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Beyond the grave, Smyth's evil acts have left his order with a huge cross to bear

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Fr Gerard Cusack

Fr Gerard Cusack

Brendan Smyth

Brendan Smyth

Brendan Smyth's grave

Brendan Smyth's grave

Kilnacrott Abbey

Kilnacrott Abbey

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Fr Gerard Cusack

THERE is now a headstone over the grave of Fr Brendan Smyth but though he is dead now for 14 years, the convicted child rapist still casts a long shadow over his abbey and the innocent priests from his order.

Now hideously in debt as a result of civil claims made against them, the Norbertine Order at Kilnacrott Abbey needs to sell the property -- but prospective buyers want all trace of Smyth and his horrific legacy removed before they will buy the abbey, just outside Ballyjamesduff, Co Cavan.

Three years ago it was worth €3m but the property crash has made that estimate hopelessly optimistic.

Now the Norbertines are down to five elderly religious and a visiting young priest from Tanzania, Fr Norbert. The abbey once had beds for 34, but now the heating has broken down for good and there is no money to repair it.

The exhumation of Smyth's remains is being negotiated, Fr Gerard Cusack, who now heads the order, admitted.

"Fr Brendan's body out there," he said pointing to the neat plot outside the window "is anathema to many."

"Some want his ashes spread in the ocean so there is no trace of him. But he is a human being like myself, and he is entitled to a place of rest.

"We are in the red up to our necks with civil claims. And whatever money comes from this sale is already spoken for. Some of it we hope to be able to use to build a structure which would be helpful to an ageing religious community and still have a limited ministry," he said.

"We are in debt and this sale of the abbey will help us to be in the black, but down the road there are more claims coming so in a sense there is no end to it. There will come a point where you can't get blood out of a stone."

Fr Cusack now believes they may be the last generation of Norbertines in Ireland. Vocations in Ireland are nil and even if there were some, he would be reluctant to take them at this stage.

Smyth destroyed his Order in Ireland.

Fr Cusack refers to the latin phrase "Ars moriendi" ("The Art of Dying") -- scholarly texts dating from the early 15th Century that offer advice on the protocols and procedures of a good death.

"It means to die well and to acclimatise and adjust and to die gracefully. Some people think that is the route we should take: 'to die gracefully.' It is not the first time that orders have disappeared from a country. It happened during

the Reformation until a new spring came again."

Since Smyth died in 1997 civil claims have been coming in.

Fr Cusack, now just shy of his 70th birthday, was thrust into leadership of the order in the wake of revelations about Smyth in 1994. He has watched the numbers of priests in the order dwindle. Some have died, others have moved to diocesan work "with our blessing". Others want the greater security of parish work and a more pastoral ministry.

He said there had been terrible damage to good priests caught up in the maelstrom of the evil perpetrated by Smyth.

"It has been difficult. We have been helped by the prayers of the people. It is a huge cross. We are hoping and trying to accept it gracefully. Christ himself was hammered into the cross. He was spat upon. He was crucified. No one stuck with him.

"In a sense that is happening to us priests but in a different way. The only thing we can do is accept the cross gracefully and try to live with it. It's a source of terrible pain but there is grace in it.

"It is difficult for priests today. Even walking in O'Connell Street in Dublin. I wear my collar most of the time but there are other priests who would be afraid to do it. They would be spat upon. I suppose there is a suspicion out there. You hear the things people say: 'Here's another one,' 'You're a wanker.' You hear that conversation sometimes and that is not easy to take."

He accepts that Smyth remains an icon of the evil of clerical child abuse but spoke of the hurt the elderly Norbertines felt, seeing a reminder of Smyth every time they watched television.

"I wrote the other day to Prime Time. Brendan Smyth died in 1997 and I have asked why, for so many years now, Brendan Smyth's image has been flicked over the screen in the opening credits every time Prime Time is broadcast."

He believes there is an agenda at RTE that is anti-Catholic and vitriolic.

"They are twisting the knife and gleefully doing it," Fr Cusack said.

He pointed to the first broadcast of the apology to Fr Kevin Reynolds which, he said, sounded like a railway timetable announcement.

"Even when it was done again with some modulation of the voice it was still pathetic. There was no empathy, no atonement and there was a sense of arrogance."

He never suspected Smyth.

"He was a very clever, intelligent man. He did a lot of good work with the poor. He brought people to hospital in Dublin and visited people in prison.

"That was one side of him but perhaps, I think now, that he was using that to get access to families. In all of us there is a mix of good and bad but the only portrayal of him is diabolic. He stinks of evil and did evil things but he was not 100 per cent evil."

"There is no one beyond redemption. In life, he always had his right hand clenched and I never knew why. When he died they found two medals clutched in his right hand; a miraculous medal and a Medjugorje medal," he said shaking his head in bewilderment.

Sunday Independent