Trying to pick up the pieces

Irish Times
October 29, 2005

Fr John Sinnott shrugs wryly and repeats: "There were rumours. Only rumours." At 68, just back from a four-day retreat which coincided with the publication of the Ferns Report, he sits in the cluttered living room of the big, silent parochial house in Ballindaggin in north Co Wexford, knowing that he faces the most challenging weekend of his priestly life.

Fr Sinnott was once curate to the priest at the centre of this week's most shocking allegation: the rape and impregnation of a 14-year-old girl by Canon Martin Clancy.

The late Canon Clancy did not begin his reign of abuse and rape in Ballindaggin. That began in Wexford town in the mid-1960s. Ciara* was just 14 when Canon Clancy left her pregnant in 1974; he had been allegedly abusing her since the age of 11. Although Canon Clancy finally acknowledged his infant daughter, he threatened, according to Ciara, to have the child taken away from her if she ever told anyone that he was the father.

Thus protected, he was promoted to parish priest of Ballindaggin (population 1,300). Responsibility for the Kiltealy end of the parish was given to his curate, Fr John Sinnott.

It was from Ballindaggin, with its ready supply of vulnerable little ones from the national school, that it's alleged Canon Clancy continued to rape and abuse girls as young as eight, in the guise of giving music lessons and "sex education" classes.

Although some church and lay people continue to insist that secrecy - on the part of both offender and victim - was the single greatest obstacle to meaningful action, Canon Clancy's activities were by no means unknown to local people. There were confrontations between parents and the canon, including a suggestion that at least one parishioner physically assaulted him. But it was only shortly before Canon Clancy's death in 1993, apparently, that complaints and threats of exposure began to surface.

In 1991, Clare*, a pupil at Ballindaggin National School, wrote to Bishop Brendan Comiskey detailing, in full, the abuse she had suffered. The bishop offered a meeting, but Clare was living abroad at the time. Bishop Comiskey forwarded the letter to Canon Clancy, who, in his reply, stated that he had only touched Clare on the upper thigh. He added that he intended to retire as parish priest of Ballindaggin, though not because of the allegations against him.

A few months after Clare had written to Bishop Comiskey, her father wrote to Canon Clancy, requesting payment of "a certain amount of money" with a threat to begin criminal proceedings. That letter was passed on to the Garda Síochána by the diocese and gardaí visited Clare's family home. From there, her complaint appears to have run into the sand.

Within months of these events in 1991, Bishop Comiskey moved the then 72-year-old Canon Clancy up the road to Kiltealy as curate and appointed Fr John Sinnott as parish priest.

Last Thursday afternoon, just back from his retreat and knowing that his parishioners were reeling from what they had been hearing and reading, Fr Sinnott was already preparing his response to a report he had not read. He had worked with Canon Clancy for 14 years, and clearly he was anticipating a need to defend himself.

"In the 1980s and 1990s, you'd hear outside that there were rumours, you'd hear that girls were saying 'I wouldn't trust him' - but you'd hear all that indirectly. No one came to me and said: 'This is what's happening.' There was no way you could approach a bunch of girls . . ." he says, looking incredulous at the very idea.

"So there was no way you could go and follow it up. Even now, I don't think you could approach those girls about the rumours."

He says that he received just two allegations about Canon Clancy, the first of which was in 1992, a year before the canon's death. That was from a mother "who came to report what had happened to her daughter but didn't give me full details". Fr Sinnott says he cannot discuss the allegation, for "confidential" reasons, but mentions that "it was followed up by the guards and, as far as I know, it fell through . . . I could do nothing. Looking back on it now, I still don't see what I could have done".

But, clearly, suspicion and "wrong impressions" have been a fact of life for at least some in this little community. Unprompted, Fr Sinnott gives an example of one such "wrong impression". On May 10th 1993, after a day in Dublin, he and the 74-year-old Canon Clancy had returned to their car on the third floor of the St Stephen's Green car park, when Canon Clancy suddenly dropped dead. Afterwards, rumours flew in Ballindaggin.

"People had the impression he was up in Dublin to see solicitors the day he died," says Fr Sinnott. "In fact, we were at the funeral of Eamon Hederman, the architect of the church."

The next shock was a "letter" left by Canon Clancy for Fr Sinnott, enclosing the sum of £3,000 (€3,809) to be forwarded to Ciara. In his forwarding note, Fr Sinnott wrote that it was "it was his [ Canon Clancy's] wish that this money is to be used for your further musical education".

"I just sent it off," Fr Sinnott says now, "thinking nothing about it. It was never acknowledged. But I know that when people read that I gave the £3,000, they'll think I knew about the daughter."

Fr Sinnott is a country priest, a man of his time, one who finds it difficult to articulate his feelings. Asked how he felt when he heard Ciara's story, he says : "I felt bad." Bad? "Well, you had to accept it. These stories are all confidential. You couldn't go out and talk about it, you couldn't tell the Clancy family."

Was it a shock ? "It was a shock. After working with a man for 14 years, in spite of the rumours, you didn't expect something like this."

The priest he remembers is the one with the nice siblings with several religious and which buried a brother the day the report was published; a man who loved the Fleadh Cheoil, who was involved in building an extension to the school, and the new hall, and the car parks.

"No matter what good you do, it's all forgotten now," says Fr Sinnott.

At Mass this weekend, as required, Fr Sinnott will read out Bishop Eamon Walsh's pastoral letter, a reiteration of the heartfelt apology in the statement issued on Tuesday.

"After that, I will get the report and next weekend, I will want to rectify a few things," says Fr Sinnott. Like what? "Like people thinking I would have known."

Is he worried? "I know what I know myself. I intend to put it straight."

