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'I was disgusted by it': Former Belvedere College pupils claim priest assaulted them

An Garda Síochána determined that a crime was committed but the priest in question died prior to a complaint being made.

File photo of a classroom
File photo of a classroom
Image: Shutterstock/BonNontawat

A NUMBER OF former pupils of Belvedere College in Dublin have alleged that a priest who taught at the fee-paying secondary school assaulted them in the late 1970s and 1980s.

In March the Jesuits in Ireland publicised the name of a former Belvedere College teacher, Fr Joseph Marmion SJ, who is now deceased, to encourage people who may have suffered abuse to come forward.

The Order said at the time that Marmion had “sexually, emotionally and physically” abused pupils at Belvedere College in Dublin in the 1970s.

A number of former pupils have since alleged that a second deceased priest – Fr Brendan Kearney SJ – assaulted them. One of the men, Des Hickey, made an official complaint to gardaí in late 2017.

An Garda Síochána has confirmed to The Journal that the Garda National Protective Services Bureau examined Hickey’s allegations.

In correspondence sent to Hickey this week and seen by The Journal, gardaí confirmed that a crime occurred but a Garda Superintendent, acting under protocols and delegated functions issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), decided not to take the case further as Kearney died in 2014, before any complaint was made to the gardaí.

In an email sent to Hickey this week, gardaí stated: “The major issue presented to us here is the fact that the suspect is deceased and was so when the matter was first reported to An Garda Síochána. At that point, our options on how to proceed are limited.

“In relation to your complaint a full investigation was completed and a file was submitted for recommendations. A recommendation has been received directing “No Prosecution” in this case. The reason being the alleged suspect is deceased since 2014.”

Another email stated: “It was accepted that a crime did occur in accordance with recording regulations set down for An Garda Síochána and as such the report remains a criminal one.”

Hickey was told all the details of his complaint are “officially recorded on the Garda PULSE system” and the investigation file “will be held if required for further reference”.

A spokesperson for the Jesuits in Ireland noted that, following the publication of the organisation’s statement about Joseph Marmion in March, “new information and allegations of abuse have been received by our Safeguarding Office”.

“All this information is reported to An Garda Síochána, Tusla, and other relevant authorities. We cannot comment on the detail of sensitive information we are receiving at this time.”

A statement noted: “We are profoundly sorry that people suffered abuse during their childhoods in our schools and we would strongly urge anyone affected to contact our Safeguarding Officer Ms Saoirse Fox (safeguarding@jesuitlink.ie), An Garda Síochána and/or Tusla.

“We want to make every effort to see they get the support that they may need.”

‘Repeated sexual assaults’

Hickey was a pupil in Belvedere College in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Speaking to The Journal, Hickey said he felt compelled to share his story after the Marmion news broke.

He told us that during his first three years in Belvedere College, from 1977 to 1980, he witnessed “a campaign of repeated sexual assaults” by maths teacher Fr Brendan Kearney against himself and a number of his classmates.

Hickey said Kearney would regularly call a pupil up to the front of the class, place them over his knee and smack or rub his backside. He said Kearney would have an erection while doing this.

“His technique was to select an individual under some spurious claim of a need for punishment. He clearly had favourites.

“He would take the teacher’s chair from behind its desk and place it in front of the class. The selected pupil would then have to walk up, lie across the lap of Kearney, face towards the ground with his buttocks facing Kearney’s face,” Hickey recalled.

It was clear to all that Kearney relished every moment – the selection, the arrangement of the chair, the walk up of the selected boy and the boy lying across his lap.

Corporal punishment was banned in Irish schools in 1982, but it wasn’t a criminal offence to hit school children until the mid-1990s. The 1996 Offences Against the Person (Non Fatal) Act made corporal punishment in schools an illegal act.

Prior to this, teachers found to have used corporal punishment were in breach of Department of Education rules and could be reprimanded or dismissed, but they were not guilty of a criminal act.

‘You could see his erection’

Another former pupil, Joe Kiernan, has similar memories to Hickey. He said he also wanted to go public with his story as it may encourage other men to come forward and realise they are not alone.

The 56-year-old attended Belvedere College in the 1980s. Like Hickey, Kearney was Kiernan’s maths teacher.

