At St Peter’s
By Colm Tóibín
London Review of Books
December 1, 2005
Ferns Report by Francis Murphy, Helen Buckley and Laraine
Government Publications, 271 pp, €6.00, October 2005, ISBN
0 7557 7299 7
Everybody was afraid of Dr Sherwood. My mother was afraid of him
at meetings of Pax Romana, the lay Catholic discussion group in
Enniscorthy, our town, because he had a way of glaring at women
members when they spoke. He didn’t, it seemed, like women
speaking. At St Peter’s College, the seminary and boarding-school
where I went at the age of 15 in 1970, he was dean of the seminary,
but he had once been dean of discipline of the boarding-school,
and had a fearsome reputation as a merciless wielder of the strap.
I studied him carefully when I first saw him; he was gaunt and unsmiling.
Soon, even though he had no business on the lay side, I saw him
at work. Four or five of us were hanging around the squash courts
after lights out. When he saw us, he stood quietly at first and
watched us; then he picked on the most innocent and vulnerable boy.
He called him over and began to interrogate him while pinching one
cheek hard and then the other cheek and then pulling his ears with
enormous slow ferocity and then moving to his slow-growing sideburns
until he had almost lifted our poor friend off the ground. Dr Sherwood
was evil. I made up a song about him with a vile chorus.
Soon, he was replaced as dean of the seminary, although he still
hovered darkly in corridors. The new dean, Dr Ledwith, was young
and friendly and open and very good-looking. He was also reputed
to be really smart. One of my friends knew him from home so he often
stopped to talk to us. He was a new breed of priest; he had studied
in Europe and America. Many of the teaching priests spent their
summers in parishes in America so they were full of new ideas. Everything
was open for discussion, or almost everything. I went to a brilliant
lecture by Dr Ledwith on ideas of paradox within Catholic doctrine.
It was whispered that he would one day be a great prince of the
I got to know some of the other priests and realised that for some
students – there were three hundred boarders – being
friends with a priest meant that you could go up to his room and
hang out, make phone calls, listen to music, watch TV. I became
friends with a few of the priests, but in my last year became especially
friendly with a physics teacher, Father Collins, because my best
mate was one of his brightest students.
All of the teaching priests, except Father Collins, had rooms off
a corridor in a modern extension. Father Collins’s rooms were
in an older building. It was easy to go up and down to his room
without being noticed, as the two other priests in his part of the
building were often away. His stereo system was amazing. I listened
to Tommy there and Jesus Christ Superstar. He
always had a box of sweets. I could ring home on his telephone.
On Saturday nights after lights out, with his full connivance, we
could break all the rules and sneak up to his room and watch The
Late Late Show, a controversial chat show on Irish television.
We were often there until after midnight.
After The Late Late Show, we would switch over to a British
channel to watch a programme about new films. One night, without
any warning, it showed the naked fight scene between Alan Bates
and Oliver Reed in Women in Love. I was pretty interested
in the clip, but I knew to keep quiet afterwards. Modesty was a
primary virtue at the school: there were doors on each shower and
we all slept in cubicles. In the debating society everything was
open to discussion except homosexuality, which no one would have
even thought of mentioning.
I knew that Father Collins took a very dim view of homosexuality
because he had deeply disapproved when I told a joke about Oscar
Wilde at the debating society. And when a friend, who looked slightly
effeminate in any case, began to part his hair in the middle, he
was told by Father Collins that it was better to part it at the
side; a middle parting, he said, was a sign of homosexuality. Nonetheless,
there were often vague whisperings about Father Collins. I knew
that he liked my friend, but I never allowed myself to think too
much about the implications of that. Nothing ever happened.
The dormitory was overseen by a seminarian whom I liked and respected.
He was fair-minded and decent. Through him, I got to know another
seminarian called James Doyle. He would stop and talk if we met
in the corridor, even though fraternisation between seminarians
and lay students was frowned on. He had many opinions and enjoyed
gossip and had a habit of winding me up so I could never quite tell
whether he was serious or not. I liked him.
