lurid litany of child sex abuse that has indicted an entire church
By Liam Collins
Abuse on the altar, a savage sex ring. Liam Collins lists the appalling events in Wexford, and the evasions that led to a bishop's resignation
IT WAS, says former student Ger Walsh, "an academy of debauchery". St Peter's in Wexford, which once had a proud tradition of training priests, had gained by the mid-Seventies a lurid reputation for everything from priests and seminarians "feeling up" the young boys to tales of outright abuse.
At the centre of this terrifying web were "Flapper" and "Paws", Fr Sean Fortune and Fr Donal Collins, whose reputations as paedophiles would grow for two decades until they ended up sitting beside each other in the back of Wexford Court, facing a litany of paedophile charges that last week finally engulfed Bishop Brendan Comiskey, the man who couldn't control them.
Fortune finally killed himself and Collins was let out of jail after serving one year of his four-year sentence, and is now listed in the Catholic directory as "retired".
"St Peter's College was the gossip of the town," said abuse victim Pat Jackman last week. "The local CBS [Christian Brothers] boys would taunt us, calling us homosexuals, and it was correct."
Jackman was one of the four young men who finally came forward to make the BBC documentary that is now threatening the credibility of Cardinal Desmond Connell and Archbishop Sean Brady.
But back then the savage sex ring was an open secret. "When you were told to stay back for 'extra lessons', you knew what that was," says Jackman. Another former student says that pupils would tell each other, "Don't bend down in the yard in front of yer man!"
"Of course, there were complaints against him, even before he was ordained," said one of Fortune's victims, Paul Molloy. "I have heard stories of him in St Peter's College. What went on is just unbelievable."
Sean Fortune was a former Christian Brother training to be a priest. In the college he organised a scout troop so that he could prey on young pupils, and he was known as "Flapper" because he always seemed to be in a hurry, his priestly gown flapping behind him.
Collins, known as "Paws", because he couldn't keep his hands off the boys, was more dangerous and much more senior in the school hierarchy at that time. He was regarded as a brilliant physics teacher, but his sideline was running the swimming club where his "developmental checks" were another excuse for debauchery.
It is a measure of the Church's failure that he ended up as principal of the college before he ended up in prison. One of his favourite yearly events was the Young Scientists Exhibition in Dublin. He brought groups of pupils to it each year and it was in a guesthouse in Ballsbridge that he seriously sexually assaulted at least one of them.
"According to stories from other boys who attended the college, there was one priest whose pastime was standing around the corridors and 'feeling up' the young boys as they went past.
"'He spent most of the time running up and down corridors and catching fellas by the arses' remembers one," said Alison O'Connor in her book on the Wexford sex scandals, A Message From Heaven.
She also details how Fortune plied students with wine and encouraged them to tell dirty stories and how the more normal seminarians brought their girlfriends in for the night.
Pat Jackman, who has given up his job since the programme because so many people have been coming to him to tell their stories of abuse, says one woman who worked in St Peter's College for 19 years told him it was widely known at the time what was going on in the college but when you went to the authorities they "denied all knowledge of it".
The Abused and Abusers
SEAN FORTUNE was to become the most notorious serial paedophile in the history of the Irish church. The son of a forestry worker who died an alcoholic, and a mother who died of an overdose while he was still a teenager, he escaped from a disturbed childhood to a Christian Brothers seminary in Dublin where he styled himself "Brother de Sales". He was ordained a priest in 1979 and would spend the next 20 years of his life building his reputation as the most notorious cleric ever allowed loose by the Irish Church.
"He was the most evil person I have ever met," said MEP Avril Doyle, in whose house he once claimed to live, although she had sold it at the time. Not satisfied with the Christian Brothers, he decided his true vocation was the priesthood, and he was accepted as a seminarian at St Peter's, which was also the local college for the sons of Wexford's well-heeled.
He abused a succession of boys while at St Peter's, in his first parish at Poulfur, Fethard-on-Sea when he arrived in 1981, and for the rest of his career until he finally committed suicide when the then High Court Judge Cyril Kelly granted him bail while awaiting medical assessment, after he was convicted, but before he was sentenced, on 66 charges ofpaedophilia.
