Priest Sex Abuse Case Stirs Political Storm in Ireland; Norbertine Fr. Brendan Smyth

By A.W. Richard
National Catholic Reporter
December 2, 1994

Most reports of the Nov. 17 resignation of Prime Minister Albert Reynolds and the collapse of the Irish government were conspicuously vague about the tortured chain of events that led to the crisis. In the eye of the political hurricane was a Catholic priest with an alleged 40-year history of pedophilia.

The priest's protracted fight against extradition to Northern Ireland on sex abuse charges was defended by church and state, resulting in an ecclesiastical as well as a political uproar.

Norbertine Fr. Brendan Smyth had been known as a sexual abuser of minors for many years. According to widespread coverage in the Irish press, Smyth's local Norbertine superior of 25 years knew of Smyth's activities. According to the Norbertine abbot general in Rome, Fr. Marcel Van de Ven, a number of Irish bishops also knew of Smyth's activities. The then-bishop of Providence, R.I., also knew of the priest's sexual activities in that diocese in 1968 and sent him back to Ireland, according to the reports.

Repeated complaints resulted in reassignment and periodic, furtive attempts at psychiatric treatment. Ireland's Cardinal Cahal Daly knew about Smyth and wrote letters in 1990 and 1992 to one of Smyth's victims and the victim's family, offered sympathy, admitted he knew of the priest's activities and had previously spoken to his abbot, but professed he could do "nothing more." Daly has been attacked by the Irish media for this denial of his power. There have been calls, including one from a nine-year victim of Smyth's abuse, for Daly's resignation.

The Irish civil authorities also knew of Smyth's activities. Smyth was indicted in a Northern Ireland court in 1993, but he had already been reassigned to work as chaplain in a hospital in the South.

Attorney General Harry Whelehan refused repeated requests from the North for Smyth's extradition. In January 1994, after seven months of resistance by the civil authorities on his behalf, Smyth returned to Northern Ireland on orders from Daly and turned himself over to authorities. He was tried and sentenced to four years in prison in June 1994.

The current crisis was precipitated when, on Nov. 11, Reynolds appointed Whelehan president of the Irish High Court. The Labor Party, which has for two years formed a coalition government with Reynolds' Fianna Fail Party, rebelled. Labor leader Dick Spring demanded that Reynolds require Whelehan to explain to Parliament his failure to respond to the extradition warrant in the Smyth case. The timing was crucial because promotion to the High Court would place Whelehan beyond Parliament's power to question him.

Reynolds refused, exonerating Whelehan, a conservative Catholic, from any blame. Hours after Reynolds resigned, however, Whelehan, too, resigned his post of four days. In addition to opposing the Whelehan appointment, Spring accused Reynolds of suppressing facts to protect Whelehan. After Whelehan's resignation, Reynolds reversed himself and agreed that Whelehan had been to blame.

Smyth's abbot, Norbertine Fr. Kevin Smith, resigned his position Oct. 23. He and other members of church and state have been blamed for their cover-up perhaps more than Smyth has been blamed for his misdeeds.

Fewer than 10 cases of abuse of minors by priests have come before the civil courts in Ireland in the past 20 years, although 50 cases have been processed through canon law channels during that same period. However, critics say these figures hint at massive negligence.

Five cases of abuse did, however, recently come before the Irish civil courts. A monsignor, the former president of an Irish Catholic high school, pleaded guilty to sexual assault of an 18-year-old hitchhiker. A religious brother pleaded guilty to assaulting three 11-year-old girls. A Belfast priest was accused of abusing nine boys ages 9 to 15 years. A religious priest was convicted of raping and sodomizing six boys ages 9 to 11 years.

A television special during the week of Oct. 10 brought the Smyth case to public attention. The print media during the following weeks fleshed out the details, including its handling by church officials and the attorney general.

Smyth, ordained in 1951, had been assigned to Catholic institutions in Scotland, Wales, North Dakota and Providence, in addition to several parishes in Ireland, North and South.

Although there is clear indication he was sexually active throughout his 40-year priesthood, his four-year prison sentence applies only to the sexual abuse of five girls and three boys while assigned to a Belfast parish.

Smyth has been quoted from prison to the effect that he will reveal other priest abusers if the church does not protect his interests.

The TV documentary opened the floodgates. The press during the following weeks revealed many further stories showing a wide variety of clerical sexual activity and spiced the stories with sharp commentary.

Subsequent stories dealt with two priests from Kerry who had been relieved of their assignments because of sexual activity. There have been repeated reports of an industrial school run by nuns in which there are at least 100 cases of alleged abuse. The case of the murder of a priest in a woman's bedroom 10 years ago has been reopened. When a priest had a heart attack and died in a gay bar, another priest, also a patron, administered the last rites.

The church, once powerful enough to control such Irish institutions as the media, is no longer able to keep these stories suppressed. Newspapers in particular are delving into them with enthusiasm.

Fintan O'Toole wrote in The Irish Times, "At a level of raw experience, hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland have known for most of their lives that there is a problem of pedophilia within the church." He goes on to explain why so much of this was covered up: "Because it was a tangible symptom of a much larger malaise, there seems to have been a sense that it was best not to make an issue of child abuse lest the issue become an unbearably big one."

The bishops set up a commission in 1990 to study the problem of clergy sexual abuse and recently expanded its membership.


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