Wednesday 24 April 2019

Shane Dunphy: Ferns' plea for abuse money left me shaking with rage

Bishop Denis Brennan of the Ferns diocese
Bishop Denis Brennan of the Ferns diocese

Shane Dunphy

AFTER almost two decades working in the field of child protection, it is rare that I find myself actually trembling with rage, but yesterday morning on my usual commute to work, I experienced just such a paroxysm of emotion.

The cause for this anger was a news item which informed me that Dr Denis Brennan, the Bishop of Ferns, was inviting parishioners (and any individual priests who felt so inclined) to donate money to assist the church in footing a bill, the tally for which comes to more than €10m, to meet the legal costs of defending civil cases brought against the diocese in relation to clerical sexual abuse. In other words the Roman Catholic Church in Ferns is asking the victims of its own bitter failings to pay the price for the crime -- it is a request which beggars belief.

I grew up in Ferns. When I was eight, my class in primary school was moved to the local church for the year, while new classrooms were fitted for us in the local CBS. This was the first time I would realise that all was not as it should be. Several boys in my class were picked as altar boys to serve at the 10 o'clock Mass by the local curate. At eight years old, I could simply not understand why one of the boys in particular would come back to class after each Mass in tears. I wrote it off as nerves, or maybe that he was simply not a very good altar server, and had been chided for his liturgical failings.

It was many years later, when the priest in question was prosecuted as part of the Ferns Inquiry, that I understood what I had been seeing.

Much has been written about the social implications of clerical abuse in Ireland. The reports into clerical abuse in Ferns and Dublin have shown a distressing level of complicity within the wider community. How could the police, the health service, schools and many private citizens, have sat back and allowed such atrocities to happen? The priest who abused my friends was well-known as having a fondness for his altar boys, yet no one ever confronted him about it. And in its arrogance and lack of self-awareness, the church interpreted this as tacit approval.

Yet these are different times. Survivors and their families have had years to consider what was done, and to feel the anger they are entitled to feel.

WHEN I heard about Bishop Brennan's request, the image that immediately sprang to my mind was of a small, skinny, 13-year-old boy who was a friend of mine in my first year in secondary school. I'll call him Mike, though that was not his name. One day towards the end of the year, our class was brought to a local convent for a day's retreat. That evening, we were sent back to the school -- St Peter's College -- for a Mass and a candlelight ceremony. I played the guitar, and had left my instrument in its case back in the classroom, in the old part of the school, while we were away. I was sent to fetch it for the Mass, and Mike came with me.

The corridors were all in darkness and, as we were in the class, we heard footsteps approaching. Mike froze, went pale and pulled me into a large storage cupboard. I remember vividly that he was shaking with fear, tears coursing down his pallid cheeks.

When the steps had passed, I pulled away and stumbled back out into the room. "What was that all about?" I asked him, trying not to sound annoyed, as he was visibly upset. "That's Father ____", he said. "You don't want to get caught here by him. Not in the dark." I asked Mike why not, but he just shook his head and said he could not even begin to tell me.

That priest was also prosecuted. As I write this, I still see Mike's face and feel him beside me shaking with terror. Mike was a boarder in St Peter's. How many nights did he lie awake, terrified of what might happen to him? How many letters did he write home, begging not to have to stay another awful day in a place where predators stalked the hallways?

Bishop Brennan and his comrades suggest that Mike's family might like to make a contribution to their war chest. I think it is sickening and shameful that they should even dream of such a thing. Some say that the church in Ferns may go bankrupt without help. I say let it. Perhaps going back to the days of the Mass Rocks might teach them some humility.

Shane Dunphy is a child protection expert.

Irish Independent

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