One of his victims was 14-year-old Colm O'Gorman, who was abused by Fortune in Poulfur. "After the first time he blackmailed me into going back, I was very shocked and felt guilty," he told Alison O'Connor. Last week he said that when he went back to Fethard-on-Sea to make the television programme he met people who said, "We all knew about that fella at the time."
Transferred out of the parish, Fortune was appointed director of the National Association of Community Broadcasting in late 1988 by Bishop Brendan Comiskey. The bishop had already sent him for assessment and treatment for paedophilia to Dublin and London. After a year he was back to parish duties in the village of Ballymurn, but he was more careful and although he "took the place by storm", he now concentrated on his newly-established venture in Dublin.
This was the Institute of Journalism and Theatre, based in RTE. He sucked in former RTE producer Bill Keating, and also used lecturers like newsreader Michael Murphy and broadcaster Liam Nolan. RTE personality Theresa Lowe presented the students with their certificates at one graduation ceremony, according to Alison O'Connor. Fortune was a master self-publicist, being pictured with the Pope, appearing on TV and in the audience of the Late Late Show.
In February 1995, Colm O'Gorman, then living in London, finally came back to confront his past. He made a statement to Detective Garda Pat Mulcahy and he drove out to the parish of Poulfur where it had all started. By 1995, Bishop Comiskey, Sean Fortune and the whole handling of sex abuse in the Wexford diocese began to surface in the media. The first stories began to appear in the local paper, the Wexford People, followed by reports from Irish Times security correspondent Jim Cusack.
"When the Fortune investigation got underway in March 1995, questions began to be asked publicly about the bishop's role. In the Sunday Independent, Veronica Guerin wrote what was to be the first of many articles on Dr Comiskey, Fr Fortune and the Diocese of Ferns," says Alison O'Connor, in her book A Message from Heaven. Veronica stated that Garda investigations had started seven years earlier, in 1988, when Bishop Comiskey sent a letter of apology to Paul Molloy from Fethard for the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of Sean Fortune.
It was the beginning of a conflict that has continued to haunt Bishop Comiskey, and will continue, despite his resignation.
But it wasn't just Fr Sean Fortune who interested Veronica. The dreadful case of Monageer and Fr Jim Grennan was also coming to her attention.
In April 1988, during preparation for Confirmation, Grennan abused 11 girls on the altar at Monageer church, while he was preparing them to receive the sacrament. A complaint was made to Bishop Comiskey and to the gardai and the Health Board. While the investigation was going on Bishop Comiskey asked Fr Grennan to leave the parish of Monageer, which he did ... for three weeks. He returned on Confirmation day, walking up the little village church behind Bishop Comiskey for the Confirmation. The families of two of the girls who had been abused walked out of the ceremony and the case has left a legacy of bitterness and dissension in the parish.
The investigation by the South Eastern Health board "validated" the claim by the children, but the Garda investigation came to a sudden halt after eight statements were taken from girls who had been abused. Families of the other three didn't want to get involved.
"He was bad," says Jim Gahan, whose daughter Fiona was one of the abused girls. When another daughter of his died tragically four years later, he wanted the priest from the next "half parish" where he now went to Mass to conduct the ceremony. But Grennan wouldn't allow it; to the distress of the Gahans he insisted on standing on the altar and saying the funeral Mass himself. Fr Grennan remained in Monageer until his death in 1994. Following his death, a young boy of 13 tried to commit suicide and he alleged this was because of sexual abuse by Fr Grennan. Only last week a girl who was allegedly raped by him in 1994 has come forward.
Eighteen months before Dr Comiskey arrived in the diocese, in October 1982, Monsignor Fechin O'Doherty warned the local bishop that Fr Jim Doyle should not be allowed near young boys. Around the same time a priest in the diocese also warned Bishop Herlihy about Fr Doyle.
