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
'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."
Right now, Amnesty is gearing up for the greatest campaign of its year, the letter-writing marathon, in which 10 or 12 individual cases of human rights violations are highlighted and targeted.
Beginning in late November, every Amnesty section in the world will concentrate on these cases; last year members in 77 countries sent 1.9 million letters, faxes, cards, emails and petitions. The purpose in picking just a handful is obvious – try and engage people with individual stories, to cut through the fatigue that increasingly greets the sheer scale of injustice across the world.
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."
As an example, he tells me about a young man, born into a North Korean labour camp, with whom Amnesty now works.
"His entire life was spent down mines. He escaped when he was 23, but not before he had watched his mother and brother executed, had been tortured himself – hoisted over an open fire and roasted, when he was 14 years old. He had been flayed, and had his fingers cut off. What do you even begin to do? How do you change North Korea?"
It is exactly the kind of question that utterly defeats most of us. But for Colm, there is an answer: "I can speak. I can act. I can make sure that he is not forgotten, or the 200,000 people who are still in North Korean labour camps. We can refuse to give up on the idea that one day those gates will be thrown open and those people freed. Those people have to know that they don't exist in some dark place beyond the reach of the rest of the world."
Did his own life change after the publication of Beyond Belief, I wonder? Did it provide some kind of catharsis?
"The book was never about catharsis for me," he says.
"I wanted to offer a reflection on my own experience – that no matter how great the challenge might be, no matter how deep the wound might be, my experience in my own case, was that if we create the right environment, healing isn't just possible, it is inevitable."
He also wanted to dispel the notion that a traumatic event must inevitably ruin the life it touches.
"It is how we respond to or find a way through trauma, how we cope with it, not the fact of the trauma, that defines us," he rightly points out.
"Even when I consider that terrible case in recent weeks in Athlone. People talk about those children's lives being destroyed forever, that they will never be the same. No, they will never be the same, this is a horrific thing to have happened, but someone needs to also tell them and their families, that they will be OK. They can't get back to where they were before this happened, but it doesn't mean their lives are destroyed, and that is hugely important. Recovery and full, open, loving living is possible for them. It is."
And if any more proof were needed, it's all there in Colm's home life. Two years ago, he married Paul, his partner of over 14 years.
"We got married in New York," he says, flashing a platinum band at me.
"Our marriage is a legal marriage in the US, in Ireland it's recognised as having the same status as civil partnership."
The couple share the task of raising two children, aged 16 and 14, who came into Colm's life, initially, in an unusual, beautiful, way.
"Their mum was a very, very close friend of mine before I met Paul. She had a very serious illness that was likely to be terminal, and she asked me to be guardian, before Sean was born, because his dad wasn't part of the story, and then when Sophia came along as well, a few years after."
Colm met Paul when Sean was 18-months-old so the children have been a part of their relationship from the very start.
"He took on a lot when he took me on, on so many different levels," says Colm.
By the time Susie made her life-changing suggestion, Colm had given up on the idea of having children of his own, despite having always wanted to be a father.
"It was always what I wanted when I was growing up, what I saw in my future. But I let go of the idea when I was in my 20s. The notion of same-sex marriage, or parenting, being possible or respected, wasn't really around then.
"And I wasn't prepared to explore the options that seemed on the edges of things, like surrogacy. They didn't seem right for me. So I let go of the idea. Then I met Susie and we became such good friends. My heart immediately said yes," he says. "I loved her, she was a very dear friend. It was kind of instant. I was completely in love with Sean, before I met him."
His only caveat was that he was part of Sean's life from the very start.
"Susie and I sat down and had a very honest conversation and admitted that we weren't talking about if, we were talking about when. And in that moment, that would be extremely difficult for him, he would lose his mum, and he would have to get used to the notion that Colm, his mum's friend, was suddenly becoming his primary carer and parent.
"So I said I would do it on the condition that I would be his parent from the moment of his birth. I felt like his parent from the moment I made the decision that I would care for him."
And so he recalls with very obvious joy, "the incredible experience of going through a pregnancy with Susie, of flying around Hyde Park corner in my little Ford Escort, with contractions coming two minutes apart, trying to get to hospital. Being present at Sean's birth – it was incredible, just absolutely unbelievable."
Sean and Sophia both know the true story of their births and background – "I passionately believe children have a right to know who they are, so I always told them, in ways they could understand" – and have lived full-time with Colm since shortly before Susie died in 2003.
"They have had tragedy in their lives, but they are not tragic," Colm says.
"I feel really blessed. Leaving Wexford in January 1984, walking around these streets, homeless, something in me knew even then that life offered enormous possibilities.
"I never gave up on the idea of life being full of love and purpose. I don't know where that came from, but it was something that I knew, and it's what allowed me to hang in there, to stay in the world."
Further details of the Amnesty International letter-writing campaign are at www.amnesty.ie