I joined the staff of the now-closed Offaly Express in 1988 but did not begin to cover law courts in earnest until 1995, following the retirement of the late Eddie Rogers.
That period coincided approximately with the first cases relating to child sexual abuse. From 1994 onwards, local and national media found themselves having to cover such cases as they began to come to light to a greater degree.
That year saw the revelations of the Brendan Smyth saga, which was to lead to the downfall of the Fianna Fáil/Labour coalition in a dispute over warrants for the Norbertine’s extradition to Northern Ireland.
It was the first high profile case involving a member of the clergy, with many more to follow, causing enormous damage to the moral standing of the Catholic Church, as outlined here.
It is, of course, true, that paedophiles are a minority of clergy, and that most priests were shocked by what happened, but the real damage was done by how the cases were handled by those in authority.
At a local level, the revelations arguably had less damage, in the short term, because of the sensitive response of Tullamore’s clergy. The late Father Willie Cleary, PP, publicly apologised at Mass for the actions of those involved and was applauded by parishioners.
The revelations of abuse cases came at a time when Irish society was starting to move in a more liberal direction – 1992 had seen the X case and the earth-shattering resignation of Bishop Eamonn Casey of Galway over his relationship with Annie Murphy. While that later seemed innocent, as she was an adult, the bishop was exposed after his 2017 death as having been a sexual abuser of at least three young girls.
In Offaly, there were a number of high-profile court cases, some relating to the abuse of boys and others to girls. Most did not relate, in fact, to clergy but to laypeople, in some cases abusing family members and in others neighbours.
Listening to the details of the cases was harrowing but I know that getting it out into the public domain helped bring a measure of healing to many survivors, with some male survivors thinking they had been the only boys in the world to be affected.
The previous secrecy over such cases gave rise to a lot of depression, worries about sexuality, and difficulties in relating to females.
Many survivors wished that family members would realise how deep their need to find a partner was, and how that helps to bring healing from their personal pain. In some cases, they found family members tried to prevent this from happening.
In Offaly, while a number of abuse cases related to serving or former members of Clara’s Franciscan community, the most high profile involved the case of Donal Dunne. The Portarlington man abused boys while principal of Walsh Island NS, before moving to Kilkenny, where similar incidents took place, later returning to Offaly to teach in the Sacred Heart School in Tullamore.
Bizarrely, the authorities thought that putting him in an all-girls’ school would prevent harm, as his sexual attraction was towards young boys, but in fact, he took out his frustrations on the girls by personal cruelty.
One of the victims whom I interviewed told me how he had alerted senior clerical figures to Dunne’s record, without any help coming from them. As he knew the man was teaching in the Sacred Heart School, he spoke to a curate in Tullamore, now deceased, who told him he would not allow a man’s past to be used against him ‘like an albatross around his neck’.
The lack of empathy caused further pain to the victim, and arguably the priest’s failure to take action led to Dunne being able to abuse a young boy in his neighbourhood at the age of 75. It will be argued by some that I am looking back at these events with the benefit of hindsight and contemporary knowledge, but in fact, there was a knowledge out there about paedophilia, even if it was not publicly spoken about.
In that context, I recall my father telling me how, when he was CEO of Offaly VEC, he was once contacted by an official of the Department of Education who gave him unusual advice about a particular appointment. “Do not, under any circumstances, appoint the most qualified man for the job”, my father recalled him saying, as the most qualified man was attracted to young boys.
The man in question was appointed to a job in another county and an ‘incident’ took place.
This was about the late 1960s or early 1970s.
In Clara, it was common knowledge that certain Franciscans were to be avoided, yet no one spoke publicly about it.
Another high profile case related to Fr Ray Brady, PP of Rahan in the late eighties and most of the nineties. Fr Brady, who served on Offaly VEC, left Rahan after allegations were made about a period when he was on loan to the diocese of Ossory.
While the judge in Kilkenny decided not to proceed with the case, the then Bishop of Meath, Michael Smith decided (against protests from clergy of the diocese) that he had a doubt about Fr Brady’s suitability to be near children, and put him in a role where that was avoided.
The wisdom of that approach was shown in 2012, when Brady (who by then had left the priesthood) pleaded guilty to indecent assaults on 10 boys and was jailed for two years.
However, in discussing these issues, it is important not to focus exclusively on clerical or religious abusers. As Derek Scally, Irish Times correspondent in Berlin points out in his book ‘The Best Catholics in the World’, 40% of cases dealt with by the One in Four charity in 2017 were abused by a family member, adding that the issue would not disappear with the priests.
By a strange coincidence, I dealt with Derek Scally 20 years ago regarding coverage of the case of the paedophile industrialist Andreas Lewicki, who ran an electronics plant in Tullamore for many years, and for whom I did some work as a student.
Lewicki was convicted in Ulm, Germany, the first time that an Irish offence was dealt with in a German court, regarding the 1985 abuse of a young girl in a Dublin hotel.
He did not serve time as he had already been in jail in the Czech Republic for the abuse of nine young girls from the Gypsy [sic] community.
It must also be said that while there has been considerable attention given to the Catholic Church’s handling of the matter, other churches have also had to contend with abusers in their ranks and how to respond to victims.
With an estimated one in four in Ireland having been victims of sexual abuse the issue has enormous ramifications, not just for survivors but for their partners and children, who also need considerable support.
Research in France has found 60% of survivors reported how the abuse affected them either emotionally or sexually or both.
The ramifications of this abuse run far deeper than the implications for the Catholic Church, the bigger issue is how families responded to it.
Declan McSweeney lives in England but is originally from Offaly. He worked for over 18 years for the now-closed Offaly Express and has also worked as a journalist in the UK.