Doyle was convicted in 1990 of the sexual abuse of a young Wexford boy and received a suspended sentence. Bishop Comiskey relieved Doyle of his pastoral duties as a result of the case and the priest went to England, where there was controversy and anger among parents that he was allowed to work with children.
In 1999, Fr Donal Collins, the former principal of St Peter's College in Wexford, had served three years of a four-year sentence for indecent assault and gross indecency against teenage boys suspended. Now in his 60s, he was released from prison in 1999 on the grounds of ill health. He is currently listed in the diocesan directory as one of the priests "retired, leave or on sabbatical".
WHEN Bishop Brendan Comiskey arrived in the Diocese of Ferns in May 1984, it is said that complaints about all of these priests were in the files in Summerhill House in Wexford. Locally, people claim that by the time he left last week they were "from floor to ceiling". Most of them concerned Fr Sean Fortune, whom the bishop finally admitted he found "virtually impossible to deal with".
"I confronted him regularly; for a time, I removed him from ministry; I sought professional advice in several quarters; I listened to the criticisms and the praise; I tried compassion and I tried firmness; treatment was sought and arranged ... and yet I never managed to achieve any level of satisfactory outcome," said the bishop in his resignation statement.
The first properly documented complaint from Poulfur about Sean Fortune came in 1984 when a local couple sat down with a priest friend and compiled a chronicle of his misdeeds. One section detailed the "adverse influence on youth and family relationships" which they felt he was encouraging in the parish.
It wasn't couched in today's explicit language but it should have been enough to frighten any bishop in that more pious age. But according to Alison O'Connor they didn't even get an acknowledgement. They followed it up with a visit to the bishop, who wanted to know if parishioners thought Fortune was homosexual. When nothing happened, they said: "We just stood back from it and looked after our kids."
In the summer of 1987, Paul Molloy told Fr Fortune's successor about the abuse he suffered. He was asked to write a letter to the bishop, which he did, and he was taken to All Hallows where he recounted his story to a priest. (This is the same story that Veronica Guerin wrote about, but at the time Paul Molloy didn't know where he had been taken and thought it was Maynooth.)
Bishop Comiskey went on radio and denied that anybody had been interviewed in Maynooth (he knew it was All Hallows) and said he had written no such letter apologising for the sexual crimes of the priest in question. The letter, apparently now lost, was couched in terms that did not mention sex abuse.
In November 1994, parishioners in Ballymurn sent a petition to Dr Comiskey about their curate, Fr Fortune. The letter they sent him, marked "Private and confidential", did not concern sexual abuse, but the bishop's reply could not have been more clear-cut: "You must know that such a document cannot be treated as 'private and confidential' and is recoverable. The person against whom the accusations are made has the right to see who is making the accusations against him. The star chamber is no longer in operation." He also told them "his" Fr Fortune's legal people had asked to see it.
When gardai began investigating the "academy of debauchery" allegations, Bishop Comiskey came back to them only after three calls, and then said that he had spoken to more senior members of the force and had nothing to add.
Sean Fortune was a liar but, according to people in Wexford, in the end he was going around Wexford saying, "If I go down he's coming with me," referring to Dr Comiskey. Ger Walsh remembered a function in the bishop's residence, Summerhill House, which went on until 4am and where Fortune acted as barman.
What happened with Fr Jim Grennan in Monageer now seems incredible, and has not yet been properly explained by the gardai. After statements were taken from eight of the girls who had been abused, local gardai, who had carried out their duties with diligence, were asked to send the handwritten statements to Enniscorthy.
According to a Prime Time special in 1995, Supt Vincent Smyth said that a "thorough and diligent investigation on foot of communications from the South Eastern Health board" resulted in all the families concerned being interviewed. But, he said, "there was no firm evidence forthcoming to proceed with a case".
Bishop Comiskey said, on his return from America in January 1996, "to the best of my knowledge the Garda Siochana have issued a statement since I left, saying they could not find cause against the priest". However, the Garda Press Office said that no such statement was issued and told Veronica Guerin in January 1996: "The investigation into allegations of sexual abuse against Fr Grennan stopped suddenly and without explanation."
