Honourable thing for the bishop to do is apologise and then resign

By Alison O'Connor
Irish Times
March 23, 2002

It is some 18 years since Bishop Brendan Comiskey first heardcomplaints about Father Sean Fortune. In that time, he failed to offer an appropriate response to the priest's victims, in the view of Alison O'Connor.

Bishop Brendan Comiskey appeared on camera only very briefly during the BBC2 television documentary on the paedophile priest Sean Fortune shown this week.

Emerging from his car in a Wexford churchyard he was filmed singing his own version of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive".

Given the circumstances, a burst of song seemed a little bizarre. However, the choice was curiously appropriate because of the bishop's incredible capacity for survival, despite the controversies which have surrounded his episcopal career.

One of those controversies - the case of Father Sean Fortune - simply refuses to go away. The horrendous details of the abuse are all too familiar but what marks out the case is the fact that so many complaints were made to the Catholic Church at local, diocesan, and Vatican level about Fortune over many years.

However from the Vatican down, the church refused to acknowledge its failure over Fortune, a serial abuser who wrecked many lives.

The excellent BBC documentary Suing the Pope, by reporter Sarah McDonald, featured some of those people. Four men, Colm O'Gorman, Donncha McGloin, Pat Jackman and Damien McAlean, spoke on camera about their abuse. Monica Fitzpatrick from Fethard-on-Sea told how she believed the suicide of her son Peter was linked to Fortune.

Having spent almost seven years observing Dr Comiskey's handling of the fallout from this case, I can only marvel at his failure to deal with the issue. He heard his first complaint about Fortune 18 years ago when he was made Bishop in the Diocese of Ferns. After that he heard them regularly from parishioners who were getting increasingly desperate.

However, his statements on the matter, when he has been forced to give them, have sounded like those from a lawyer rather than a Bishop whose primary concern should be pastoral.

His victims have said a number of times they wanted to hear an explanation from the bishop, but their pleas have been in vain.

This week his spokesman, Father John Carroll, said that as a result of the four men publicly identifying themselves on the programme and their comments, Dr Comiskey felt he was permitted to write to them for the first time.

Up to this he had not felt free to do so lest it be "misinterpreted as seeking to dissuade them from the legal route to justice, which is their natural right".

However, this logic is a nonsense given that two victims, Colm O'Gorman and Paul Molloy (who has since settled his civil action), spoke publicly, and were identified in The Irish Times, following Fortune's suicide in 1999.

In fact, Paul Molloy first identified himself to Dr Comiskey in 1988 when he wrote a letter telling the Bishop that Fortune had been abusing him as an altar boy. Paul said he received a letter in reply from the bishop.

Paul had revealed his abuse to the priest who replaced Fortune in Fethard-on-Sea. That priest brought Paul, who was then 17, to Dublin where he was questioned by another priest about the allegations.

Unfamiliar with Dublin, Paul believed he had been brought to Maynooth for this inquiry, but in fact, it was All Hallows. When details of the letter became public in 1995 Dr Comiskey, during an interview on RTÉ Radio 1, said: "There was no such inquiry at Maynooth at any time."

Dr Comiskey also said he had "written no such letter apologising for the sexual misconduct of the priest."

But Dr Comiskey was engaging in semantics. The inquiry had taken place in All Hallows and Paul is adamant he received a letter in reply from Dr Comiskey. He cannot remember the exact wording but said the bishop spoke of "your time of trouble".

"He could have been talking about my dog that died," Paul remembers.

His mother Eileen also remembers the letter. "I cannot believe or understand why he would say he didn't. I read it myself. It's not every day or just anybody who gets a letter from the bishop. Why would I say he sent a letter if he didn't? We have nothing to gain from it. I don't want to cause trouble for the bishop, but I cannot understand this. I told the truth to the gardaí."

Paul made his feelings clear in The Irish Times in 1999 after Fortune's suicide. "I feel that the bishop put the welfare of the priest and the image of the Catholic Church way ahead of his parishioners. I reported this in 1988 but they seemed to do nothing serious about it." He also asked why the bishop had not made a statement to the Garda about the case, despite a request to do so.

At the same time, Colm O'Gorman also spoke publicly, saying the church and Dr Comiskey now had an opportunity to put things right. He is equally unimpressed and angry with the bishop for claiming he hadn't felt free to make contact with him until now because it may have been misinterpreted as trying to dissuade him from taking legal action.

"As far back as 1999 he was being asked to speak out and to act with some honesty and some compassion. Now he's saying one of the reasons he doesn't want to make public statements is that he would hurt the victims and may be seen to try and influence us. But I am a grown, intelligent, articulate person. I don't need him to take care of me. I need to hear his explanation."

Those who look benignly on Dr Comiskey speak of his battle with alcoholism and the fact that he was in the throes of the disease when trying to deal with Fortune who was an arch manipulator. His victims, not just those who were sexually abused; but also those who were bullied; who had money taken from them; who had curses put on their children; who were forced to pay large sums of money so that sacraments would be administered or that they would be "healed", take a less tolerant view.

At any rate the Bishop was treated for his addiction in 1995, and has apparently not taken a drink since.Therefore, he has had almost seven "dry" years in which he could have made an effort to make some reparation for his lack of action to protect his flock. At this point, the only honourable option would be for him to apologise to them personally and resign.



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