Bishop built wall of silence against howls of abused children
By Maeve Sheehan
October 23, 2005
IN SPRING 1995, the late Veronica Guerin tugged at a string - and the career of a high-flying bishop began to unravel in a web of sexual perversion within his diocese.
The journalist wrote in the Sunday Independent that gardai had begun investigating a priest in Wexford for abusing boys in the dioceses. The complaint, it later transpired, was lodged by a former altar boy.
The twist in the story was that Dr Brendan Comiskey, the Bishop of Ferns, knew all about this abusing priest but still failed to stop him. Seven years before the garda investigation began, she revealed, the bishop had written to another boy from the diocese, who had also been abused, and apologised for what this errant priest had done to him.
None of the protagonists were named in Veronica Guerin's article but they were later to become well-known. The boy whom Bishop Comiskey wrote to was Paul Molloy, from Fethard, in Wexford. The boy who instigated the garda investigation seven years later was Colm O'Gorman. The priest was Fr Sean Fortune, the self-aggrandising curate who raped and pillaged with apparent impunity across the Ferns dioceses.
Veronica Guerin's story appeared at a time when the Catholic Church still denied responsibility for the abusing priests who sheltered beneath the well-turned skirts of the hierarchy. Offending clerics were still moved from diocese to diocese.
Protection of the Church's wealth was still valued over the children who were abused by men who wore its cloth. Claims were often contested to the steps of the Four Courts.
Bishops later blamed lawyers for excising the words "guilty" and "sorry" from their lexicon. Some may have been complicit in allowing perverted priests the freedom to roam, but to admit as much, they later explained, was legal suicide.
Bishop Comiskey was at that time a media-friendly prelate, lauded for his liberalism. He counselled Bishop Eamon Casey after revelations of his love child surfaced. He preached tolerance and encouraged debates on celibacy. But he refused to publicly acknowledge the vipers that nested in his parish.
The Bishop of Ferns dismissed Veronica Guerin's story in cavalier fashion: "I have written no such letter apologising for the sexual misconduct of this priest," he declared. He took offence at the inference that he somehow had acknowledged the guilt of his priest.
"I would think it quite wrong to make any comment until the law had run its full course. However, I myself have been implicated in a manner which implies that I have acknowledged the guilt of the accused."
Ger Walsh, the editor of the Wexford People, was moved to reveal in an off-the-record conversation, Bishop Comiskey had left him "with the clear impression that some sort of letter had been written".
A decade on, Bishop Comiskey will no doubt still deny it, knowing the note was long ago lost.
But the inference that he was fully aware of Sean Fortune's predeliction for raping young boys remains.
He was also aware of numerous other allegations of sex abuse involving priests in his dioceses, and his insufficient response is expected to be amongst the findings of Judge Frank Murphy's long-awaited report into the Church's handling of clerical sex abuse in Ferns.
Its publication on Tuesday is largely due the persistence and bravery of those who were assaulted and raped by the priests who roamed the diocese. It will be the first official tome to pronounce on the wrongs inflicted on them by not only their abusers but by bishops, the authorities and also some gardai who, in their collective silences, allowed the rapists to prevail.
Bishop Comiskey inherited from his predecessors a cabal of abusive priests whose heinous acts had been covered up for years, and complaints about Fr Sean Fortune were already waiting for him when he became Bishop of Fernsin 1984.
The priest was supposedly a progressive thinker who bullied his parishioners in Fethard-on-Sea.
After receiving those complaints Bishop Comiskey moved Fr Sean Fortune from his parish in Fethard-on-Sea and sent him to London.
A litany of complaints followed. In 1986, a boy from Waterford told Bishop Comiskey in person how he had been raped by Fr Sean Fortune. In 1989, Fortune returned with a communications qualification and a supposedly clean bill of health.
Bishop Comiskey put him into a communications office in Dublin where he raped a 15-year-old boy.
The sexual abuse came closer to home too: the bishop's own former controller of diocesan funds killed himself in 1995, five years after he had discovered that his son had been sexually abused by a priest. Father James Doyle was convicted of the abuse and the boy's father reportedly never recovered.
Other priests got away scot-free. Fr Jim Grennan abused 10 girls in the parish of Monageer. The local health authority confirmed the abuse and confronted the priest. The garda investigation went nowhere and the priest remained in the divided parish.
Garry O'Halloran, then a councillor, claimed that "all official recognition of the very existence of this case" had disappeared from June 1988 until 1995, after the publicity generated by the garda investigation. The priest died, un-apprehended, in 1994.
Under pressure - with the media on his trail and a litany of abuse allegations mounting - Comiskey cracked months after Veronica Guerin's story. He fled to America in September 1995 for alcohol treatment. His departure unleashed an unrelenting onslaught of dangerous tittle-tattle and damning conjecture.
Aggrieved witnesses came out of the woodwork and repeated tales of sodden drunkenness and unseemly flirting. Justine McCarthy, a journalist, reported how the bishop chased her around the dining table after he invited her to lunch.
His frequent flights to Thailand - at enormous expense - led to other outlandish rumours. Some were true, such as the time he stumbled drunk and incoherent from a plane in Bangkok, couldn't find his passport and was locked up until he was fit to identify himself.
Such tales were embroidery to the impaired judgment, pitiful self-absorption and disdain that appeared to characterise the Bishop's reign.
What was astonishing was that Bishop Comiskey allowed Fr Fortune to become so close to him. After Fortune scurried away when the garda investigation began, Bishop Comiskey circulated a letter to parishioners praising him for his good work.
Some sources claimed that Fr Fortune probably exploited the bishop, ingratiating himself to him by being on hand during his drinking bouts, topping up his glass and caring for him in his incoherence.
In her about book about Fr Sean Fortune, Alison O'Connor wrote: "Fortune, when confronted with complaints that had been made, would insist that he had done nothing wrong, producing documentation or references from other people to back up his side of the story. The bishop was in a very tricky situation - because under Canon Law Fortune could appeal any attempt to remove him from a parish and remain there while the appeal was being heard by Rome."
The fall-out from the scandals must have been profoundly felt by the bishop. One friend claimed three years ago that he was torn apart by the hurt caused by the sordid mess over which he presided. For a communicator, he failed dismally to convey this private anguish.
Tellingly, what did for Bishop Comiskey was neither his bosses in the Vatican, nor his fellow bishops in Ireland, but a ground-breaking BBC documentary.
In 2002, Fr Sean Fortune's victims shed their anonymity to confront Bishop Comiskey and the Catholic hierarchy with their faces.
Handsome, well-spoken, damaged and all too real, their haunting testimonies contrasted with the bishop's self-serving response. The bishop blithely hummed "We will survive" and ignored reporters on his tail.
Asked again to discuss the sexual abuse, he slammed the sacristy door.
Nine days later, he resigned. He told his parishioners: "I found Father Fortune virtually impossible to deal with. I confronted him regularly; for a time, I removed him from ministry; I sought professional advice in several quarters; I listened to the criticisms and the praise; I tried compassion and I tried firmness; treatment was sought and arranged - and yet I never managed to achieve any level of satisfactory outcome.
"Father Fortune committed very grave wrongs and hurt many people. Despite the difficulties he presented in management terms, I should have adopted a more informed and concerted approach to any dealings with him, and for this I ask forgiveness."
Judge Murphy's report will be a deciding factor. Colm O'Gorman, Pat Jackman and Donncha McGloin, who were all repeatedly raped by Sean Fortune, have also repeatedly sought and failed to get answers from Bishop Comiskey. On Tuesday, they are hoping to finally get lucky.