Abbot: Priest Molested Rhode Island Children

Providence Journal
December 28, 2009

Rhode Island -- An Irish priest whose sexual assaults on children figured prominently in the collapse last fall of Ireland's coalition government may have sexually abused children in Rhode Island when he was assigned here three decades ago.

The Rev. Brendan Smyth, 67, is serving a four-year sentence in a Belfast prison after admitting last year that he molested five girls and three boys in Belfast over a 24-year period.

In an extraordinary letter sent to a television station in Ulster, the Norbertine abbot who had been Father Smyth's religious superior for 25 years acknowledged that he and others had known for decades that Father Smyth had a "problem" with children, and thought they could deal with it by having him reassigned every two or three years to prevent him from forming "attachments to families and children."

Two of those assignments involved duty in the United States: three years as a parish priest at Our Lady of Mercy parish in East Greenwich in the 1960s, and an assignment years later in North Dakota. In both places, according to the superior, Father Smyth molested children.

"On neither occasion was the bishop of the diocese to which he was sent notified of (Father Smyth's) propensity to molest children," the Rt. Rev. Kevin Smith conceded in the letter he wrote a short time before resigning as abbot of Holy Trinity Abbey in Kilnacrott, County Cavan, Ireland.

"On both occasions Father Smyth offended against young parishioners," the abbott said. "I acknowledge that I, as his religious superior, committed a grave error in sending Father Smyth abroad without warning the bishop to whom I sent him."

Priests and others who knew Father Smyth during his Rhode Island assignment say they were stunned by the disclosures of his pedophilia. They recall him only as a personable man with an intriguing brogue who was friendly with several parish families.

Old Journal-Bulletin stories show that Father Smyth was assigned to Our Lady of Mercy parish as an assistant pastor from 1965 to 1968. Other sources say he continued to revisit Rhode Island every two or three years until 1992 or 1993.

A shortage of priests

Newspaper stories from the 1960s described Father Smyth's assignment in Rhode Island as a "favor" from the abbey to the bishop of Providence then, the Most Rev. Russell J. McVinney, whose forefathers came from a town near the abbey.

It was while visiting his ancestral town, the Journal-Bulletin reported, that Bishop McVinney asked the abbot if he had any priests to lend him to help ease a shortage. Father Smyth is quoted in the story as saying, "I was fortunate to be available at the time."

Another article, published at the time of Father Smyth's departure from the state in February 1968, declared: "He will take with him memories both fond and perplexing and leave behind the memory of a man whose love of children and lilting 'r's' and 'e's' brightened the town and the lives of many in it."

The story reported that Father Smyth helped rejuvenate Rhode Island's CYO and gave "hour after hour of unofficial attention to the Girl Scouts."

The letter from Abbot Smith to Ulster television reporter Chris Moore states that in 1968 - the year Father Smyth left Rhode Island - the religious order sought treatment for him at Purdysburn Hospital in Belfast, where "aversion techniques" were used.

"At that time, psychiatrists believed that this was the appropriate treatment for his disorder," the abbot wrote. "In time, it became apparent that it was not effective in this case. In 1973, Fr. Smyth was again sent for treatment, this time at St. Patrick's psychiatric Hospital in Dublin. In 1974, Fr. Smyth was institutionalized for a time at Stroud in Gloucestershire (England)."

Fifteen years later, in 1989, the Norbertines referred him for treatment to a psychologist in Dublin who continued to meet with him until late in 1993.

Wrote the abbot: "Father Smyth's behavior has perplexed and troubled our community over many years. We always hoped that a combination of treatment, Fr. Smyth's intelligence and the grace of God would enable Fr. Smyth to overcome his disorder. We did not adequately understand the compulsive nature of his disorder or the serious and enduring damage which his behavior could cause."

The problem first drew public notice in 1993, when a young Belfast woman complained to police that she had been sexually abused by Father Smyth for nine years, starting just before her First Communion. When the allegation surfaced, Father Smyth was working in the Republic of Ireland as a chaplain for Tralee Hospital, where he had access for three years to a 33-bed children's ward.

After the complaint to police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary sent a warrant for Father Smyth's extradition to Northern Ireland to the office of the Irish attorney general, Harry Whelehan.

Beginning a four-year sentence

The attorney general did not act on the warrants for seven months. But, by then, Father Smyth had returned to Northern Ireland on his own, pleaded guilty to 17 counts of sexually abusing eight young people, and begun serving a four-year sentence.

The scandal escalated last fall when Prime Minister Albert Reynolds appointed Attorney General Whelehan president of the High Court in the Republic of Ireland. Whelehan was not popular with Labor Party leaders in the coalition government, but many believe the straw that broke the camel's back was a program, Counterpoint, that aired last October on Ulster television. In it, reporter Moore broke the news about the attorney general's inaction on the extradition request.

The show also explored in greater detail Father Smyth's long history of child abuse. It included an interview with members of a North Dakota family who received $20,000 from the priest between 1992 and 1993 for his having molested one of their children while he was assigned there in the 1980s.

