A cheat 'til the end

By Alison O'Connor
Irish Times
September 20, 2000

• At the time of his suicide last year, Father Sean Fortune was facing 66 charges of sex abuse. In the first of two edited extracts from her new book A Message From Heaven - the Life and Crimes of Father Sean Fortune, Alison O'Connor recalls the events surrounding Fortune's death. By taking his own life, the disgraced priest denied his victims the chance to confront him face-to-face

Father Sean Fortune died as he had lived. Dramatically. Alone in the bedroom of his small house, he assembled the instruments of his suicide: packets and vials of pills and a bottle of whiskey to wash them down. A TV screen in the corner of the room, linked to an outside security camera, relayed images of a cold March night in New Ross, Co Wexford.

Steel security shutters on the windows and doors transformed the terraced house into a mini-fortress. A sign on the wall warned passers-by that they were being recorded. That night, behind the shutters, Sean Fortune was succumbing to the effects of the lethal concoction. Still wearing his priestly garb, his glasses perched on his nose, he lay down on the bed. Wrapping rosary beads in his hands, he drifted into unconsciousness. At the age of 45 he had taken his own life.

He had prepared well for the moment. On the dressing table was a poem which he had titled "A Message from Heaven to my Family". At the top of the page a hand-written note read: "From Father John Fortune. Please read out at my Requiem in Ballymurn." Beside the poem, a sealed envelope, addressed to his brother, contained his will. Nearby was his prayer book. It would be over 36 hours before he would be discovered. He had planned it that way.

Around 9 p.m. that Thursday night he had telephoned Margaret Stamp, who had been his housekeeper for 14 years. "Don't bother coming in tomorrow," he told her, explaining that he was going away for the day with a priest friend. She offered to come anyway and collect the post. "Don't bother," he replied, "I'm going to be away."

Later that night, around midnight, the telephone rang in the home of Peter Bennett, who did odd jobs and who had looked after the priest's house in New Ross for three years. Peter was annoyed to be disturbed at that late hour, particularly since the telephone stopped ringing just as he reached it. An hour later it rang again. This time the automated Eircom voice told him that a new message had been received in his voice mailbox. Peter was surprised to hear it was Fr Fortune, telling him not to come in the following day: "I'll be away," he said.

That afternoon Margaret had driven Fr Fortune to Waterford and on the way there they had talked about the weather and his health. He told her he was in a lot of pain, but he did not mention what he planned to do. The next day, despite knowing that he was going to be away, she thought it odd that he did not telephone "as he always did". She tried to call him a number of times but there was never a reply.

On Saturday she arrived at his house shortly after 11 a.m., a little earlier than arranged. She saw that the shutters were locked and when she knocked there was no reply. Feeling there was something wrong, she immediately called Peter, who came straight from home. Peter had strict instructions about when he was allowed to enter the house because, as Fr Fortune had told him, some important people came there for Mass and to be healed.

Emphasising the importance of their privacy, he said that Peter should only come in with his permission, but that morning Peter used his own keys to unlock and lift the shutters and he and Margaret went inside. The alarm was not activated and had not been set since Thursday. Peter thought it very strange because Fr Fortune always made sure to activate it when he was leaving the house.

"I knew at that stage something was wrong."

Walking into the kitchen, Peter remarked on a bad smell in the house. Fearful that something was amiss, Margaret raced up the stairs, with Peter following close behind. Opening Fr Fortune's bedroom door slightly, they saw him lying on the bed. When Peter turned on the light, it was obvious that he was dead. They saw the empty pill packets strewn about and what looked like powdered medication contained in an ordination chalice. A half-litre bottle of Powers Gold Label whiskey lay upturned in a plastic bucket. There were tablets floating at the bottom in the spilled alcohol. The note to his family said that, by the time they read it, he would be with their parents in heaven and looking down on them. He could no longer stand what had been going on, he wrote. He was going to a better place. He wrote that he blamed the media for his misfortune, saying it had spread lies about him.

