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'I was 13 when the Pope came to Ireland and I was raped by a priest the next year'

Colm O’Gorman says he had believed Pope John Paul II when he said he loved the young people of Ireland – but instead, the pope protected his institution, not children.

Colm O'Gorman

WHEN POPE JOHN Paul II came to Ireland I was 13 years old. Just over a year later, I was raped for the first time by a Roman Catholic priest. I am just one of very many victims of such abuse.

Between 1936 and 1970, 137,000 children were detained in industrial schools and reformatories operated by the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse investigated the treatment of children by the religious congregations which ran the institutions.

The Ryan Report details horrific and inexcusable neglect by congregations who were well paid by the state to ‘care’ for those detained in their institutions.

It documents the sexual assault and rape of children. It describes forced labour, depraved and shocking brutality. More than 90% of witnesses to the commission reported being physically abused. In addition to being beaten, they described other forms of abuse such as being flogged, kicked and otherwise physically assaulted; scalded, burned and held under water.

Over 10,000 women and girls were held in Magdalene Laundries from 1922 to the time the last laundry closed in 1996. The Ferns Report documented the cases of over 100 victims of sexual abuse by priests in the Diocese of Ferns between the years 1962 and 2002 – the total number of victims in that diocese alone is of course substantially higher.

The Murphy Commission investigated allegations of child sexual abuse by priests in the Archdiocese of Dublin over the period 1975 to 2004.

The incidents of abuse in Dublin were so numerous that the inquiry could only investigate how the Church and the State dealt with a representative sample of cases. In the end, the Murphy Report detailed how the Commission examined complaints about the sexual abuse of over 320 children.

The Commission warned that this number did not reflect the true scale of abuse and the number of victims. It reported that one priest admitted to sexually abusing over 100 children, while another accepted that he had abused on a fortnightly basis during the period of his ministry which lasted for over 25 years.

So the true number of victims in the Archdiocese of Dublin is likely to be in the thousands. The numbers of victims of rape and sexual assault at the hands of priests across Ireland likely runs to tens of thousands.

‘Lives blighted and families torn apart’

These reports detail the abuse of Irish women and children on a massive scale. But they don’t capture the full scale of such abuse. The State has never carried out an independent investigation into the treatment of women and girls in Magdalene Laundries, but we know much of the horrors they experienced.

The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes is ongoing. That investigation was finally forced by the revelation of the mass burial of hundreds of children in Victorian sewerage works at a home operated by the Bon Secours sisters in Tuam. We have heard evidence recently too of illegal adoptions in Church-run agencies, of children stolen from their powerless mothers.

The abuse inflicted on Irish women, men and children by Roman Catholic clergy and religion has had a devastating impact. Lives have been blighted and families have been torn apart. For many the struggle to survive and move beyond such trauma is ongoing.

But some do not survive. People like Peter, a victim of the same priest who raped me, who shot himself in the chest with a shotgun at 23. I’ve lost count of the numbers of victims I know of who ended their own lives as a result of the trauma they suffered.

Countless families have suffered such loss, caused by the crimes of the clergy, covered up and facilitated by the Roman Catholic Church at the highest level. Now it seems that our families are expected, once again, to stand silently by as the Vatican and the Irish church seeks to sweep their suffering to one side. It is just the latest manifestation of the church’s determined efforts to shut down the abuse scandals, to cover up the crimes of the institution.

The fact of that cover up is beyond dispute. It is to be seen across the Catholic world, from Ireland to the UK, to Chile, Australia, the US, France, Brazil, Spain, the Netherlands … in every country where the church operates there has been abuse. And whenever it is revealed, the church fights tooth and nail to cover it up.

Here in Ireland they used diplomatic immunity to block the case I took against the Vatican in 1998 to try force Pope John Paul II to reveal what was known about the priest who raped me and dozens of others.

It tried to block State inquiries, arguing that it was above the law, that Canon Law was superior to the law of the State. This week we found out that in 2003 the Vatican tried to secure a deal with the State that would allow it to bury Church documents. It wanted to put Vatican and Diocesan archives beyond the reach of any investigation. It didn’t get the deal it wanted, so instead it simply withheld the documents and refused to engage with the various statutory inquires established by the Oireachtas.

‘He didn’t really love us’

In a few weeks Pope Francis will arrive in Ireland. The visit will reignite memories of that first Papal visit. Iconic moments such as when John Paul II looked out across a crowd of 300,000 at a Youth Mass in Co Galway and proclaimed “Young People of Ireland, I love you!”

For many, their memories will be of seemingly endless car journeys, long walks and the excitement of finally getting to see the Pope. Of him smiling down from his Pope mobile as he weaved his way through the massive crowds which came out to greet him.

Me, I can’t get past the “Young People of Ireland, I love you” moment. Because at the time I really believed it. I believed it with all my heart. But he didn’t love us. Not really. If he did he would have protected us. He didn’t. Instead he protected his institution, its power, its position and above all its wealth. He left us at the mercy of known clerical paedophiles.

It has been 24 years since I found the courage to report my own experiences of rape and abuse. To be frank, I never for a moment imagined that I would still find it necessary to speak out about it after all this time. But it is. And it will be for as long as the Vatican continues to refuse to tell the truth and for as long as popes attack victims for daring to speak out as Pope Francis did in Chile just last year.

In the face of such efforts to silence victims, we must stand for truth. Because Pope Francis has the power to change everything. And he can begin to do that by finally telling the truth. After all we have endured, I don’t think that is too much to ask.

  • Colm is inviting those who have been harmed or abused by the Catholic Church, or if want to stand in solidarity with those who have been abused, to join together, in the Garden of Remembrance, Parnell Square, Dublin on Sunday 26 August at 3pm.

Colm O’Gorman has campaigned for accountability for clerical child sexual for more than twenty years. He is the founder and former director of One in Four, and currently Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland. He is writing here in a personal capacity. 

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Colm O'Gorman

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