Fortune and the bishop
Ten thousand people lined the streets of Wexford on the day that Brendan Comiskey arrived as bishop in the Diocese of Ferns. It was April 1984. He had a reputation as a bishop who was energetic, articulate, forward-thinking and media-friendly. He was a breath of fresh air and people were thrilled with the appointment.
His own delight was perhaps more measured than theirs. During a press conference, he made a telling remark about how he was not familiar with the Diocese of Ferns. "I feel a bit like Pope John Paul - like a man from a far country."
He had come from the State's biggest diocese in Dublin, where he had mixed with powerful and interesting people, to the small see in the southeast . . . (before long,) the bishop was perceived as being frustrated at being left to languish in Ferns with no bigger opportunity within the Irish Catholic Church being presented to him. He was felt to be ill-at-ease with his fellow bishops.
And far from being a native of his diocese, as many Irish bishops are, he knew few people in Wexford. His worldly style and penchant for dinner parties made many suspicious. According to a profile of the bishop in The Irish Times in February 1996, he "combined doctrinal orthodoxy with a liberal, worldly lifestyle". Twice Brendan Comiskey was passed over for Dublin and twice for Armagh. He was to rise no further up the episcopal ladder, remaining in Ferns, the compact diocese which included all of Wexford and a small portion of Wicklow.
However, his media profile continued to flourish at a local and national level, and this may have compensated for any possible dissatisfaction with his diocese. There was certainly a strong feeling in the media that, whatever shortcomings Dr Comiskey may have had, he was a voice of tolerance and common sense, who was happy to stand up and be counted in a Church where those traits often seemed in short supply. It was to him that Bishop Eamonn Casey turned in his time of trouble. But privately he was an unhappy and brooding man.
As his unhappiness grew, according to observers, it seemed as if his control over the diocese and his priests became lax. More people began to notice his drinking.
One priest spoke from the altar about it. It was said that his inebriation was visible on the altar on a few occasions. As his problem worsened, he began to miss engagements. (Bishop Comiskey was treated for alcoholism in the US in 1995.)
There can be no doubt but that Sean Fortune added significantly to Bishop Comiskey's woes, almost from the moment of his arrival in Ferns. A Wexford politician who contacted the bishop on a number of occasions over the years to pass on complaints about Fortune which had been received from constituents says Dr Comiskey's response would invariably be that he had "tried everything" when it came to the priest.
"Every time the bishop had Fortune in to put a complaint to him that someone had made, his response was, 'Where's the evidence? Send it on to my lawyer'. Bishop Comiskey knew there were plenty of allegations, but he got legal advice and there was nothing that he could do when he had no proof."
A priest familiar with the diocese of Ferns tells a similar story. Fortune, when confronted with complaints that had been made, would insist that he had done nothing wrong, producing documentation or references from other people to back up his side of the story. The bishop was in a very tricky situation, explains the priest, because under canon law Fortune could appeal any attempt to remove him from a parish and remain there while the appeal was being heard by Rome. The priest, quite obviously speaking with the benefit of hindsight, says now that he feels that the bishop should have gotten Fortune into some sort of formal legal proceedings so that he could not, as the priest puts it, "simply bounce in the door and deny everything".
"He should have gotten someone that Fortune was a little afraid of. That person could have held an inquiry. Bishop Comiskey did not ignore the complaints about Fortune but equally he did not do enough. However, I don't know if any other bishop would have done any better. Take one example. He called him in one day and asked him about the money owed to the man in Fethard-on-Sea, which he had borrowed for the telephone system. Fortune had a briefcase with him and he was able to produce a document saying that he had been legally entitled to take the phones with him. What could you do? With a tricky situation like this, the only way to deal with it is to establish some sort of procedure or a tribunal, but the bishop did not do that. I think he would have acted much more quickly if there had been a way around it. When the bishop would challenge Fortune about his bank accounts, he would say, 'I'll show you the statements'."
Concerning the allegations of child abuse, the priest says that in the beginning there was no gossip or rumours, and when it did begin to surface, "We wondered was it that fellas in nearby parishes were jealous of him. From outside, it looked like he was doing very good work, but as we now know what was being presented to the outside was not at all the reality."
He says that around the time Fortune moved out of Poulfur there was some talk about child abuse, but it was vague and there were no details. "The story I heard was that he was sent for assessment and treatment but got a clear bill of health. The bishop did do his best. He is a good person, really, but not necessarily a good bishop, or a good administrator. He did take the situation with Fortune seriously."
A Wexford man who knows the bishop says he was simply unable to cope with the priest's behaviour. Fortune's uncanny knack for identifying the weaknesses of others and playing on them had also been turned on the bishop. "He told me he dreaded the invitations to Ballymurn. Fortune would always arrange the function for around 11 a.m. and then insist that the bishop stay for lunch, where he would dole out the red wine to him."
When the Fortune investigation got underway in March 1995, questions began to be asked publicly about the bishop's role. In the Sunday Independent, Veronica Guerin wrote what was to be the first of many articles on Dr Comiskey, Fr Fortune and the Diocese of Ferns. Her article stated that a Garda investigation into allegations of sexual abuse by a Wexford-based priest had begun and that seven years earlier in 1988, the Bishop of Ferns Brendan Comiskey had sent a letter of apology to an alleged victim (Paul Molloy from Fethard, who was not named by the newspaper). A Church inquiry into Paul's allegations of abuse had been held in Maynooth, stated the article.
Dr Comiskey responded by giving an interview on South East Radio in Wexford to discuss his handling of the case. He said he had written no such letter apologising for the sexual crimes of the priest in question. Those making claims about its existence should produce it, he said.
"Normally in such circumstances I would think it quite wrong to make any comment until the law has run its full course. In fact that's procedure: a person is innocent until proven guilty. However, I myself have been implicated in the media in a manner which implies I have acknowledged guilt of the accused, which would be very, very serious, which I haven't.
" The media have reported that I have written a letter to the alleged victim and his family apologising for sexual crimes of the priest in question. I have written no such letter apologising for the sexual misconduct of the priest, and I ask therefore in all charity and justice that those in the media and those anonymous sources in the Garda Siochana who are quoted and who have made claims about the existence of such a letter simply to come forth with the letter to substantiate their allegations, and if there is any kind of letter in existence purporting to be from me, let us all see it."
Dr Comiskey was asked how the allegations against the priest were handled. On one hand, he seemed to seek refuge in the fact that sexual abuse was handled so differently in the 1980s, while on the other declaring that "exhaustive procedures" had been undergone with regard to the priest.
"If someone came to the priest in the 1980s and said, 'Well, in confidence and I don't want to go any further . . .' We can't apply the procedures that we have today to things that happened . . . so, yes, there were exhaustive procedures and assessments over a two-year period in place, and the man himself agreed to undergo these, and I can't speak about the nature of them. They were quite exhaustive, quite responsible, involving highly professional people on this side of the Irish Sea and, as well, on the other side.
"When the record is released after the legal process has run its course, people, fair-minded people, will think, 'Well, the Church has done what it could.' Now if I was handling it today it would be quite different."
A Message From Heaven - The Life and Crimes of Father 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 © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.