`He had all the deadly sins except sloth'
By Alison O'Connor
March 15, 1999
Those who came into contact with Father Sean Fortune in Co Wexford still shake their heads in bewilderment at how anyone, least of all a priest, could have behaved as he did.
They had felt this way about him even before the horrific allegations of sex abuse involving young boys came to light. Over the years they had sought outside help but none was forthcoming. It was, however, the sex abuse allegations that finally brought him to the attention of the authorities.
While some in the county cannot believe him capable of wrongdoing, too many other former parishioners can describe for hours the behaviour of Father Fortune during his time in their parish. Numerous clippings from local newspapers at the time detail his parish activities, often referring to him as the "priest with the Midas touch". He was described in 1985 by Bishop Brendan Comiskey as the "Monsignor Horan of the south-east", a reference to the priest who was responsible for the building of Knock Airport.
In 1987 it was reported in the Sunday Press that a priest known as "Father Goldfinger" and "King Midas" had managed to "wrestle £4 million in as many years from the Exchequer for projects in the village of Fethard-on-Sea", including a daycare centre for the elderly, a nursery school "for deprived children between the ages of three and 4 1/2", and a 24-hour emergency counselling service. Questions are still being asked about where much of this money went or how much of it was ever actually secured.
At that time Father Fortune was curate in Poulfur (the curacy of Templetown in the village of Fethard-On-Sea). There are still bitter divisions in the parish. These are made worse by the fact that the priest had continued his visits there, particularly to the elderly and to those who continued to support him in the years since the abuse complaints were made.
He would apparently ask people for "petrol money" for the visits and, according to locals, was collecting £50 each visit from the parents of a young man who had been involved in a serious accident. "He told them he would heal him but that it would take time," said a woman who was a former parishioner. "I'm sure it would when he was getting £50 each time he went to the hospital."
Says a man from Fethard-on-Sea: "From the start we knew there was something wrong. He came into the parish and he just wanted to take over things. He had ways of finding out about people, recognising weakness and family things that people preferred to keep private. His policy was to divide and conquer and he was an incredible bully. He would burst his way into anything.
"If he could not control an organisation he would set one up in opposition. There was an evilness there which is still frightening to think of. We tried for years to get someone to do something about him but nobody would listen. Now we know that there was even worse going on all the time with the sex abuse. It is still difficult to comprehend."
At one stage there were nearly 30 local organisations in this small curacy organised by Father Fortune. Parish newsletters were crammed full of events. Details of meetings of the Legion of Mary, the junior legion of Mary, the Don Bosco group, altar servers, the ladies committee, the youth club, folk group training, juvenile pioneers, senior pioneers - all were included.
One such newsletter carried details of a concert. It stated that a free disco would be held but nobody could attend who had not purchased a ticket before 7.30 p.m. Mass in Poulfur. In correspondence the priest liked to use flowery language, signing himself with phrases such as "Your fellow worker in the vineyard of the Lord".
Father Fortune was a tall man. Standing well over 6 feet, and overweight, he had a strong physical presence. He used to dress in full soutaine and usually wore sunglasses "so you could never see his eyes and he had an advantage over you". At his court appearance in Wexford two weeks ago he wore small, round sunglasses throughout.
Father Fortune arrived in Poulfur in 1981 and remained there until 1987. He arrived there to join the elderly Canon Willie Mernagh. So strained was their relationship that it was written about in the local papers. When he was appointed, parishioners were delighted to have a young, active priest. But a number of them soon became disillusioned.
One of the most striking things they recall was his energy. "He had all the deadly sins except sloth," said one parishioner. "The man had huge energy." He was a man who would say Mass "at the drop of a hat", say former parishioners, and he would "bless anything", abusing the sacrament, one man described it. He liked to be known as a healing priest and told people he wanted a "silent" collection at his healing ceremonies.
"A lot of people didn't even know what he meant by a silent collection," said one parishioner. "One day he announced from the altar that while he did not want to alarm the people sitting in it, the balcony was unsafe from dry rot and on the point of collapse. He said a third collection would have to be introduced at Mass to fix it. Of course this was a Bank Holiday and the church was full of visitors and plenty of money was collected. There wasn't a thing wrong with the balcony. It is held up by iron girders."
He once apparently brought home a bottle of holy water from the River Jordan in Palestine and told his parishioners that he would mingle it with the river outside the church so that it would have "all the beneficial effects of the River Jordan and babies could be baptised there".
Another time he was a witness in the District Court in a case concerning a licence for an amusement arcade in the parish. He was reported as saying that "gaming machines could lead to a temptation to abandon love and justice as portrayed in the Gospel". A few months later, in an apparent turnaround, he officially blessed the new arcade.
He established a "Christian yoga" group which practised in front of the altar of the church, with the seats pushed back. In another well-remembered episode he put a lock on the gates of the graveyard so that parishioners would have to call to his house and ask for the key. After a few weeks someone, using a bolt cutter, cut the lock off and it was not replaced. The priest converted his cellar into an apartment which he used to accommodate young boys who were "having trouble at home".
He had a keen interest in communications and parishioners recall that he had a telephone in every room. Many believe he taped telephone conversations.
He set up a group called the Family League Movement and would visit houses to say Mass. During one sermon he astonished people by saying he had brought a young girl from the parish, who was attending school in a particular town, to an STD clinic in Dublin. As the father of one girl attending school in the nearby town pointed out: "This narrowed it down to about six girls. A neighbour contacted us and told us. Of course we were very upset. I tried to talk to him about it but got no satisfaction."
The same man was concerned to hear that he had shown a youth club group the film The Life of Brian at a time when it was banned but Father Fortune slammed down the telephone when he attempted to speak to him about it. "We know now that he used to show The Omen and other movies like that. It was his horrible way of softening up the kids for what he wanted to do to them."
Because of that and the first incident the man went to see Bishop Comiskey. "I asked the bishop to send someone into the parish to investigate but it was never done. Over the years we tried to get people in authority to do something but we got no help."