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Ireland's legacy of abuse

Years after the scandal surrounding child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church first emerged, Alan Fisher meets those living with its consequences.

Last modified: 15 Feb 2010 15:14
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As the Northern Ireland peace process began to get underway in the early 1990s, I remember spending a week outside the Irish parliament in Dublin. 

Albert Reynolds, the Irish prime minister and one of the main architects of the fledging peace moves, was in trouble because of the way his government had handled an abuse scandal involving Father Brendan Smyth, a Catholic priest in Dublin.            

Smyth was an arrogant bully. I still remember watching him on camera as he emerged from a court hearing, swaggering towards the lens and then pretending to headbutt it, a smirk on his face. For over 20 years, he abused dozens of boys in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the US.

The scandal did Reynolds in; he tried to hang on for days, the great deal-maker he was, but in the end his government fell in a row over a buried extradition request although the peace process he had pushed on its way continued with some momentum.

And now, 17 years later, Ireland is again dealing with the sexual and physical abuse of children in the care of the Roman Catholic Church.

A series of inquires commissioned by the Irish government on the abuses was finally delivered last year. Later compiled into the Murphy Report, they examined claims of abuse which had been around for years, but the core finding was that the sexual abuse of children by priests was covered up by senior figures in the Church. 

The abuse was spread over decades, but rather than root out those behind it, the Church was obsessed by the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal and protection of the Church and its assets. The welfare of the children involved, and justice for those who had suffered at the hands of those in positions of trust, were simply issues to be considered down the line.

The Murphy Report caused a storm, and now senior figures from the Church in Ireland have been summoned to Rome to meet Pope Benedict to discuss what happens next.

Legacy of abuse

In the south Dublin suburb of Tallaght, Tom Sweeny's house is neat and orderly. But behind the solid front door, Tom admits there has been chaos. He has six children, five boys and one girl, all of whom have spent time in prison; all are addicted to drugs. He believes their lifestyles are a result of what he believes he did to them - a legacy of the abuse he suffered in two Catholics schools in the 1950s and 60s.

He was sent to an "industrial school" run by the Christian Brothers, a Catholic religious order, after being caught dodging school. He describes the regime there as brutal and souless, with the smallest mistake punished with a punch, kick or beating with a belt. "I was 11. It was awful," he remembers.

Tom rebelled and ran away. But the police soon showed up at his parent's house and despite his mother's objections, he was returned to the school. After more escapes, he was moved from the school in Dublin to one near Sligo in the west of the country. 

"I thought it would be better - they had butter for their bread," he says.

But it was here the sexual abuse started. And continued. Tom says a number of the priests were responsible and that they encouraged the older boys to do the same.

Agony remembered

As Tom recounts what went on, he never looks me in the eye, staring out into the distance, remembering each incident, every agony as if it were happening there in front of him.

"I live with this every day. When the kids were young I disciplined them the way I had been disciplined; I hit them and I'd crack them across the head with a stick. I'd punch them. It was what I knew and didn't realise this anger was there, right inside me."

And the abuse has robbed him of the joy of being a father and a grandfather.

"I can't hug them. I can't sit them on my knee and kiss them ... because that's how it started for me. They robbed me of my childhood and I'll never get that back."

Tom was offered compensation but the offer was cut when he refused to accept a gagging order to speak out about what happened. "It was never about the money. I wanted them to say sorry. They never did," he explains.

There aren't dozens with stories like Tom - there are thousands.

Damaged Church?

Just off O'Connell Street, Dublin's Main Street, sits St Mary's pro-Cathedral, a beautiful old building. And on a Sunday morning it resounded to the sounds of hundreds at worship as Father Pat O'Donoghue celebrated mass.

He has been based here for 25 years and is now a senior figure in the Dublin diocese, which is at the centre of the child abuse claims.

Softly spoken, he admits the Church has been damaged by the revelations and acknowledges the pain and anger people feel: "The Church has done a lot of good but that is hard to see in the middle of all this pain."

He hopes bridges can be built and people's trust can be reclaimed. He seems genuinely contrite.

"The Church is about service and about people rather than about authority," he says. "I'm sure we'll get through this. We have to work hard but we can do it."

He points out that the Church is implementing the strictest child protection measures in the country: "We are fairly confident this won’t happen again."

I met a friend of mine - who describes himself as a former Catholic and who is no friend of the Church - in the centre of Dublin.   

He believes that what happened to the children was awful, but that the Church did a lot of good in Dublin.

"It gave us education and healthcare and people who got the education built businesses and employed thousands. That is being forgotten and it shouldn't," he says.

The survivors of Ireland's sexual abuse scandal are demanding action from the Pope. They want him to remove any bishops implicated in what happened by withholding evidence or transferring known paedophiles to other diocese.

They are also demanding compensation - some reports say they want $1.3bn for the thousands of young men and women affected over the decades, a figure denied by the victims.

The Pope is expected to attend most of the meetings in Rome - and what he does next becomes increasingly important for him and his Church. But after abuse scandals in Australia and the US, this is about more than Ireland.

Is Benedict ready to take a zero-tolerance policy to abuse and expel those responsible and those who covered it up, or is it more important to protect the Church from what has been called its dirty secret?

The world is watching and so are the survivors who want closure on this ghastly phase of the Catholic Church's history in Ireland.