Brendan Smyth Victim Battles with US Church

January 31, 2010

IRELAND/UNITED STATES -- Helen McGonigle's family was destroyed by the paedophile priest. Now she's looking for justice, writes Crime Correspondent Ali Bracken

HIS ACTIONS could easily have shattered her life beyond repair. But instead, a woman sexually abused as a child by notorious paedophile Brendan Smyth has used her experience to help other victims of clerical abuse seek justice.

Fr Brendan Smyth pictured in the United States in the 1960s

Helen McGonigle (48) was just six years old when she was first assaulted by the late Irish priest. She was living in East Greenwich in Rhode Island with her family when he entered her life. The sexual abuse perpetrated against her continued for the next four years. McGonigle's family ? of Irish descent ? were members of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church and it was here that they came into contact with the convicted sexual abuser. A master manipulator, he infiltrated her family's daily life. He also sexually abused her elder sister Kathleen under the pretence of preparing her for the sacrament of penance. Kathleen and Helen's brother Gerard both died from fatal drug overdoses as a result of the abuse Smyth perpetrated against her family. Her mother also spent time in a mental institution before her death because of the actions of the paedophile priest.

Smyth at one of his court appearances in the 1990s

Helen repressed the memory of the horrors Smyth inflicted upon her as a child. It only came to the surface five years ago when she began to look deeper into what caused her sister's fatal overdose from antidepressants in 2005. As she delved into their early life in Rhode Island, she soon learned her elder sister, and many other children, were also victims of Smyth.

Now an attorney with her own practice in Connecticut, McGonigle has dedicated her professional life to defending sexual abuse victims.

Helen McGonigle pictured on her communion day with her sister Kathleen and brother Gerard. Both of the elder children died of drug overdoses as a result of the abuse Smyth wreaked on the family

"My grandparents are from Listowel in Kerry. It was because my grandmother was living with us at the time in Rhode Island that Smyth initially formed a relationship with my family. They were able to converse in Irish ? something foreign to us in the US ? and Smyth blessed our new home, giving us the crucifix from his abbey. There was a long lineage of clerics and nuns in my family, so at the outset there was a natural connection," she told the Sunday Tribune.

The McGonigle family moved from Rhode Island in 1973 but the damage wreaked by Smyth never left them. In 1994, the priest was convicted of 17 counts of sexual abuse in a Belfast court.

Three years later in Dublin, he pleaded guilty to another 74 counts of child sexual abuse. In 1997, Smyth died in prison. His rampant abuse of children was known to his superiors in the Catholic church and helped bring down the Fianna Fáil/Labour coalition in 1994.

In 2006, McGonigle notified the diocese of Providence of the abuse she suffered at the hands of Smyth in Rhode Island. She was informed that she was the sixth person to come forward but there was "no pastoral reason" for making this information public. "I have since located two other victims of Smyth from our parish. I know of a third, a neighbour and my sister's friend, and if I count my sister, that makes at least nine children. Smyth was caught molesting children at our parish in early 1968, sent to a mental hospital and allowed to return to reoffend. To my knowledge there are two major groupings of us. Those aged six and seven who were one-on-one with Smyth in preparation for taking the sacrament of penance, and those five years older preparing for confirmation."

Last week, the Boston archdiocese finally confirmed that Smyth at one time worked in Boston.While the late priest cannot now be brought to justice, his victims want public acknowledgement from the Catholic church of the suffering he inflicted on children in Rhode Island. Helen McGonigle is spearheading this quest for a confession and recognition from the church.

Helen's brother Gerard was not sexually assaulted by Smyth but developed depression that ultimately caused his death because he felt guilty that he did not stop the horrors inflicted on his family by the cleric.

The Catholic church has refused to release the late priest's "assignment record" in the US, which would detail the various parishes Smyth was assigned to.

"He destroyed my entire family. He was moved around four states in the US, from parish to parish within those states. I think it is important for the people of Ireland to know the fraudulent concealment that is still going on within the Catholic church about where this man was based over his years in the US," she added.

"The US and Irish bishops visit the Vatican and talk about guidelines to protect children but won't provide transparency about their priests who are convicted sex offenders. It's a fraud."


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