In the second half of the 1990s these three men – Michael
Ledwith, Donal Collins and James Doyle – became part of the
pantheon of Irish priests whose names were often mentioned on the
news. In 1990 James Doyle pleaded guilty to indecent assault and
common assault on a young man and was given a three-month suspended
sentence. Five years later, Dr Ledwith resigned suddenly as president
of Maynooth College, Ireland’s main seminary, and went to
America. He had been secretary to three synods of world bishops
in Rome and had served three full terms on the International Theological
Commission, the group of 30 theologians who advise the pope. He
had made a private settlement with a young man after allegations
of inappropriate sexual behaviour. He is no longer involved with
the Catholic Church. In 1998 Father Collins was sentenced to four
years’ imprisonment, after pleading guilty to four charges
of indecent assault and one charge of gross indecency at St Peter’s
College between 1972 and 1984.
These men and others like them became public enemies; they were
often filmed leaving courthouses with anoraks over their heads (although
it should be emphasised that Dr Ledwith never faced any charges
in court). Part of the reason Doyle was given a suspended sentence
was that he promised to leave the Republic of Ireland. He went to
England. The country wanted rid of these priests.
Everyone in the country had strong opinions about these men. And
so did I. Mine had their roots, I suppose, in the fact that I had
known these people and liked them and in the fact that I was gay.
The word being used to describe them was ‘paedophile’,
which struck me as wrong. They were simply gay; they had believed
that their homosexuality, in all its teenage confusion, was a vocation
to the priesthood. Whereas other boys, as religious as they were,
could not become priests because they were attracted to women, these
men had no such problem. No one ever asked them if they were homosexual.
Thus they moved blindly and blissfully towards ordination and, eventually,
towards causing immense damage to vulnerable young people.
It was easy to ask the question: if heterosexuality were not only
forbidden but unmentionable, if blokes married other blokes, and
you, as a good closet heterosexual man, were put in charge of a
boarding-school of three hundred girls aged between 13 and 18, would
you not at one point over a long career make sexual demands on one
of the girls? Or hit on one girl in a seminary of girls aged between
18 and 25? It was a great argument and I enjoyed making it. I was
sure I was right. I am not so sure now.
This is because of the publication of the Ferns Report, written
by a tribunal chaired by the former Irish Supreme Court judge Francis
Murphy. Ferns is a diocese made up of County Wexford in the south-east
of Ireland and parts of some of the bordering counties. The tribunal
was set up by the Irish government because there seemed to be more
clerical offenders in this diocese than in any other, and in reaction
to a BBC documentary about abuse there.
The report explains why Father Collins’s rooms were not close
to those of the other teaching priests. In 1966 he had visited the
dormitory known as the Attic, which became my dormitory four years
later, and, according to the Ferns Report, had performed ‘examinations
of an intimate nature involving the measurement of the length of
the boys’ penises on the pretext of ascertaining whether or
not they were growing normally. The inquiry was told that approximately
twenty boys were involved. Father Collins has disputed the detail
of this account of the alleged abuse.’
Dr Sherwood and another priest, according to the report, soon afterwards
approached the bishop’s secretary with this news. The bishop
sent Collins ‘to a pastoral ministry’ in Kentish Town
in North London for two years. The bishop did not inform the Diocese
of Westminster why the priest was being sent there. The bishop was
called Donal Herlihy. I knew him a bit. He had spent many years
in Rome and was rather disappointed to be returned to an Irish backwater.
It was said of him that he would have made a very great bishop if
only he had believed in God. His sermons in Enniscorthy Cathedral
were lofty in tone and content. He loved Catullus and Ovid and Horace
and he could not refrain from quoting them to a bewildered congregation.
I once sat through a long sermon on the small matter of the ‘lacrimae
rerum’. While Bishop Herlihy was very worldly in an Italian
way about many issues, his worldliness did not, I think, stretch
to a priest under his control wishing to measure the length of twenty
boys’ penises. He simply would have had no idea what to do.
According to the Ferns Report, the bishop ‘believed that
the problem had been solved’ by sending Father Collins to
England for two years and that it ‘would be unfair and vindictive
to pursue the matter further’. The bishop is reported to have
said to his secretary: ‘Hadn’t he done his penance?’
In 1968, Herlihy ordered Collins back to teaching. This time, however,
the bishop instructed that the erring priest should have his lodgings
in the old building, at a distance from the dormitories, so that
he would not be so easily tempted when night fell.
