Many lived in fear of priest who caused so much pain

By Alison O'Connor
Irish Times
March 20, 1999

• A paedophile, a liar and a bully. Father Sean Fortune of Wexford was pure evil in the eyes of some who came across him, reports Alison O'Connor

The exploits of Father Sean Fortune, be they sexual, financial, or downright farcical, have been well documented in the days following his suicide. The pain this priest caused so many people over a long period has been laid bare.

What those people say they now want is an explanation from his superiors in the Catholic Church of how he was allowed to continue in his ministry. They point to the children he sexually abused, but also to adults who were bullied by him and lived in fear of this man who was their priest.

It is difficult for those who did not know Father Sean Fortune to understand how an individual could behave in such a way over a period of years and not be challenged. However, these were small rural parishes and respect for the priest was paramount.

There were a number of brave people who did challenge the priest and reported his behaviour to his superiors. But they saw that no action was taken and believed themselves, in the words of one parishioner, to be "left on their own to deal with him".

In the parishes where he served, people were afraid of him and his threatening ways, and had a particular fear of "a man of the cloth" who might curse them. Others, to this day, do not wish to believe that he did wrong.

A story is told of a number of women in Fethard-On-Sea who chatted about media reports this week concerning the priest who was in their parish for six years.

One woman said she did not believe the stories about Father Sean, particularly that he took money from the people who were working on FAS schemes. But another responded that it was true, that her son had been one of those who had handed over £10 each week.

When the question of sexual abuse arose the first woman said this was most certainly not true. She was told by another that indeed it was: the priest had once offered her son £30 to stay the night with him. Even in death the priest is causing division among those who knew him.

Those who heard the name "Father Sean Fortune" for the first time this week have been speculating as to what lay behind the man that caused him to act in such a way. Details of his childhood are scant.

In his suicide note, Father Fortune told his family that he was sending them "a message from heaven". By the time they read it, he said, he would be reunited with his mother and father.

The dynamics that went to making him a man that people describe as evil are not known. Tragically his mother committed suicide when he was a teenager, and his father apparently died an alcoholic. It is believed the priest may have been abused by clerics when he was a vulnerable teenager with a troubled background.

In Wexford this week there was no end to the stories about Father Fortune's less conventional activities. Some of those centred on his apparent infirmity. At the beginning of this month he appeared in Wexford Circuit court on crutches and appeared to have difficulty walking.

A few nights before the court appearance young boys attempted to kick in the door of his rented house in New Ross. The priest, who had installed iron shutters and security cameras in recent weeks, called gardai. Once they arrived he was able to show them the video of the incident. In it he was seen running down the street after the boys.

Meanwhile, gardai in Arklow recently recognised Father Fortune hanging around public toilets in the town. They saw the priest make a call from his mobile telephone. He then got into his car. The gardai spent some time following him until he picked up a young boy on the side of the road. The teenage boy appeared to have been waiting for him. The gardai moved in. When questioned the boy said the priest had told him to say his name was Gary.


Those who saw the inside of Father Fortune's New Ross house were surprised to find that the downstairs floor of the house in Bewley Street was decorated just like a church, including various religious statues, a lectern, and even a chalice.

Appearances were very important to Father Fortune. At one time he was determined that he was entitled to become a silver jubilarian in the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association. This would have entitled him to wear a silver pin on his lapel signifying that he had been a pioneer for 25 years.

"But we knew he wasn't a pioneer of 25 days, not to mind 25 years," said a member of the association in Wexford. "But he pushed and pushed, saying that while he joined the organisation late he was entitled to the pin." The priest was told that he needed to produce some proof and asked what branch he had originally joined. The branch was now defunct, he said.

"Being a pioneer is a personal thing. It is not something you boast about. Either you are one or you are not: you don't tell lies about it; you don't tell lies about the sacred heart. If you wear the pin it means that people know not to offer you a drink, not that you are a goody-goody," explained one member of the association who had objected to Father Fortune's efforts.

Members were afraid to tell the priest he was not entitled to the pin. When they did, saying he had no proof, he became enraged and began cursing at them. "He hit the table a wallop and the pioneer book jumped up. The women got an awful fright. He went berserk. One of the men stood up to him. He starting cursing and blinding. We were afraid of him, afraid that as a priest he might curse us."

Another story told this week concerned a rich, unsuspecting widow who was unwell. Father Fortune used to hold "healing Masses", according to one of his former parishioners, and promised to cure the woman. According to a former employee she paid him thousands of pounds, stopping when news of the sexual abuse investigation became public in 1995.

A man who contacted The Irish Times during the week said one of the "worst kept secrets" in St Peter's College in Wexford was that Father Fortune, who supervised the first-year boarders, gave a Mars bar each night to the boy who could tell "the dirtiest joke".

But even the worst-kept secrets can eventually come back at you. And Father Fortune, the man who loved the limelight, must have known after years of using the avenues of the legal system to his advantage that he faced a prison sentence, and the ignominy of being publicly branded a paedophile.

Leaving the country to escape was not an option. He had previously surrendered his passport to the courts. In 1996 he contacted gardai requesting the return of his passport, saying he wanted to travel to Rome for the beatification of the founder of the Christian Brothers, Brother Ignatius Rice.

He was told he would have to make the request to the courts. As the day of reckoning drew closer he obviously felt that the only way out was suicide.


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