Fr Sean Fortune – The predator priest who left a legacy of scars 25 years after his death

Sunday World [Dublin, Ireland]

March 14, 2024

By David Looby, New Ross Standard

It is a quarter of a century since Fr Sean Fortune took his own life on the eve of standing trial for child sexual abuse charges.

Wednesday, March 13, is 25 years to the day when notorious priest, Fr Sean Fortune died by suicide at his home in New Ross.

Days before he was due before Wexford Circuit Court on 29 charges of sexual abuse against eight young males – between June 1981 and December 1987 in Co Wexford – the serial abuser took his own life.

The groundbreaking Ferns Report in 2005 detailed 26 separate cases of sexual abuse by Fr Fortune against specific individuals including rape, masturbation and oral sex.

The Inquiry concluded that there were inexcusable and dangerous failings in the handling of Fr Fortune’s career and the many complaints made against him and if guidelines for priestly training had been followed he would never have been ordained.

The former Poulfur priest, who had abused children and teenagers not only in the Fethard on Sea area, but also in Wexford town, where he was a seminarian at St Peter’s College, and also in Northern Ireland, left behind a trail of destruction and devastation wherever he went.

In total The Ferns Report recorded more than 100 cases of abuse, the Gorey priest having accounted for an astonishing percentage of those recorded. The total number of his victims remains unknown and may never be known.

Today Fethard on Sea is a united community.

It is a place forged and made stronger following decades of division, a division sown in part with the arrival of Fr Fortune in 1981.

A priest with an uncanny ability to tap into the division which took root with the Fethard Boycott.

The church in the hollow, in Poulfur where masses were said in the 1700s in Penal times, has stood since the 1800s as a place of worship.

It was there and in Duncannon where he assisted a priest for a time, that parishoners first came to see a tall, gangly man. A joke figure.

But within a year of arriving in the Fethard area he had infiltrated almost every organisation, with St. Mogues GAA and Fethard Macra na Feirme resisting his attempts to join these organisations.

The scheming priest got money out of each and every one. He targeted old age pensioners whom he relieved of their life time savings to purchase a flashier car to suit his increasingly lavish lifestyle.

Tragically, money wasn’t the only thing he took. Over the course of six terrible years he stole the innocence of the entire area.

He raped and committed sexual assault on scores of children and teenagers at the parochial house overlooking the church, at Fethard castle and at numerous other locations.

He did this by compromising children and teenagers through making them feel that they were unable to speak about the horrendous things he did to them, having blamed them for the abuse.

Over decades he used his god given power to abuse them at his will. He did all this and was ordained despite Church authorities knowing his propensity for sexual abuse on male youths.

The winding roads of the Fethard and Poulfur areas were his playground as he kerb crawled with a collar and soutane as societal skeleton keys.

He had access to almost all houses and despite the efforts of some, the silence of many and the cosy, incestuous power of Church and State ensured that he was able to continue abusing in plain sight.

With a weak, compromised bishop, struggling with alcohol dependency over him, Fr Fortune destroyed the lives of countless young men within a radius of the parochial house.

For some it was their first experience of a sexual relationship. For others the things he did to them stayed with them until their dying day.

Tormented, many took their own lives. Today, life is a daily struggle for many and for some life has moved on to a place of peace and happiness, hard won.

The village of Fethard is today a success story, not only because of the businesses that have thrived, not only because it is an attractive tourist destination, but because of the character of its people and the quality of its school.

It is because of these and more the community has thrived out of adversity. It has done so despite the best efforts of a demented, sex craved priest.

Today, the community is one that looks forward, while always conscious of the past. Many of its inhabitants in their fifties and sixties look around and don’t have to look too far – they pass the graveyards and they know the stories which are etched in stone.

The past is alive. The truth is never far from their lips and their minds.

Everybody knows something should have been done, but nothing was done, at least by those who had the power to do it.

The church still stands but many avoid it, especially members of those families who have been ravaged by suicide.

This is due to no fault of any priest after Fr Fortune. The Catholic Church today has made great efforts to ensure the protection of children and yet what began with the downfall of Fr Fortune and his removal from priestly duties, continues and is reflected in a diminished church, a church with a shadow over it.

A shadow that has yet to be lifted and in this era of great rupture for the Catholic Church, when diocesan and parochial houses are having to be sold, and in the very church where Fr Fortune gave his so-called inspiring sermons, there have been requests as recently as last month for envelopes to be stuffed with cash to keep the lights on.

In Fr Fortune’s days it was a different Poulfur and the church coffers were full. He drove nice cars and was able to buy the affections of his often unwitting victims.

He was the worst in human nature but he would not have been able to do what he did without the tacit consent and the turning of blind eyes of his superiors at a time when the Church was arguably at its most hierarchical and unaccountable.

In this series of articles over the next seven days on the terrible legacy of Fr Fortune and church authorities at the time, we speak to victims and activists.

We give voice to people who recall the Ireland they grew up in. Whose lives were utterly changed by that Ireland.

This article in no way demeans the great work that individual priests do, day in, day out, across the diocese and world, rather it is to give voice to victims, for whom – at this 25 year remove from Fr Fortune’s death in a lonely dwelling in New Ross – the shadow has not lifted.

Helplines: If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, click here for more information