What is interesting about all of this is that no one at any point
considered calling the police. The Catholic Church in Ireland in
those years was above the law; it had its own laws. By the time
I arrived at St Peter’s in 1970, Father Collins had been fully
restored to the swing of college life. He prepared students for
the Young Scientists Exhibition in Dublin every January, spending
time alone with them, travelling to Dublin with them. He was in
charge of the darkroom, and taught me and many others how to develop
photographs. In 1972 he directed the school play. In 1974 he was
put in charge of swimming lessons. The other physics teacher, also
a priest, gave his classes and then disappeared each day. There
was no law in the school saying that a teaching priest had to have
any involvement with students outside the classroom.
Dr Sherwood continued to haunt the corridors, making a constant
nuisance of himself. He must have noticed all of Father Collins’s
activities. Since the priests had three meals a day together, there
must have been a moment when Collins alluded in passing to the swimming
lessons or the sessions in the darkroom. Did Sherwood catch the
eye of one of the other priests and give him a knowing look? Or
did they all pretend it was nothing? According to the Ferns Report,
one priest who ‘lived downstairs from Father Collins …
from 1970 to 1971 and again from 1985 until 1988 … was aware
of the traffic on the stairs going to his, Father Collins’s
rooms, even after lights out, but stated there was “not the
slightest suspicion of anything untoward”’. The report
also states that it received ‘direct evidence from past pupils
and a lay teacher who were in St Peter’s during that time,
to the effect that Father Collins’s continuing inappropriate
behaviour with young boys was well known in the school during that
period and it is clear that sexual abuse was occurring during that
Also, the report states that ‘at least six priests’
working in the college at the time knew why Father Collins had been
sent to England in 1966. The bishop’s vicar-general said in
a statement to police in 1995 that ‘it was generally believed
that Father Collins had a problem with abusing young boys in 1966
and that Bishop Herlihy had sent him away because of it.’
I presume that he meant the priests only when he said ‘it
was generally believed’, because it was not, in my opinion,
generally believed by the students, despite the evidence given to
the Ferns Report by past pupils; it lay instead in the realm of
innuendo, rumour and nudges. It was not generally believed, in my
opinion, by the young boys getting swimming lessons or being taught
to develop photographs, with the exception of the very few picked
on for abuse, most of whom told nobody what was happening until
many years later, or by parents, or by the police.
Father Collins began to abuse at St Peter’s again in the
early 1970s, according to the report. Once more, he measured penises,
but this was only for starters. Over a four-year period one boy
was masturbated four to six times a year by Collins. In the 1990s,
ten boys made allegations against him, including that he ‘forced’
one of them ‘to engage in mutual masturbation and oral sex’
and that he on one occasion attempted anal sex. All of this occurred
between 1972 and 1984. In court in 1995, some of his victims spoke
about the detrimental effect the abuse has had on their lives.
Collins knew no fear. In 1988 he took time off from his many extra-curricular
activities to apply to become principal of the school. By this time
Bishop Herlihy had gone to his reward, and there was a new bishop,
Brendan Comiskey, an outgoing, friendly man who paid serious attention
to the press and to public relations. He appointed Donal Collins
as principal, despite being warned against doing so, according to
the Ferns Report, by two priests.
The first allegation of sexual abuse since 1966 came in 1989, within
seven months of Father Collins’s appointment as principal.
In 1991, as more allegations were made, Collins removed himself
to Florida, where he sought help and worked in a parish. Bishop
Comiskey did not tell the parish in Florida of his history. Although
Collins admitted ‘the broad truth’ of the allegations
against him to the bishop in 1993, the bishop told the police in
1995 that the priest was continuing to deny the charges.
The first allegations against James Doyle were made to my old friend
Dr Sherwood in 1972. Sherwood’s response was, according to
the report, ‘questioning and dismissive’. When the president
of the college heard the allegations in 1972, however, he suggested
that Doyle should join a religious order and not become a diocesan
priest. This president was replaced the following year by a president
who allowed Doyle to be ordained. When Bishop Herlihy heard a complaint
against Father Doyle in 1982 he sent him to a psychologist who wrote
that it would ‘seem desirable that he should have a change
of role, away from working with young people’. When a new
priest, in whose parish James Doyle was a curate, was appointed
in 1985, no one informed him of this report. Five years later, Doyle
pleaded guilty to indecent assault and received a suspended sentence.
