The Irish Times – Tuesday, March 16, 2010
ANALYSIS: Had the complainants or church authorities gone to gardaí in 1975, Fr Brendan Smyth’s abuse could have been stopped then, writes CAROL COULTER, Legal Affairs Editor
WHEN SEÁN Brady heard allegations in 1975 from two children that they had been abused by Fr Brendan Smyth, it was not the first time Smyth’s activities had been revealed. They had been known to his superiors in the Norbertine order for a number of years prior to then.
Born in Belfast in 1927, Smyth joined the Norbertines in 1945 at the age of 18, and was ordained in 1951. He spent short periods in Scotland, Wales and the US, before returning to Ireland, where he had no formal ministry, but did summer relief work and work in hospitals.
From the beginning of his ministry he organised activities that would bring him into contact with children – for example choirs, catechism classes and altar boy training sessions.
When he was first convicted of child sex abuse in 1994, the then Norbertine abbot, Fr Kevin Smith, who resigned following the controversy, acknowledged that the order had made mistakes in dealing with Smyth. He said his “problem” with children emerged soon after his ordination, and the policy of the order at the time was “frequent reassignment”, which he acknowledged was inadequate.
Fr Smith also revealed that between 1968 and 1993 Smyth was referred repeatedly by his order for treatment in England, Belfast and Dublin. During this time he abused hundreds of children, among them a number of children in Langdon, North Dakota, where he served for a time in the 1980s.
In 1994, Fr Smith admitted that on two occasions Smyth was sent to do parish work in the US, where the bishops were not told of his paedophilia. There he set up “server training sessions” for altar boys.
It was reported that six boys were abused there. One of them subsequently sued. The case was settled without admission of liability for a reported six-figure sum from church insurance funds.
Following the 1975 complaints, the diocese of Kilmore took steps to remove Smyth from ministry as a diocesan priest. However, he continued to minister as a priest of the Norbertine order, and no meaningful restrictions were placed upon him.
Following Smyth’s conviction in 1994, Norbertine priest Fr Bruno Mulvihill told The Irish Times that he had repeatedly tried in the late 1960s to inform senior members of the order about Smyth’s paedophilia, but to no avail. He said that in the late 1960s a “strict decree” was issued in Rome that he was not to leave the abbey premises alone or without permission, but this was ignored.
Smyth did not come to the attention of the police until 1990, when complaints were made to the RUC by a Belfast family.
On May 4th, 1993, the British attorney general wrote to the then Irish attorney general, Harry Whelehan, addressing the letter to him personally and seeking Smyth’s extradition. However, he was not informed of the letter for seven months. By then, Fr Smyth had returned to Northern Ireland voluntarily and handed himself over to the RUC.
On January 21st, 1994, Smyth was convicted in Belfast of a number of offences against children. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment.
More charges followed, and in September 1995 he was convicted on 16 charges relating to offences alleged to have taken place against 13 children in various locations in Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1988. He was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.
In 1997 he was extradited to the Republic to face 74 charges against 20 injured parties between 1969 and 1991. He pleaded guilty in the Circuit Criminal Court on July 25th that year and was sentenced to 12 years’ jail.
Three weeks later, on August 22nd, he died suddenly of a heart attack in jail. He was buried in Kilnacrott Abbey in a pre-dawn ceremony at 4.15am in the presence of a number of Norbertine priests and a handful of local people.
The two children interviewed by the then Fr Brady in 1975 were a boy (10) and a girl (14). The latter subsequently initiated a civil case for damages against Cardinal Brady, the Bishop of Kilmore and the Abbot of the Norbertines.
The case, which began in 1997, was mentioned in the High Court last December when the statement of claim was amended.
Had the complainants who came forward in 1975 or those in authority in the church who heard their complaints brought their allegations to the Garda, it is arguable that Smyth could have been stopped then.
What is particularly serious is whether the complainants were prevented from going to the Garda by the oath of secrecy they took. This would amount to a perversion of the course of justice.