The program fueled demands that Reynolds withdraw his appointment of Whelehan to head the High Court. But the prime minister rejected that call, saying the blame for the delay of Father Smyth's extradition fell not on Whelehan but on legal problems involving the Extradition Act itself.

When Whelehan's successor as attorney general announced that Reynolds's explanation was not entirely accurate, however, furious Labor Party leaders retaliated by walking out of the coalition government. The result was a collapse of the government and the resignation of Reynolds both as prime minister and as leader of the Fianna Fail party.

Many consider the Smyth case to be the worst of several sex scandals that have shaken the Irish populace in the last two years, and that has seriously weakened the Catholic Church's influence in Ireland's political arena.

In Rhode Island, amazement

Those in Rhode Island who have had some acquaintance with Father Smyth say they are amazed at all that has transpired in Ireland during the last year.

"It's all kind of startling," said the Rev. Raymond C. Theroux, who worked alongside Father Smyth as an assistant pastor at Our Lady of Mercy parish in the late 1960s and who is now pastor of St. John Vianney Church in Cumberland.

"When I read those stories out of Ireland, I couldn't believe that this is the same guy I lived with in the rectory," Father Theroux said. "He always seemed to be very personable and friendly. If there was any abuse going on at that time, I had no inkling."

Father Theroux says he remembers Father Smyth because they began their assignments at Our Lady of Mercy on the same day. One of their duties, he recalled, was going to Our Lady of Mercy School to visit classes. "The school had double grades, so we went there often. I got a kick out of his accent, and found some of his expressions were very humorous. Overall, we got along fine."

The priest said he understands from people in the parish that Father Smyth returned periodically to Rhode Island to visit with families he knew.

Sister of Mercy Wilma Miley, who was principal of Our Lady of Mercy School, said she has only vague recollections of a priest with an Irish accent who came occasionally to say Mass. She said she doesn't remember him coming to the school to speak to classes.

"If someone had told me then that he was abusing children, that's one thing I would not forget," said Sister Wilma, now a volunteer at the ( SEE MEMO ABOVE ) Amos House soup kitchen in Providence. "But as it is, I don't remember much about him. I didn't have much contact with him."

The nun said that until a reporter's phone call she hadn't been aware of any of the controversy abroad surrounding the priest. In light of other stories of clergy pedophilia recently, she said, such allegations don't surprise her. "But I'm not so sure I can believe it all either."

The Rev. Richard D. Sheahan, pastor of Holy Apostles parish in Cranston, was pastor of Our Lady of Mercy for six years during the 1980s. About three times during those years, he says, Father Smyth dropped by for what appeared to be courtesy calls.

"I really don't remember much about him or recall why he was here. Except for asking him, 'Well, how are things in Ireland?' there wasn't much we talked about. He didn't ask to stay in the rectory. I think he was coming to visit people somewhere, but I don't know where or who. I do remember coming into the church one day and seeing him in a pew, saying his prayers."

'Everyone liked him"

Kathy Guilfoyle of Narragansett was a parishioner of Our Lady of Mercy parish when she was in her teens; she says she knew Father Smyth when he came to East Greenwich in 1965. When she heard about the recent events in Ireland, Guilfoyle said, she felt "sick."

"He was very Irish and charming, and everyone liked him," Guilfoyle said in an interview last week. "I was only a kid then (about 19) but I could see he had winning ways."

Guilfoyle's family has had experience with pedophilic priests. In 1986, her son filed a $14 million suit against Bishop Louis E. Gelineau and other diocesan officials for failing to take action sooner against William C. O'Connell, the former Bristol priest who was eventually convicted of sexually abusing her son and other boys; in 1990, the suit against the diocese was settled for $1 million.

Mrs. Guilfoyle said that back in the 1960s pedophilia was not something people talked about, and virtually no one talked about it with reference to priests. "I didn't even know such things happened before what happened to my son. I guess back then we were all very sheltered. I kick myself for being so naive, but it was the way things were back then."

Records are sketchy

William G. Halpin, a spokesman for Bishop Gelineau, said diocesan records on Father Smyth are very sketchy. They indicate, he says, that the priest came here with a "strong recommendation of his religious superior" and apparently because it was believed the climate would "help with his asthma condition."

Halpin said the diocese has no record of the priest having a problem with sexual abuse while he was in Rhode Island.

The original letter from Holy Trinity Abbey's former abbot gave no details as to what kind of "offenses against young parishioners" may have occurred in Rhode Island. Requests to the abbey's current administrator, the Rev. Gerard Cusack, for elaboration have been turned down; he wrote that "since Court proceedings have been issued against the Order by a number of parties . . . it is not appropriate for me to enter further correspondence with the media about the matter."

Father Cusack, in the same letter, said the Norbertine community has apologized to all those who have "suffered as a result of the crimes of Fr. Brendan Smyth."

"It is," he said, "a matter of deep and continuing concern to us that so much suffering has been caused in consequence."


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