His case is interesting because it was the first prosecution in
the courts of a Ferns priest. It is not hard to imagine how much
the people of the diocese could have hated James Doyle. Surely he
would have been pelted with turnips, which grow plentifully in the
area, as he left the court? Instead, people blamed the local newspapers
for printing the story, provoking, the Ferns Report says, ‘a
considerable backlash’ against one local paper in the Wexford
area ‘as it was felt that Father Doyle had been badly treated
by the publicity his case had attracted. As the media had already
given enough information to disclose the identity of the complainant,
this backlash was also directed towards him and his family.’
Thus in 1990 it was made clear that complaining about these priests
to the civil authorities would take considerable courage. Bishop
Comiskey told the Ferns Inquiry that ‘prior to 1990, the question
of reporting child abuse complaints or allegations to the Garda
authorities never arose.’
The case of Dr Ledwith is stranger. In 1994, an allegation was
made that he had abused a 13-year-old boy in 1981, a matter which
Ledwith disputes, claiming that he did not meet the boy until after
his 15th birthday. In any case, Ledwith settled with the boy and
his family, paying a sum of money with no admission of liability
and with a confidentiality clause. After the boy had had a meeting
with Bishop Comiskey, the diocese of Ferns paid for ‘intensive
counselling’ for him and his family. In 1983 and 1984, when
Ledwith was vice-president of Maynooth, there were complaints to
bishops about him from the seminarians, relating to his ‘orientation
and propensity’ rather than any ‘specific sexual activity’.
When a senior dean at the seminary continued to make these complaints
to the bishops, he was asked to produce a victim. When he could
not, he was removed from the seminary.
When the Ferns Report came out, I was eager to read it because
I had known these three men. I had believed that the problem lay
in their becoming priests. If they had gone to Holland or San Francisco,
I believed, they would now be happily married to their boyfriends.
But as I read the report, I began to think that this was hardly
the issue. Instead, the level of abuse in Ferns and the Church’s
way of handling it seemed an almost intrinsic part of the Church’s
search for power. It is as though when its real authority began
to wane in Ireland in the 1960s, the sexual abuse of those under
its control and the urge to keep that abuse secret and the efforts
to keep abusers safe from the civil law became some of its new tools.
In 1988 in Monageer, just outside Enniscorthy, for example, Father
Grennan sexually molested ten girls, aged around 12 or 13, while
he heard their confessions. Their teacher sent for a social worker,
who interviewed seven of the girls; the parents of the other three
refused to allow their daughters to be interviewed. The girls, interviewed
separately, ‘described much the same activity in different
ways’, the social worker wrote.
At confession Father Grennan would grasp the child’s hands
in his hands and pull them towards his private parts. The zip
would be described as half down and there was never any allegation
of his putting their hands inside of the unzipped area. He would
pull the child close and rub his face and mouth around their jaw
while asking them questions about their families etc. He was also
described as putting his hands under their skirts and fondling
their legs to mid-thigh level only.
While this was going on the rest of the children were told to keep
their eyes closed; they were told that if they opened them, they
would be chastised.
When the bishop was told about this, he decided he did not believe
it. He did not speak to the social worker or the principal of the
school. He agreed that the priest should leave the parish for a
while, but then return for the confirmation of the very girls he
had been abusing. So Bishop Comiskey and Father Grennan stood proudly
on the altar waiting for the ten little liars to come up to be confirmed.
Two of the families walked out with their daughters. Grennan continued
in his role of manager of the school.
Since the social worker was employed by the local health board,
the police had to be alerted. They took statements from the seven
girls. Before the statements could be typed or copied and a covering
report prepared, the policeman who took the statements ‘was
instructed to hand over the files notwithstanding’. One of
the senior policemen who saw the files judged, without consulting
anyone, that prosecution of Father Grennan ‘would only damage
the complainants further’ and did not send the statements
to the director of public prosecutions. The statements, still not
An old priest rubbing his face and mouth around your jaw is bad
enough, but many of the cases in the Ferns Report are much more
severe. The year after I left St Peter’s, Sean Fortune arrived
in the seminary. It was alleged to the Ferns Inquiry that he started
almost immediately to abuse. He began by fondling boys and masturbating.