It was 11.55 a.m. when Margaret called a doctor, a priest and the gardai. Five minutes later the gardai were at the house. It was not a pleasant task for those assembled, but it took on a surreal edge when they entered downstairs and saw a makeshift church there, complete with altar and pulpit. Going upstairs, they saw that one of the bedrooms was laid out as a prayer room with seats arranged in a circle. In the bedroom they found the priest. They looked for a pulse, but found none. Examining the scene, they quickly concluded that no foul play had been involved. A local doctor pronounced him dead and two local priests said prayers.

As word of the suicide spread quickly throughout New Ross and beyond, a crowd gathered outside to watch. Inside the house, undertakers struggled with the coffin containing the 20-stone body. A door had to be removed from its hinges before they could carry it downstairs and outside to the waiting hearse.

News of the death was conveyed to his family. Fr Fortune's sister had been expecting him to call as usual on the next day, a Sunday. The appointment was written into his diary. He had told his brother in Gorey that he would call in the afternoon with a Mother's Day cake for his sister-in-law. The cake was found in the boot of his car.

There were others who needed to be informed of his death. Chief among them were eight young men. Some lived in Wexford, others abroad. Over a period of years they had been sexually abused by Fr Sean Fortune.

In a review of his life, the crimes against these young men would be his worst, but far from his only wrongdoing.

Over decades an incredible number of complaints about many exploits - sexual, financial and downright farcical - were logged against this man, both to his superiors in the Church and others in authority, but still he remained in a position of trust and, most importantly, power. Instead of ministering to his flock, he lied, cheated, bullied and abused. In the midst of it all he built up a public profile which made him one of the best-known priests in the country. Attempts were made to bring him into line, but it is clear now that they did not work, and for many years it seemed as if nothing were being done.

Former parishioners tell of how they made specific, repeated and increasingly desperate complaints to the churchmen, chief among them the Bishop of Ferns, Dr Brendan Comiskey, but they felt little if no action was being taken and as if they were left to try and protect themselves and their children on their own. In so many sad and tragic cases they failed.

Even today the actions of this man, a Catholic priest, seem incredible. The bitter community divisions created by him are still deeply felt.

It was in February 1995 that the step was finally taken that would expose his misdeeds publicly. One of the many boys he abused, Colm O'Gorman, now a young man, summoned up the courage to make a complaint to the gardai. Colm, originally from Wexford town, made a statement to the gardai which began an investigation that would result in 66 charges of sexual abuse being brought against Fr Sean Fortune.

Consistently he would deny the allegations. He was, he said, the victim of a conspiracy. For over four years he dragged out the legal process using different aspects of the law to avoid a trial.

But in March 1999, he must have realised that the day of reckoning could no longer be held off. A guilty verdict, jail sentence and public ignominy awaited.

The man who had once loved the spotlight felt himself buckling under its glare. Eleven days before his death, he had stood in Wexford Circuit Court and listened as the charges against him were read out. Sitting behind him in the courtroom were the eight who said he had abused them, supported by their families. To each charge he had pleaded not guilty, but he must finally have known that the game was up.

His suicide, like any suicide, was shocking. There are some who believe that the decision to take his own life was "best for all", particularly his victims, because it would save them the pain of the trial. The reality is that it offered no comfort to any of those involved - not to his family, who have suffered greatly, and not to the gardai, who devoted such time and effort to the investigation.

For the man behind the investigation, Detective Garda Pat Mulcahy, it was an abrupt, frustrating and tragic end to years of hard work - just when a conclusion had seemed so close. Last but not least, it meant the eight young men were cheated of their opportunity to have their allegations of sexual abuse against Fortune tried in a court of law.

They would never see a jury find him guilty of those crimes or have the opportunity to take the stand themselves and tell him, one after the other, what damage he had caused to their lives.

One of the young men, Don (not his real name), explains what the suicide of his abuser meant to him: "Everyone believes us, but in the eyes of the law we will always be his alleged victims. I will never be able to look him straight in the eye and say, 'You did this to us'."

A Message From Heaven - The Life and Crimes of Fr Sean Fortune by Alison O'Connor (Brandon) is published at (pounds) 9.99.

Alison O'Connor is an Irish Times staff journalist


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.