Smyth victim tells of abuse on boat
"I was exploited through sheer ignorance and blind faith"

By Alison O'Connor
Irish Times
December 9, 1994

[From the Demarest Archive]

John Russell was 11 years old and he wanted to be a priest. Brendan Smyth had arrived in the diocese in Wales where he lived a few months earlier and befriended the young altar boy. An offer from Smyth of a holiday in Ireland, which included a trip to Kilnacrott Abbey, was eagerly accepted. But, by the time they reached the Norbertine Abbey in Co Cavan, John was putting his pyjama bottoms on back to front and dreading night time when he knew Smyth would insist they share a bed.

He remembers their arrival at the abbey and meeting a balding man with horn rimmed glasses. Father Felim Colwell was abbot at the time.

It was around 1958. I wanted to be a priest so I was delighted with the chance to visit the abbey. We arrived late at night and had supper in a big hall. I remember we sat at the table and there was just one other person there. Somebody brought us a meal. After that we went into a room and met someone who I think was the abbot and then went to bed. That was the one night of the holiday where I had my own room," said Mr Russell, who is from Wrexham, Clwyd in north Wales in the diocese of Menevia.

The boy had not even arrived in Ireland before he was regretting his decision to accompany Smyth. The sexual abuse began on the ferry from Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire.

"I remember on the first night we got undressed and he started playing with me. I was standing, up and he was sitting on the bottom bunk. I can remember him asking 'Does that hurt?' and I said it didn't but that I didn't like it so he stopped. It was tragic really. I survived it but a lot of other kids wouldn't have done.'

They stayed in various hotels including the Gresham in Dublin and spent a few nights with Smyth's father in Belfast. Mr Russell can remember walking around Dublin with Smyth, "walking down the Liffey and standing on the bridges and going to see Ben Hur in a cinema on the top of O'Connell Street".

The abuse would begin each night after they got into bed together. "I was too young to understand what was going on but I started to put my pyjamas on back to front in a vain attempt to stop him. He tried to get me to touch him and I did kind of for a few minutes.

I was totally ignorant of things sexual but I knew that I didn't like it at all. I always started crying. On reflection I guess he knew I wanted to be a priest and would be going to a junior seminary and would be too frightened and too in awe to say anything about a priest doing this to me.

"The night we stayed in the Gresham Hotel was particularly bad. I think it was the last night of the holiday. The following day we, were walking around town and I was upset about what he had done to me so I guess I must have really been sulking and very quiet.

"He knew that I was a football fanatic so he brought me into a shop and bought me a very expensive football, a pair of socks, a jersey and a pair of shorts. I already had boots so he didn't buy me those. Money never seemed to be a problem.

After returning to his home in Wrexham, Mr Russell, who now lives in Townsville in northern Australia with his wife, went off to boarding school and when he came home at Christmas Smyth had moved on.

Mr Russell's is a "very Catholic family" with strong Irish connections. He was an altar boy at St Mary's Church, which is how he met Smyth who was staying at the presbytery. Smyth was very friendly with the altar boys. "He would tweak our ears and while he was hugging you he would pass you a tube of sweets. As a child of that age brought up in a very Catholic environment I was in awe of him."

One day Smyth took a group of them to Chester to the cinema. "We went on the bus and that was a big deal in those days. We all wore short trousers and at that stage nobody minded sitting next to him because he always had sweets.

"But then once we got to the cinema he put his hand on the knee of the person who sat next to him. He would move the hand up as we watched the picture and grab hold of your penis and starts playing with it. After a while none of us would want to sit next to him when we went to the cinema because we knew what would happen. There were a few comments made but we didn't really know what was going on.

He never spoke about it to his friends and they tried to forget the Norbertine priest. For a few years afterwards Smyth sent a Christmas card to the Russell family. "It was one of those printed cards but he always wrote a little message at the bottom which said 'Please pray for me'."

Mr Russell said he repressed the memories of what Smyth had done to him and did not discuss it with anyone. In recent years though he has remembered, particularly physical details.

He now feels a great anger towards the priest. "If I'd known he was still alive and where he was I would have confronted him. He abused me a long time ago and it is unknown how many children he got at since then.

"I think I have worked through it apart from the anger. I get very angry when I think about it now and I don't think that will ever go away. I'm not just angry with him but with what is being allowed to happen.

"I used to be a Catholic but I'm not any more. There's a lot of evil in the Catholic church and the more people that hide this sort of thing the more people will get away with it. That's why I wanted to come forward when I read about it here in Australia. I was exploited through sheer ignorance and blind faith. One of the things that really got me is when I read" about Cardinal Daly crying with the victims. He didn't do much else. I get very worked up over that."


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