Kerry Lawless warns that only media pressure will force an appropriate response from the Church of Ireland, writes Victoria White.
IT’S THE biggest sex abuse case ever taken against an individual in this country. Some of it happened in the biggest church on the island. But it doesn’t matter because the Church is not Catholic.
Patrick O’Brien’s up to 1,000 counts of abusing young boys in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin over 40 years is not a national story because it can’t be used to tell the story of adults from Catholic homes and because they are the majority they are the only people who count.
O’Brien, now 76, was a volunteer at the cathedral for four decades. He was the Honorary Treasurer of the Friends of St Patrick’s Cathedral and he took up the collection at the cathedral’s iconic annual Christmas Eve service.
He used the access this work gave him to groom and abuse young boys from the cathedral choir. Men who were at the Cathedral School in the 1970s remember him buying boys toys, watches, a bicycle and, in one case, a car.
Last week he was sentenced to 13 years in prison after pleading guilty to 48 sample counts of sex abuse against 14 boys between 1974 and 2013. The abuse took place in a variety of locations — in Kildare, in Westmeath, in a boat in Loughrea — and in electrics room of St Patrick’s Cathedral while church services were going on.
It didn’t make any difference to the victims that O’Brien groomed his boys from a church choir and abused some of them in that church. But to those of us to whom the church means something, it matters.
St Patrick’s Cathedral is the national cathedral of the Church of Ireland and to me it has always been the beating heart of Dublin. When I lived around the corner I attended services there and it was in St Patrick’s that I was confirmed. My first child was christened in the baptismal font on the site where St Patrick is said to have performed the first Irish christenings.
For all I know Patrick O’Brien was hard at it in a back room during the service. But that’s not what distresses me most. As a member of the Church of Ireland I am shocked by the lack of an appropriate response from the Church or the Cathedral.
The truly devastating aspect of the story is O’Brien was convicted of the abuse of a 10-year-old boy called Kerry Lawless in 1987 and received a two year suspended sentence. Despite this conviction, Patrick O’Brien was allowed to return to the cathedral as a volunteer and worked away, in every sense of the word, until 2004 when representations were made by Kerry Lawless.
We do not yet know how many young boys O’Brien got to abuse in that decade and a half but there were likely many. There are currently five civil cases being brought against the cathedral and this has seriously spooked the cathedral staff.
Fear of possible financial implications is probably behind the Church’s poor response to date. Kerry Lawless, who is now 44, attended service at St Patrick’s Cathedral last Sunday expecting the case would be mentioned. There wasn’t a word.
The cathedral has made a pro forma statement praising the “courage” of the victims in coming forward but otherwise has sought to distance itself. The first comment of Dean William Morton in a short interview on RTÉ’s Drivetime radio programme was to say that Patrick O’Brien was “not a member of the Church of Ireland as far as the cathedral is concerned”. How could that possibly matter to his victims? And what does it mean? Patrick O’Brien was a member of the congregation of St Patrick’s, as confirmed to me yesterday by the Church of Ireland press office. By saying he was “not a member of the Church of Ireland” Morton sounded like he meant he was not born into the Church, though he denies this was his intent.
Nearly every statement Dean Morton made to RTÉ was an attempt to fence off the cathedral from O’Brien’s crimes. It was a long time ago. O’Brien was not a priest or an employee. Though he was honorary treasurer of Friends of St Patrick’s Cathedral that wasn’t the same as fundraising for the Church. He abused in other places as well so why was St Patrick’s being “singled out”?
Hell, I don’t know. Maybe because it’s a big church and it’s meant to be there to spread God’s love?
Dean Victor Griffin, who allowed O’Brien back in as a volunteer after his initial conviction, is 92 and described as too ill to speak to the media, though he commented widely this summer when the current dean was elected. Meanwhile former Dean Robert McCarthy who put an end to O’Brien’s volunteering at the cathedral said last week that the abuse which happened after the 1987 sentence occurred because the courts did not impose a stiff enough sentence.
Kerry Lawless calls this response “an absolute abdication of responsibility”. It comes, he says, from “a lack of empathy.” You feel “lack of empathy” is what hurts him most. After O’Brien was convicted of sexually abusing him no mention of it was made to him by the dean of the cathedral or by the headmaster of the Cathedral School which he attended. He has never received an apology from the cathedral.
He calls the Church of Ireland community “arrogant” and adds: “There was a deafening silence from the Church of Ireland when the sex abuse cases were breaking in the Catholic Church.”
This silence is met with the silence of wider Irish society. The Sunday World has followed the story and the Herald put it on their front page but the massive sex abuse scandal in a national cathedral has been given a fraction of the media coverage a similar abuse story would have were the Church in question Catholic.
Lawless describes himself as “taken aback” by this and warns that only media pressure will force an appropriate response from the Church of Ireland.
I don’t care about the lack of response of the Church of Ireland as much as I care about the lack of response from wider society. We have used child abuse in the Catholic Church as a useful metaphor for throwing off the bits of the past we don’t want but we don’t care about the children who were abused.
Abuse is just as common in every other Church and every other setting in which there is access, but it doesn’t serve as a metaphor for the experience of the majority so it doesn’t matter. Children don’t matter.
And as Kerry Lawless says, that is the response that abusers like Patrick O’Brien “count on”.
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