Shocking to think that nobody spoke out about abuse
The younger generation reading the Ryan commission report are entitled to ask their elders why they did nothing to help children, writes NOEL WHELAN .
IN THE opening pages of his recently published memoir Beyond Belief, Colm O’Gorman tells how in October 2001 while making the documentary Suing the Pope he returned to the Wexford parish of Poulfour, where his abuser Fr Seán Fortune had been the local priest. He recounts how he and the BBC programme team spoke to a local businessman and his wife who talked freely about how divisive Fortune had been and the trouble he caused in the parish.
They went on to discuss how Fortune had abused boys and O’Gorman asked them if people at the time had any idea what the priest was doing to the boys he had stay with him. O’Gorman was shocked when the woman answered: “O God, yeah. Everyone knew what he was like. They used to joke about it. They’d say, don’t bend down in front of that fella in the churchyard.”
O’Gorman describes how hearing her words was like a punch in the stomach. He was left reeling because this was the first time he realised that people had known about Fortune’s abuse of boys at the time the abuse was occurring and that they had even joked about it.
O’Gorman says that over the following days several of Fortune’s parishioners confirmed that there was a widespread suspicion in the parish that Fortune had been abusing boys. “Well, people would tell you without really telling you, if you know what I mean,” one man told him “but we kept our fellas always from him. We didn’t want to risk it.”
Reading these pages in O’Gorman’s book last weekend I myself was left reeling. I grew up in the parish next door to Poulfour and was a teenager at the same time as O’Gorman. As such I came across Fortune many times, often at No Name discos or other events over which he presided. Fortune regularly tried to engage directly with the young boys who attended these events but I recall that some message had made its way across the teenage bush telegraph that Fortune was dangerous, that one should never be alone with him.
Stories did the rounds of the youth rumour mill about boys from New Ross who were invited to stay over in the parochial house getting up in the middle of the night and walking all the way back to town because something strange had happened during their stay.
What shocked me about what O’Gorman found out in 2001 was that it meant that adults also knew what we local teenagers knew. I had always assumed that these suspicions about Fortune only operated on our level – in some separate teenage community knowledge bank from which adults were excluded. I had not realised until now that many parents had the same concerns about the priest at the time. Even though they suspected it, it seems that taboos surrounding sexual abuse or enduring deference towards the Catholic Church and, in particular, for the position of the local priest meant these adults didn’t, or didn’t feel able to, voice these concerns to those in authority.
A similar point struck me later during this past week when reading some of the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, chaired by Judge Seán Ryan. One of the clear conclusions of the Ryan commission is that much of what has now been revealed about these religious-run homes and schools was suspected or even known about at the time the abuse occurred. In careful but clear language the report concludes that the communities surrounding these institutions knew that something horrific was going on.
In its report, the commission talks of how awareness of the abuse of children in these schools and institutions existed within society at both official and unofficial levels. It points out that contemporary complaints were made to the school authorities, the Garda, the Department of Education, health boards, priests of the parish and others about abuse in these institutions. Professionals and others including government inspectors, gardaí, general practitioners and teachers had a role in relation to various aspects of children’s welfare while they were in schools and institutions. Local people were employed in most of the residential facilities as professional, care and ancillary staff. Many of these people were aware that life for children in the schools and institutions was difficult but failed to take action to protect them.
The report also concludes that what it calls “the deferential and submissive attitude” of the Department of Education towards the religious congregations compromised its ability to carry out its statutory duty of inspection and monitoring of schools.
It can in my view also be argued that the deferential and submissive attitude which society then had not only towards religious orders but towards the wider Catholic Church meant that society generally failed to confront what was going on.
As today’s younger generations read and watch the coverage of the Ryan commission’s report and absorb the detail of what happened to children in these places they are entitled to ask previous generations where they were. What did you know? Why didn’t you speak out?
It struck me when reading both the O’Gorman memoir and the Ryan report that there remain other hidden or partially hidden examples of systematic or widespread neglect and abuse of children which our society refuses to confront today.
The Catholic Church no longer has the standing or control it once had but we must ask whether there are other entities to which our society now displays a deferential and submissive attitude.
I wonder what our generation’s response will be in 40 or 50 years’ time when our children turn to us and ask: “Where were you in the in 1980s or 1990s or the early 21st century when these horrible things were going on?”