said she had been abused by Smyth and was wondering whether others in the neighborhood had, too.
When Thomas saw a photograph of Smyth, his face "turned green" said Thomas' wife, Deb.
The suit asked for at least $10,000 in damages. But Anderson said its bigger intent is to force the diocese, under Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, to "come clean" with the list of all priests who have been accused of molestation "so this can't continue and the secrets aren't allowed to be kept."
Smyth eventually returned to Ireland where, by 1993, officials in both British-ruled Northern Ireland and across the border in the Irish Republic were preparing separate cases against him with more than 80 alleged accounts of molestation.
The cases were front-page news in both countries, where the church came under attack for its secret handling of Smyth.
The political fallout from the Irish Republic's seven-month delay in extraditing Smyth to Northern Ireland eventually brought down the coalition government of Prime Minister Albert Reynolds in November 1994.
A year later, Smyth, then 66, pleaded guilty in Northern Ireland to molesting five girls and three boys during a 24-year period. A judge there sentenced him to four years in prison. Meanwhile across the border in the Irish Republic, prosecutors were pulling together more than 74 other offenses against Smyth.
In a letter sent to a television station in Ulster, the Norbertine abbot who had been Father Smyth's religious superior for 25 years, the Rt. Rev. Kevin Smith, acknowledged that he and others had known for decades that Father Smyth had a "problem" with children.
Smith wrote that supervisors thought they could deal with it by having Smyth reassigned every two or three years to prevent him from forming "attachments to families and children."
Two of those assignments involved duty in the United States: three years as a parish priest at Our Lady of Mercy parish, and years later in North Dakota. In both places, according to the superior, Father Smyth molested children. "On neither occasion was the bishop of the diocese to which he was sent notified of [Father Smyth's] propensity to molest children…. On both occasions Father Smyth offended against young parishioners," the abbott said.
"I acknowledge that I, as his religious superior, committed a grave error in sending Father Smyth abroad without warning the bishop to whom I sent him."
The letter from Abbot Smith stated that in 1968 — the year Father Smyth left Rhode Island — the religious order sought treatment for him at Purdysburn Hospital in Belfast, where "aversion techniques" were used.
"At that time, psychiatrists believed that this was the appropriate treatment for his disorder," the abbot wrote. "In time, it became apparent that it was not effective in this case. In 1973, Fr. Smyth was again sent for treatment, this time at St. Patrick's Psychiatric Hospital in Dublin. In 1974, Fr. Smyth was institutionalized for a time at Stroud in Gloucestershire [England]."
Fifteen years later, in 1989, the Norbertines referred him for treatment to a psychologist in Dublin who continued to meet with him until late in 1993.
Wrote the abbot: "Father Smyth's behavior has perplexed and troubled our community over many years. We always hoped that a combination of treatment, Fr. Smyth's intelligence and the grace of God would enable Fr. Smyth to overcome his disorder. We did not adequately understand the compulsive nature of his disorder or the serious and enduring damage which his behavior could cause."
Smyth died in 1997 of a heart attack while serving a new, 12-year prison sentence in the Irish Republic. He was 70.
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