Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Beyond Belief

Colm O'Gorman's recently published book "Beyond Belief" is the account of his childhood abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest, the estrangement from his own family that was a direct result, and his long journey of recovery.

It has been a remarkable journey. In his late teens, haunted by the trauma of the abuse but unable to speak about it to anyone, he left his Wexford home, ending up homeless and destitute in Dublin. Some twenty years later, in 2003, he was chosen as one of Ireland's People of the Year.

The story of the intervening years charts his many struggles - finding a job and getting a roof over his head, coming to terms with his own sexuality, recovering the ability to trust and build relationships, building a successful career, the eventual reconciliation with his family, and ultimately his decision to confront his past and fight for justice.

The reason for his decision in 1998 finally to contact the police was the fear that his abuser, Father Sean Fortune, might still be claiming other victims. Even as he found the courage to speak out for the first time, he was still in denial of the events that had damaged him:

"Denial is a splendid defence mechanism; a comfortable kind of ignorance I learned to embrace with all the enthusiasm of those who had taught it to me. I'm not being sarcastic; denial is a powerful, powerful defence mechanism. If you can't change something, can't escape it or defeat it and if surrender to it has its own dark horrors, then denial becomes your very best friend. You can deny what's happening even as it is happening. I always found a spot on the wall as I was being pawed at and disappeared into it, placing my entire focus on that spot or stain or cabbage rose wallpaper pattern until it was over, until it was safe to return to my body and to the world." (p128)

The police quickly gathered a mass of compelling evidence against Fortune, not just from Colm O'Gorman, but from nearly 30 other victims. In court he was charged with 29 specific offences against 8 victims and pleaded not guilty. But the closure of having the charges tested in court was never to come. In March 1999, Sean Fortune committed suicide. He had taken a lethal cocktail of drugs and whiskey and was found dead in bed by his housekeeper. He had been remanded in custody pending trial but had been released on bail days earlier.

O'Gorman and others had been denied the prospect of justice by Fortune's final act. They would now only ever be his alleged victims. But by this time, however, much wider concerns about an apparent cover-up in the Catholic Church in Ireland had surfaced. Suspicion fell on Bishop Brendan Comiskey, and his predecessor in the Ferns Diocese Bishop Herlihy. Both men were said to have failed to act on a number of previous abuse allegations about Fortune, simply moving him from one pastoral assignment to another. Pointedly Bishop Comiskey issued a statement after Fortune's death inviting people "to remember him and his family in their prayers at this difficult time". O'Gorman widened his quest for justice by taking out civil actions against the Diocese and even against the Pope himself through the person of the Dublin Papal Nuncio.

O'Gorman was outraged by the silence of the Catholic Church in Ireland and its failure to act over repeated claims of sexual abuse by a significant number of its priests over many decades.

"Silence in the case of very great wrong, " he argues, " has a deeply corrupting effect. It diminishes and cheapens us all, and denies us the opportunity to confront that wrong and make it right. And yet, so often we stay silent in the face of abuse. If we can make it invisible and secret then we don't have to deal with it. But our silence has victims, and not always obvious ones. A hurt denied and ignored can rarely heal. More likely it will fester for years after the event." (p227)

Not only did the Catholic Church remain silent and inactive over a 14 year period when they were receiving regular complaints against Fortune, but O'Gorman discovered that as early as 1986 the Archbishop of Dublin had sought legal advice with regard to the Church's legal and financial liability if a priest was returned to the ministry after undergoing some form of treatment - and abused again. The liability was made clear and the Archbishop was advised that there was a duty in law to remove a priest from ministry if an investigation established that there was a basis for complaint.

"So what did the Archbishop do? Did he immediately remove from ministry priests who had been accused? Did he inform the police and social services of all accusations and ensure a proper investigation? Did he put in place a robust child protection policy? Did he inform his brother bishops of what he had discovered and alert them to this legal difficulty and their responsibility in law to remove credibly accused priests?

No, he did none of that.

on the advice of his lawyers he . . . took out an insurance policy to protect against the costs of any claims resulting from priests raping and abusing children. He did not act to protect children; he acted to protect the Church's money." (p 287)

It took until 2003 before the Diocese of Ferns finally settled with an admission of negligence and an award of damages. The action against the Papal Nuncio was dropped after he claimed diplomatic immunity.

O'Gorman's tireless campaign achieved a measure of justice for himself and many other victims who he has encouraged and supported; and he has contributed significantly to a cultural change in Ireland, where the people and the state are no longer content with a hands-off attitude towards abuse within the Church. This change offers a promise of a far more robust response to cases of clerical abuse, and an understanding of the need for effective child protection becoming ingrained within Irish society.

But worldwide the battle against the Catholic Church's tendency towards denial, cover-up and obstruction continues. While lessons may have been learned in the western world, there are signs that little has changed in developing countries. On a visit to Brazil, for example, O'Gorman uncovered many current cases of children abused by priests, together with a very similar pattern of cover-up and denial that had been common in Ireland, the USA and elsewhere twenty or thirty years earlier.

And the stench of guilt again goes right to the very top: Cardinal Ratzinger, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, sent a letter instructing all bishops that every case of sexual abuse involving a priest anywhere in the world was to be referred to the Vatican.

The message to the Roman Catholic Church in the biblical quotation with which O'Gorman ends the book could hardly be clearer:

Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. (1 John 3:18)

Archbishops' cover-up of child sex abuse revealed (Irish Independent 23/11/09)