ALISON O'CONNOR: Irish abuse survivors deserve top billing during Pope Francis visit

Paedophile priest Sean Fortune with Pope John Paul II.

It was only in the years afterwards that the burden of the project really became apparent. 

I remember thinking then that if I never heard another word about clerical sex abuse if would be too soon. 

This followed a number of years of journalistic work trying to unearth the havoc that had been wreaked by Fr Sean Fortune in Wexford and before him Fr Brendan Smyth and a few others in between.

Back then in the 1990s, it truly was a different Ireland. The notion of priests committing such depraved acts with children, and then being publically exposed for doing so, was utterly shocking.

By now, we’ve heard so much about the sex abuse of children by priests that it continues to shock us, but equally, given our prolonged exposure to the facts, it has become a part of our national narrative. 

The human mind can only cope with so much empathising and it’s understandable, in many ways, that we would protect ourselves from prolonged acute exposure.

In this way, when we hear that general term “clerical sex abuse”, we tend to veer away from mentally going into too much detail of what this means in actuality, thus blunting our response. 

Despite having reported on it extensively, and spoken to a number of victims, I do this myself. 

It is a horror that you can only bear in limited doses. But the victims do not have this luxury. They live every day with the reality of what was done to them and by whom.

It is many years since I spoke to someone about their experiences of being abused but I can easily recall the details of the terror they felt, the bewildering confusion at what was actually happening, and that it was a priest that was doing it to them — whether that had been rape, or to use that other graphic term, buggery, and the horrible physical pain of that, or being forced to perform oral sex or to engage in masturbation.

Then there were the threats and inducements from the priest at what would happen if they told anyone about the abuse.

The children often did not realise what exactly was being done to them, having no clue what sex was, but they knew exactly the trust and high esteem in which this man of the cloth would have been held by their parents.

Some details that stick in my mind include the woman whose abuse began on the day of her First Holy Communion, the grown man remembering how he had turned his pajama bottom the wrong way round, with the opening at the back, in the tragically childish hope this might prove a barrier to the abuse that had begun the night before, or the man for whom the smell of this adult male priest was one of the dominant things that stuck in his mind to the present day.

The other dominant aspect that remains with me was the utter and absolute determination of the Church to make it as difficult as possible, right down to lying blatantly and using every legal avenue available, to stop these people who had been abused from finding out the truth of what happened and why, and to get proper acknowledgement of their suffering. 

Their actions often resulted in priests who had been reported to Church authorities continuing to abuse children for years, sometimes decades, afterwards.

This, of course, is an attitude and approach that was and is completely at odds with the teachings of the Church that are delivered off the altar every Sunday and will no doubt form a key part of Pope Francis’ message when he arrives in Ireland.

Irish abuse survivors deserve top billing during Pope Francis visit

Yes, this pope is a man who lives modestly, who speaks eloquently and importantly on issues such as poverty and the plight of refugees migrants and climate change, who has presented a more “human” face of the Catholic Church, stressing the importance of mercy. 

On a Sunday in the Vatican, as he ends his remarks with those gathered in St Peter’s Square, he tells the crowd, with his classic common touch: “Have a good lunch, arrivederci.”

Ultimately, though, he continues the pattern of an institution unwilling to face the truth.

Just days ago, the Pope accepted the resignation of an Australian archbishop, Phillip Wilson, who was convicted of covering up the sexual abuse of children — the repeated abuse of two altar boys by a priest now deceased — something which occurred only after mounting public pressure and included an intervention from the country’s prime minister.

One victim, Peter Gogarty, wrote a letter to Pope Francis which was published in Australian media. 

From my own experience of listening to victims, his words eloquently summed up the lasting devastation of those who have been sexually abused by priests.

Imagine, if you can, your own childhood, your Catholic upbringing, and the character-destroying belief that you were engaged in the worst of mortal sins.


“I am now 57 years old and continue to struggle with the burden forced upon me,” Mr Gogarty wrote.

In another recent high-profile move, the Pope accepted the resignation of the former archbishop of Washington 88-year-old Theodore McCarrick. 

In that case, apparently, it was an open secret in US church circles that McCarrick would invite seminarians to his beach house and then his bed. 

Despite this apparent knowledge and warnings being issued to the Vatican, he was still made a cardinal in 2001.

There has been international media speculation that the “accepting” of these resignations were a “house cleaning” exercise in advance of the Pope’s arrival in Ireland, which, as the Chicago Tribune puts it, “the scandal is likely to dominate the agenda, given Ireland’s devastating history with predator priests and the bishops who covered for them”.

In truth, rather than a spring clean, it is a defumigation that the Catholic Church needs when it comes to the sexual abuse of children by its priests and the subsequent orchestration by the Vatican of a cover-up.

No wonder, then, that Colm O’Gorman described the Pope’s visit as “particularly galling” for people like him. 

Colm O’Gorman
Colm O’Gorman

Colm was one of those abuse victims that I got to know during those long years of researching the story of Fr Sean Fortune and subsequently writing a book on it. 

Knowing what he went through, and how he subsequently worked so tirelessly to get answers from the Church, not just for himself but also on behalf of others, means my admiration for him is boundless. 

The charity which he established, One In Four continues to do invaluable work with survivors of sexual abuse.

The notion that the Pope might squeeze in a meeting with survivors behind the scenes rather than it have it as a top priority from the beginning indicates how the old attitudes prevail. 

The rape of Irish children and the institutionalised cover up of that fact — however hard the details are to listen to — deserve top billing.

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