Thursday 23 October 2014

The impossible made possible - inspirational story of Colm O'Gorman

Courageous campaigner Colm O'Gorman is living proof of the power to change. He has reshaped his life from one of abuse and shame to activism and love. His latest mission is to encourage the rest of us to walk a little way in his footsteps, writes Emily Hourican

Amnesty International's Colm O'Gorman
Amnesty International's Colm O'Gorman

'I spent my first nine months in Dublin, on and off, homeless in this area." Colm O'Gorman is looking out of the window of the comfortable Amnesty International offices in Temple Bar, where he is executive director. This is a man who has reshaped the passage of his life, through determination, a belief in honesty, and a refusal to allow shame to triumph over love. And yet, the spectre of the boy he once was – lonely, desperate, cut off from family and home – is still close to him.

"I left Wexford in January 1984. I was 17. Leaving home, breaking off contact, that was what I felt I had to do. It was either the river or the road," he says, with devastating finality. "I couldn't continue to live in the circumstances I was living. I felt so utterly vile about myself and could see no way to deal with that. I felt such huge levels of shame and self-loathing. All the layers and layers – of the trauma I had experienced, and everything that was loaded on top of that – there was no way forward unless I got out. I would not and could not speak of what happened. I'd tried, and I couldn't. I couldn't deal with it, so it was run, and I ran."

Colm is referring to the years of abuse he suffered, first as a child, then later as a young teenager, perpetrated by Sean Fortune, who was a priest in Wexford where Colm grew up. Those years have been described, vigorously and vividly, in Beyond Belief, the book Colm published in 2009, and if there is one central message that comes out of that book, it is the possibility of change, of things getting better; a belief in the power of people to transcend their circumstances rather than remain trapped by them.

In the work that Colm does now with Amnesty International, this belief is crucial.

"Amnesty started off with what some people might call naïve, other people might call audacious, an idea, that an ordinary person sitting in their kitchen could make a difference. It proved to be true. Change only happens when people demand change. In my own life, I've seen the same thing. The number of times that people have told me that the things I've set out to do – to change, or to do, to highlight, to affect – are impossible. Amnesty has never believed that. I never have either."

And indeed, everything in Colm's life has proved the exact opposite – has proved the power of people to topple institutions that seem invincible almost up to the very moment that they begin to fall.

"The moment when everything started to change for me was the moment when I stopped running," he says.

"By 1984, I was in London and I had started to stop running. As that happened, I had to do something about the stuff that happened. That was the beginning of allowing myself to see there was stuff I had to deal with. That was the beginning of naming what happened, talking to my family, with their support deciding to go to the guards." Until then, Colm had always presumed that he was alone in that nightmare portion of his life.

The realisation that he wasn't – that he was not the only victim of this vicious man – was what spurred him on.

"Sean Fortune was then a parish priest, in a place called Ballymurn, in Wexford, where I had family. My father was invited to a wedding of one of them, where he officiated, and my sister told me he had lots of teenagers around him at that wedding, and I can remember the moment she said that thinking, 'Oh my God, he could still be doing this ... ' That's the moment I realised I had to go to the guards."

That realisation set Colm on the first step. His later discovery – that the diocese knew a great deal about the abuse perpetrated by Sean Fortune and had passed this information on to the Vatican,but never stepped in to discipline him or protect his victims – inspired him to do the unthinkable: sue first the diocese, then the Pope.

He then successfully campaigned for the Ferns Inquiry, the first Irish State inquiry into clerical sexual abuse.

"I believe that when you are in the presence of something that is clearly wrong, there is an absolute obligation on us, by virtue of our very humanity, to name the wrong," he says.

"Naming it is the crucial moment. That's the thing, the spark, that ultimately – inevitably – leads to change. I genuinely believe that if people are sufficiently motivated to pursue right, then right will prevail. That's what I have learned."

Does Colm himself never feel overwhelmed by the endless daily violations of rights and liberties?

"No. I never stop being absolutely outraged by the level and scale of injustice and inhumanity all round the world. But, we see the work that we do making a difference; that somebody sitting down in a kitchen in Finglas, writing about the indignities that somebody else is facing, can make a massive difference.

"When 10,000 letters arrive to a prison, for example, you can be absolutely confident that the prison governor is going to have a very different attitude to how they treat the person in question. When 20,000 letters arrive, the central government becomes aware of it. When 50,000 do, the prison doors are opened. That's our experience. That's something we have done time and time and time again. We've been doing it for 52 years, and we'll keep doing it."

Sunday Independent

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