Saturday 24 March 2018

About a boy

John Spain on the revealing autobiography from abuse victim Colm O'Gorman

"I'd come home from school on a Friday evening and he'd be there, waiting. After he shared tea or supper with my mother and my brothers and sisters he would take me to his parish... but with no more pretence of youth or folk groups. Instead, he started to abuse me as soon as we got past the last house on the road out of town. He would reach over and put his hand down my trousers and touch me. Often he made me perform oral sex on him as he drove along the narrow country road that led to his house."

-- Colm O'Gorman writing about Fr Sean Fortune in his book Beyond Belief

Talking to Colm O'Gorman now, one is struck by how different he is to the boy he once was, the timid, tortured figure in his book Beyond Belief. These days the strength of his personality is striking. He is now the director of Amnesty in Ireland, a former senator, the founder of the One in Four organisation for abuse victims. He is intelligent, articulate, forceful, certain about what he thinks.

It's a measure of how much he has changed since he was that boy in the book, a shy loner who was grossly abused by a priest. That priest, of course, was the infamous Fr Sean Fortune and what happened to Colm O'Gorman in his native Wexford in the early 1980s not only shocked Ireland but went on to make history.

When O'Gorman decided to seek redress nearly 20 years after the abuse, his willingness to tell his story in public and to go to the gardai led to the ground-breaking criminal case against Fortune, who killed himself as the case was proceeding. O'Gorman also took a civil case against the Church and the Pope, successfully suing the Church for its failure to protect him.

It's a familiar story now, partly because of the TV programme O'Gorman made with the BBC's Panorama team called Suing the Pope. That programme, in March 2002, created such an outcry here that it was rebroadcast a few weeks later on RTE and was subsequently shown around the world. It revealed not only what had happened to O'Gorman and other victims in Wexford but also the arrogant, uncaring attitude of the bishops and the level of denial in the Church.

The reaction to the Panorama programme was extraordinary. It was the turning point in Ireland between the old deference to the clergy and demands that the Church tell the truth.

O'Gorman's courage led to Bishop Comiskey's resignation, the Ferns Report (the first State investigation into clerical sexual abuse), and new structures within the Church. In fact clerical abuse is such a familiar story now that O'Gorman must have been concerned that his book could be affected by abuse fatigue among the general public.

He need not have worried. His book is a riveting account of his own abuse and his battle with the Church -- and he's a very good writer, which helps. It seems certain to be a bestseller.

"I was determined to avoid the misery memoir genre," he says. "But I had to tell my story, not only for my own sake but because it's important to put it all on record."

He tells the story with honesty and openness. The language is precise rather than prurient, but he is completely upfront not only about what Fortune did to him but about his life before and after the abuse.

He reveals, for example, that his idyllic childhood on the family farm at Adamstown in Co Wexford was marked by abuse by two local men in the area and also by a local teenage boy. Even before the family moved to Wexford town he was a troubled child. It was that quality in him that Fortune spotted and exploited.

He was 14 when he met Fortune at a youth-club event and two weeks later the priest turned up at his house and told his mother he wanted to get Colm involved in the youth club in his own parish a few miles away, near Fethard-on-Sea. At that first meeting, when his mother was out of the room, he asked Colm if he masturbated, "looking at me over his tea cup".

O'Gorman describes how, with his parents' permission, "a week later he took me to his house for a weekend, to see his work and to help him. Twenty-six years later it sounds insane that a grown man could arrive unannounced at a home and a week later take a 14-year-old son away, unquestioned. And it was insane. But back then we were all ignorant and blind."

The abuse started that night, with Fortune using the excuse that there was only one bed. The next morning Colm found the courage to tell the priest that it must never happen again. Driving him home after that first weekend, Fortune told Colm that he had a problem and that he could talk to his father about it, "unless you come back to me and I will help you".

Panicked that his father would hear what had happened, Colm was trapped. The abuse continued for two and a half years, moving on from masturbation to oral sex and buggery.

The book makes clear O'Gorman's parents were not the kind of people you would expect to be so unquestioning. His father was a farmer, businessman and involved in local politics. His mother was into wholefoods and yoga and eventually went to live for a while in an ashram in India. Yet neither seemed to think Fortune's fascination with their son was odd.

Looking back now, O'Gorman says he understands. "You have to remember the social and political power the priests had at the time." In the book he brilliantly describes the flagrant way Fortune would arrive in the house and be feted with food as he waited for Colm. In every house he visited in the area, O'Gorman remembers, people deferred to him and lavished attention on him. His own parents were no different.

Towards the end of the two and a half years he was being abused by Fortune, Colm put on a lot of weight. "Layers of fat were like layers of shame to me and had the perverse bonus of making me less attractive to him."

O'Gorman finished school in 1983, at the age of 16, and that September his mother left for India, taking two of his sisters and a brother with her. That left his father and a brother in Wexford.

Colm was so down that he spent a lot of the day in bed. Fortune was still around but did not abuse him as often, although he vividly remembers the last time. "He came to my house and stayed over. I ended up in his room, as ordered, while my father slept a few rooms away. That memory enrages me now. He was so dominant, so powerful that he could come into my father's house and abuse me."

The following January, in 1984, Colm left home at 17, with virtually no money... but he had to escape. He spent some difficult months in Dublin, where he lived rough and was so desperate that he met men in public toilets and traded sex for a place to sleep, although never for money. The book is painfully honest about this, something he could easily have left out.

"I decided to tell my story as honestly as I could. I wanted to tell it as it was... so that it would challenge people, so that the next time they see someone sleeping in a doorway, they won't immediately judge them."

In time, he found his feet among the gay community in Dublin, before moving to London in 1986. Over there he was initially enthralled by the vibrant gay life but gradually began to settle down and had a long-term relationship. He did some therapy and then began to study. He qualified as a psychotherapist in 1996 and practised for several years, before founding the organisation One in Four in 1999 to help abuse victims.

By then the determination to do something about what had happened to himself had become overwhelming. He told his family and he went to the gardai.

By the time he came back with the Panorama crew he knew that he was not the only victim of Fortune. He decided to sue the Pope as well as the bishop when he learned that all bishops have to keep the Vatican informed of such matters. He won against Comiskey but discovered it is impossible to sue the Pope because of diplomatic immunity.

He still feels that there is unfinished business even now, especially to do with making child protection within dioceses mandatory, something that still has not happened in spite of the new structures in the Church. "Look at Bishop Magee and Cloyne," he says.

He's not a practising Catholic an more. Is he still hurt about what happened? "I feel outrage, instead of hurt", he says, "especially when I look at what Pope Benedict is failing to do."

Beyond Belief will be published next week by Hodder & Stoughton at €13.99

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