'It allowed him to prey on vulnerable children': Survivor and priest criticise church response to abuse

By Sinead O'carroll
November 20, 2016

Photo by Mark Stedman

KERRY LAWLESS WAS abused for about a year by Patrick O’Brien, a volunteer at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, who would pick him up at the bus stop to drive him to school, stopping often en route to carry out his horrendous crimes.

A teenager from Drimnagh in the 1980s, Lawless came forward and told his parents, the authorities and gardaí about the abuse.

O’Brien confessed, pleaded guilty and received a two-year suspended sentence in court.

However, he soon returned to St Patrick’s Cathedral where he took back up his senior volunteer position.

Earlier this month, O’Brien (now 76) was jailed for 13 years for the rape and molestation of 14 young boys over the course of 40 years.

He admitted to 48 sample counts of indecent assault, including various instances of anal penetration, and three counts of sexual assault of the boys between 1974 and 2013.

On Friday – and in a second statement since the courts handed down the sentence – the Church of Ireland apologised “sincerely and unreservedly for the fact that those victims and their families who needed and were entitled to care and support did not receive this”.

Today, the apology has been welcomed by Lawless – now aged 44. However, he has criticised the Church for trying to put distance between the cathedral and O’Brien by noting he was a volunteer with an independent body, the Friends of St Patrick’s Cathedral.

“He was quite a senior volunteer – it gave him unlimited access to the cathedral… to say he was simply a volunteer is completely an attempt to abdicate their responsibility, particularly as they were aware of his tendencies since the 1980s,” he told RTÉ Radio One.

In a written statement, he added:

“The statement fails to acknowledge the fact that St Patrick’s Cathedral and its adjacent school failed to inform parents that a child abuser had regular unrestricted access to their children for almost two decades.

Had they done so, others may have come forward sooner, and a considerable threat to many choristers might have been eliminated. It is entirely possible that O’Brien’s career as a prolific child abuser might have been ended considerably earlier than 2016.

Lawless stopped his involvement with the St Patrick’s Cathedral choir following O’Brien’s original conviction and left the attached grammar school in 1990.

Although he was aware of O’Brien’s continued presence in the church, he tried to not dwell on what had happened to him. But by 2004, he said he “felt he had to do something about it”.

He began contacting boys who went to the grammar school and choir attached to St Patrick’s Cathedral to inform them of O’Brien’s conviction.

“Armed with the new knowledge of his original conviction, they have bravely pursued their case,” Lawless continued in his statement.

It is also important to note that the only reason the cathedral severed their connection to O’Brien at all was because I raised the issue with them again in 2004 when I discovered that he continued to play a prominent and prestigious role.

Lawless’s criticisms are echoed by Stephen Neill, a Church of Ireland priest and Rector at Celbridge in county Kildare.

“There seems to be an ongoing attempt to distance the cathedral from Patrick O’Brien when he was a very central figure,” he also told RTÉ Radio One. “He was involved for over four decades.

He was deeply involved and although not a paid employee, he was somebody who acted in the cathedral with sanction and approval.

“…It allowed him to prey on vulnerable children and I feel my church’s response was inadequate.”

St Patrick’s Cathedral on Friday said its community was “shocked at the enormity of the crimes perpetrated by Patrick O’Brien”.

“These crimes against children have caused feelings of revulsion and immense sadness,” it continued in its apology.

Patrick O’Brien was a member of the congregation and held the post of treasurer with an independent fundraising body, the Friends of St Patrick’s Cathedral. The cases of abuse that have been notified to the cathedral date from the period 1978 to 1989.

“St Patrick’s Cathedral is committed to ensuring the safety of all children in its care. The Cathedral fully implements the Church of Ireland’s child protection policy ‘Safeguarding Trust’.

“St Patrick’s Cathedral apologises sincerely and unreservedly for the fact that those victims and their families who needed and were entitled to care and support did not receive this. Once again, it commends the courage of Patrick O’Brien’s victims in coming forward.”

The Church of Ireland has not responded to‘s request for further comment following today’s criticisms. It also declined an interview request from RTÉ.



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