In Ireland, Few Mourn Pedophile Priest
After Crimes That Toppled Government and Weakened Church, Little Compassion
By Kevin Cullen
August 24, 1997
It is said the Irish speak well of the dead. But yesterday, as word spread that the Rev. Brendan Smyth had died, it was hard to find voices of sympathy for the priest who was Ireland's most notorious pedophile.
In 1994, Smyth's crimes, and the responses to them by the Irish government and the Roman Catholic Church, toppled the government and weakened forever the position of the church in Europe's most Catholic country.
Smyth, 70, collapsed from an apparent heart attack and died Friday night in the exercise yard of the Curragh Prison, west of Dublin, where he had been sentenced to 12 years. That sentence, for his abuse of 20 children in the Irish Republic over some 35 years, was imposed last month after Smyth had served three years in Northern Ireland for abusing dozens of children there.
It was the reluctance of then-Prime Minister Albert Reynolds to turn Smyth over to police in Northern Ireland, then the dishonest explanation Reynolds' administration gave its coalition partner about the delay, that led to the collapse of the government.
But it was the church hierarchy's response to the scandal that has had the most lasting impact in Ireland, where until a generation ago the Catholic Church was recognized in the constitution as having a "special position" in society. After a television documentary revealed that Smyth had been abusing children since the 1950s, and that his superiors covered up for him, public opinion turned squarely against the church.
There is no definitive estimate on the number of Smyth's victims, but police believe it is in the hundreds. Detectives believe most victims did not come forward, so strong is the stigma. Besides the molestation for which he was convicted, there was evidence Smyth abused children in Wales, Italy, and the United States, where he settled for $ 20,000 a claim that he had abused an altar boy.
Smyth was prolific and indiscriminate, molesting boys and girls alike. He lured children with candy and, in some cases, had his victims delivered to him by unwitting parents and nuns. The testimony of his victims was heart-rending, and some of it spoke to the balance of power that existed in Ireland before scandals involving the church began to break in the 1990s.
One woman told of how, as a girl, nuns at the convent school she attended repeatedly forced her to see Smyth, despite her protests. Once, after Smyth had ejaculated over her school uniform, she returned to class, only to be humiliated in front of her classmates by a nun who rebuked her for wearing a stained dress. The woman said she swallowed sewing needles because, as a child, that was the only way she could think of killing herself.
Other victims told of suicide attempts, failed marriages, and mental illness that they attribute to their abuse at the hands of the priest, and their anguish over being unable to point the finger at someone who wore the most respected uniform in Irish society.
Police in Northern Ireland first learned about Smyth in 1990. In 1991, they arrested him, but after he was released on bail to await trial, he headed to the Irish Republic. Two years later, police filed an extradition warrant.
But in the Irish Republic, extraditing anyone, even an accused child molester, to British-controlled Northern Ireland is a politically and emotionally charged proposition. Reynolds and his aides sat on the extradition request, telling their coalition partners that it was unprecedented and needed extensive study. When Labor leader Dick Spring learned he had been lied to, he and his party quit, toppling the government.
The Irish political system is built to withstand such temporary collapses in confidence. It is doubtful, however, that the church will ever wield as much influence over the 95 percent of the 3.5 million people here who identify themselves as Catholic. Church attendance has dropped dramatically over the last generation, no more precipitously than since the Smyth scandal broke.
The church's refusal to pay compensation to a dozen of Smyth's victims who have filed claims continues to generate negative publicity. Church lawyers say it is not a simple matter. But Ted Lavery, a lawyer who represents six of the victims, said Smyth's death gives the church the opportunity to put some closure to the case.
During his three years at Magilligan Prison in Northern Ireland, several inmates took turns beating Smyth. The beatings were widely reported and enjoyed vicariously by an Irish public that believes Smyth got off easy. The last two weeks of Smyth's life were spent at the Curragh, where he was housed with 73 other sex offenders, including two other priests and two monks. According to a guard who works there, many of the other inmates looked down on Smyth, viewing his transgressions as worse than theirs.
While many people expressed something approaching relief that Smyth had died, there was one voice of compassion. Smyth's order, the Norbertine Community, issued a statement offering condolences to his family and victims. The Norbertines urged the public not to judge Smyth's mortal failings.
"The Lord Himself will be Father Brendan's judge in His justice and in His mercy," the Norbertines said. "May the same Lord continue with His strengthening grace to support through their lives those who have suffered at Father Smyth's hands."
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