On one car journey, for example, he asked a boy about a scar on
his face and then began masturbating. When he ejaculated, he smeared
his sperm on the boy’s face, telling him that it would heal
his scar. Within a few years the allegations included oral sex,
and then he began to rape his victims anally, leaving one 16-year-old
boy ‘in a mess on the floor, bleeding heavily’. He befriended
families so he could meet their sons, picking on students and altar
boys. One of his alleged victims committed suicide in the late 1980s.
Father Fortune himself committed suicide, while facing multiple
charges, in 1999, 26 years after he began his career as an abuser.
Because the priest in each parish in the so-called Republic of
Ireland is automatically manager of the local primary school –
of the 3200 primary schools in the state, 3000 are still managed
by Catholic priests – this gave many of them golden opportunities
to take students out of school for special lessons. Canon Martin
Clancy liked them young, one as young as eight, another, Ciara,
11. When she became pregnant at 14, she went to England and had
the baby. She told no one who the father was. When she was 17, Canon
Clancy ‘threatened to have [the baby] taken from her if Ciara
told anybody that he was the father’. When he died in 1993,
Canon Clancy left Ciara three thousand pounds in his will ‘to
be used for your future musical education’.
No one was safe from them. One woman who had had an operation on
her lower abdomen was visited by a Ferns priest. ‘He fondled
her’ and she ‘could feel his fingers moving around the
vaginal area. She said that she attempted to get up when Father
Gamma’ – he could not be named by the report –
‘pushed the elbow of his arm into her stomach to restrain
any movement’. Another priest, whom the report calls Father
Delta, was visited by a young man about to get married seeking a
Letter of Freedom. The priest asked the young man to unbutton his
trousers to check that ‘everything down there was in working
order.’ The priest fondled his private parts for approximately
ten minutes. Another young man approached a priest to report that
Father Fortune had abused him. The priest asked the young man to
demonstrate what Fortune had done, which included touching his penis,
thus beginning to abuse him all over again.
Some of the abuse was from a bad S&M porn movie. In the mid-1960s
at St Peter’s, a priest told a boy that there was a researcher
from America investigating the development of boys and that he ‘would
be an ideal candidate in terms of age and height’. He was
told to report to a room where, eventually, he was ‘blindfolded,
stripped and caned. His penis was measured and he thinks, but cannot
be certain, that he was masturbated.’ He is 99 per cent certain
that all this was carried out by the original priest.
The Church, of course, is sorry. Bishop Comiskey has been removed
and replaced by Bishop Eamonn Walsh. Two years ago, at an event
in Wexford town, I was introduced to Bishop Walsh by a priest from
St Peter’s whom I had liked. The new bishop asked me if any
harm had come to me at St Peter’s. I said that despite my
best efforts no one, not even Dr Sherwood, had hit me. I was too
embarrassed to tell him that not one of the priests had ever as
much as fondled me either. And I told him that I got a good education
there. It was only afterwards that I learned what had been happening
all around me. The new bishop was very skilled at speaking softly.
It is his job to clean up the mess that is the diocese of Ferns.
He knows that the way to begin is to apologise and apologise and
apologise. If he does it enough, maybe someone will believe that
the years of abuse and cover-up were not an imperative but an accident,
Bishop Comiskey is blamed for his inaction in many cases covered
by the Ferns Report. He has made little comment. A few years ago
he was treated for alcoholism and it is hard for him. Journalists
say he is in hiding, but he is not in hiding. He lives round the
corner from me in Dublin and I see him sometimes on the street.
We always stop and talk. He loves the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh
and we talk about that. He remembers some of my family. And he misses
it, he says, the diocese and the priests. He looks sad as he moves
slowly back towards his lodgings. It would be easy to think as I
watch him shuffle away from me that there goes the power of the
Irish Catholic Church. But that would be a mistake. Its power is
slowly and subtly eroding, but it is still strong. No one is afraid
of the priests anymore. They have learned a new language and imposed
some new rules, but they still appoint the teachers and run the
schools. On 11 November, in response to criticism of the Church’s
role in education, the taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, said: ‘The
state would not be able to manage the schools without the religious,
and the state owes a debt of gratitude to the religious communities.’
The religious communities still also own many of the hospitals.
Their years of fucking and fondling the more vulnerable members
of the congregation have ended; their years of apologising sincerely
and unctuously have begun. We must thank the Creator for small mercies.