He agreed to this interview, he says, because otherwise "it might look like I had something to hide".

But he is a Ferns man who in many ways embodies the deep, dark layers of suspicion, confusion, division and fathomless hurt that have engulfed clergy and lay people away from the public gaze.

FOR THE PRESENT-DAY management of St Peter's College secondary school, Tuesday was "probably the worst day of our lives", says a staff source. The Ferns Report noted that a former head of St Peter's (which shared its campus with the former seminary where many abusers either studied or destroyed young boys' lives) was the now defrocked Donal Collins.

Fr Aodhan Marken, the 34-year-old chaplain to the school, and Pat Quigley, the principal and a former Tipperary hurler, tried to prepare the boys for what was to come and put together the structures now in place to safeguard them. The report made clear that its findings were no reflection on the current school, but the strain of recent years is evident in both men's faces.

Fr Marken talks about feeling "great embarrassment and an awful element of shame". But he has made a "conscientious decision" to wear his clerical garb in recent times "and this week in particular. I was very aware that St Peter's was going to be to the fore and in some ways it was a support for the guys here. I have a great love for this place".

From his parish of Taghmon, near Enniscorthy, the parish priest, Fr Denis Brennan, has been working for the past four years as the child protection delegate to the diocese.

"When I took over as delegate and was handed the files by Fr Bill Cosgrave, it appeared that things were settling down, that all had been reported . . . And it was quiet," he says. "Then there was Suing the Pope [BBC television programme screened in 2002] and, as a result of that, things emerged that we didn't know about at all and it brought a whole new tempo to the job."

As well as taking initial reports from distressed complainants, and dealing with existing accused clerics, he has also had to inform five priests that they were newly under suspicion.

"That's not easy in a small, rural diocese," Fr Brennan says. "The priest will know that you're the delegate and guess what it's about. I would ring to make an appointment, usually in the morning time because you wouldn't want them there all night . . . You'd know that after that meeting, that person's life would never be the same again."

The responses are fairly predictable.

"Usually the person is stunned," Fr Brennan says. "There is a lot of silence. You can see the life draining out of him. You make it as gentle as you can, but you can't change the reality. A support person is offered, a priest. You ask him to make a response, and say that you'll call again in a couple of days. Really, it's a case of 'I did' or 'I didn't' or 'I don't want to make a comment'. Usually it's 'I didn't' or 'I don't want to make a comment'. It's like a death sentence.

"There have been no cases here as yet where a priest has been restored to ministry [ie, declared innocent]."

From there, the case moves on to a track from which there is no return.

"I get the priest's response and incorporate it in the reports to the gardaí and the health board, and they take it from there," says Fr Brennan.

Then the much-discussed "paramountcy principle" (whereby the protection of other children from the alleged offender takes priority over the priest's rights) comes into play. The priest is asked to step aside and the bishop issues a precept whereby the priest is denied access to children and prohibited from wearing clerical clothes or attending clerical events.

The paramountcy principle is "where the rubber meets the road", as Bishop Walsh put it this week. "It was fine to recognise the principle on paper a few years ago, but when it comes to Father X being told 'you must step aside', that's not a pleasant message for him or his parishioners. But what you have to remember is that a person who has come forward has done so because they don't want what happened to them to happen to someone else."

It was Bishop Walsh who decided that "semblance of truth" - the words used in canon law - was comparable to "reasonable suspicion" or "credible complaint" in the civil law. This is what allowed him to act immediately on receipt of a complaint.

"Before that, the thinking seemed to be [among the clerics in Ferns and elsewhere] that they had to carry out an investigation first that would almost establish firmly that abuse had taken place," he says. "It has been said that I never had to avail of that option, but that's because I set the bar at 'reasonable suspicion' and it was known then that that would constitute a just cause for asking a priest to step aside."

Several priests this week acknowledged that a cleric should be no different to a social worker, for example, who, if accused of child abuse, would have to clear his desk and step aside during any investigation. Yet the "paramountcy principle" is undoubtedly a highly controversial topic and "uppermost" in the minds of Ferns priests.

There have, they point out, been false allegations. A Co Dublin parish priest was restored to his ministry after being cleared of allegations against him, and there have been others around the country.

"Even if you're cleared, there's always a stigma," says Fr Sinnott. "The other worry is that you might be asked to step aside for a trivial matter."

But he understands that the authorities have a dilemma and that "if something happens in the future, it's they who'll get the rap".

A greater problem, says Bishop Walsh, "is that everybody still in denial will use these arguments to support their case".

Meanwhile, for Ferns priests and others, a new and exalted player, the Vatican, has entered the scene. According to Fr Brennan, it got "more strongly involved" a year ago and asked for all cases to be sent across. One of these is due to culminate in an "ecclesiastical trial", or canonical court, in the Ferns diocese. It is understood to be the first such trial for child abuse in Ireland.

"Up to then, the diocese felt very much alone," says Fr Brennan. "The diocese couldn't very well set up its own canonical court - it would just be seen as an in-house court."

A cleric whose case has already been processed by the diocese and thrown out by the Director of Public Prosecutions for lack of evidence is due to face such a court.

"It's all that's left if there's an impasse," says Fr Brennan. "So this is to try and progress it further. Otherwise, the people are left in a total limbo."

Meanwhile, the diocese's child protection outreach team, Sr Helen O'Riordan (a Loreto nun) and Fr Gerry Murphy, are working their way through Ferns's 49 parishes, offering insights into child abuse and advice on best practice to schools, sports clubs and lay organisations.

Fr Sinnott says he was "disappointed" at the turnout in Ballindaggin recently.

"People and groups are being offered a lot of information now," he points out. "If anything happens now, it's their own fault."

* Names as they appear in the Ferns Report



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