Gardai involved in the investigation told Veronica Guerin at the time that in their opinion there was ample evidence to prosecute. Former Garda Chief Supt in Wexford, Jim Doyle, said at the time that he had visited Bishop Comiskey in relation to the case. He said he told the bishop that the parishioners didn't want Grennan back in the parish. But he turned up at the Confirmation anyway.
An investigation into the investigation had been ordered by former Garda Commissioner Jim Culligan. Following renewed interested the current Garda Commissioner, Pat Byrne, said the original Garda investigation into Grennan was inadequate and was not brought to a satisfactory conclusion. It also found there was no "collusion". But when gardai went to look at the original file they found it was missing. It remains missing to this day. The Garda Press Office refused last week to confirm reports that internal investigation also found that the Garda Siochana would not confront senior churchmen in Wexford about sex abuse in the region.
After he returned from the United States, where he had been treated for alcoholism, Bishop Comiskey was questioned about the Monageer case. He said he could not remove the priest because gardai did not find any case against him. Asked if he regretted the way he had dealt with it, he replied that those were the procedures that were in place at the time.
However, Jimmy Gahan, the father of one of the children, could not accept this explanation. "The problem should have been resolved there and then and not allowed to drag on," he said. "At the very least he should not have allowed the priest back into the parish on Confirmation Day."
Three months after the incident, Dr Comiskey was given a copy of the report from the South Eastern Health Board, but he left Fr Grennan in Monageer.
Jimmy Gahan says two detectives from Cork took a statement from him on the investigation and assured him they would be back, but he never heard from them again. It is also curious that the South Eastern Health Board, which "validated" the girls' claim, did not follow it up further, even when Grennan came back into the parish and remained there until his death.
On the question of Fr Jim Doyle, Bishop Comiskey conceded that he had sought advice from "a counsellor" but his recollection was that there was that there was no risk to children.
In the face of mounting criticism and complaints, Bishop Comiskey relied more and more on the legal advice he was getting, and legal advice by its very nature is cautious, has nothing to do with the feelings of those who suffered and is simply used as a cover for real action.
THE problem for the bishop was that it wasn't just the media who wanted answers. A growing number of people who had lived in communities which had been torn asunder by these few priests and their activities also wanted some sort of comfort.
As Donnacha MacGloinn, one of the abuse victims, put it last week: "Bishop Comiskey needs to stop running. Why are they so afraid of us? We have never been confrontational." Most of the hurt and the damaged were actually idealistic young men and women who had been part of the Church, and as such were preyed upon.
Bishop Brendan Comiskey publicly confronted the questions that were asked of his "stewardship" on his return from America in 1996. He consulted with his advisors and friends and he had many. He also consulted his solicitors, as he had consulted them on many occasions.
His press conference afterwards was masterful. He gave so much information about his own personal turmoil and there were so many people anxious to ask questions that when it came down to the nitty-gritty and details of how he had handled sex abuse claims, he was able to confound his critics with the claim that he had at all times acted on accusations against his priests.
"I have no problem admitting mistakes, but I want to say at the outset that there has never been a single case of child abuse in this diocese which has been brought to my attention which I have failed to act upon. I have never ignored an accusation," he said at that time.
That doesn't square with letting Fr Fortune back into a parish when he knew he was abusing children; or allowing Fr Grennan back to Monageer when the Health Board and the local gardai accepted he had abused some of the girls he was preparing for Confirmation.
But all of that was lost and, for the last six years, Bishop Comiskey continued as Bishop of Ferns while the majority of people grew weary of the latest case, the latest allegation and the latest sordid detail of clerical sex abuse.
The whole ugly mess just wore us out ... until suddenly the BBC put it all in perspective with its documentary Suing the Pope, which told the stories of Donnacha MacGloinn, Colm O'Gorman, Pat Jackman and others.
Bishop Comiskey no longer says he "never ignored an accusation"; he now says, "I can only assure you that I did my best. Clearly this was not enough."
The bishop resigned.
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