“I just remember it being a terribly brutal place,” Kiernan recalled.

He said Kearney would regularly call one of the boys up to the front of the class, place them over his knee and smack or rub the boy’s backside.

Kiernan said it was clear that Kearney had an erection both during and after doing this. He said Kearney would openly do this in front of the other pupils.

Kiernan said he personally was assaulted by Kearney about 15-20 times when he was 12 and 13 years old.

“He used to come into the classroom, pick out one boy that he liked, put him over his lap and stroke his behind. I used to see him standing up afterwards and he would have an erection.

“He used to call the boy in question with this finger slowly, and that boy would know exactly what was going on. The boy would stand up and go up to the front of the class, go over his knee and [Kearney] would immediately start stroking his behind.

It happened very openly in the class and I can remember him standing up and having an erection many times. He used to wear the black cloaks, and you’d even see it through the cloak and the baggy type of pants on him. He’d stand there and he’d have an erection. I would be so disgusted about it.

He said his classmates would sometimes discuss Kearney’s behaviour after class but that many of the boys thought it was a joke and just laughed it off. He said, in hindsight, this may have been “nervous laughter” as the boys were uncomfortable but also unsure of exactly what was happening.

Kiernan said Kearney had a somewhat eccentric personality, causing people to ignore certain troubling behaviour.

“Some of the boys thought it was funny – they just thought it was a joke, they thought it was all part of the show.”

The smaller boys 

Kiernan said Kearney’s “favourites” were generally the smallest boys in the class. He said that over time Kearney stopped picking on him. 

“Probably my looking away or my laughing or grinning or something like that, I think that probably discouraged him from further abusing me.

I mean it was just awful. He knew that I knew [it was wrong], so he decided not to teach me. I sat there in class and he ignored me. He wouldn’t ever ask me a question, I’d put up my hand and he’d never let me answer anything, and at the end he didn’t even correct my homework.

“This went on for years, it puts terrible pressure on you because you didn’t know what to do.”

As a result, Kiernan said he became depressed and his grades at school suffered.

He later left Ireland and moved to Germany, where he still lives with his wife and children. He said he sought therapy as an adult which helped him process what had happened to him as a child.

“I wanted to get out of Ireland as soon as I got the chance. I was really pissed off with Ireland, I think that school just did my head in so much.

“For many [Belvedere College] was fantastic, but for me it was awful, it was dreadful. My memories of Belvedere College are just gross.”

Three other former pupils, who did not wish to be named but attended Belvedere in the late 1970s and 1980s, also spoke to us about Kearney calling boys up to the front of the class to spank them. They said certain boys were targeted by Kearney, while others were not picked on.

None of these men complained to Belvedere College or the gardaí. They indicated they were not aware of the profound effect the incidents had on some boys in their class until, as adults, the former pupils started to talk amongst themselves.

The men said Marmion would get boys alone and abuse them. Kearney would spank the boys openly in the classroom, but they don’t believe anything else happened behind closed doors.

Hickey contacted An Garda Síochána over three years ago, submitting a full witness statement about his experience with Kearney to gardaí in late 2017.

He said: “I contacted them again at the start of 2019 to be told the case had been passed to the DPP. When the Marmion story broke at the start of 2021, I contacted gardaí but this time they did not reply for months. Why did gardaí not act on another witness-testified statement of clerical child abuse in a major school for at least three years?”

When asked about Hickey’s concerns, a spokesperson said An Garda Síochána “cannot comment on individual cases or communications with individual persons”.

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However, they added that AGS is “committed to ensuring a personal and professional policing response to any complaint received”.

“The nature and duration of any specific complaint is unique to the circumstances of that particular investigation.

“An Garda Síochána is aware of the impact on the lives of those who suffered sexual, physical or emotional abuse and requests any person who was the victim of such criminal activity to report the matter to An Garda Síochána.”

The spokesperson added that while AGS “endeavours to effectively deal with all historical complaints, there are limitations as to the action we can take in some cases due to matters such as the loss of evidence over time or suspects and/or witnesses being deceased”.

“Where these factors are present, An Garda Síochána will diligently explain such limitations to complainants.”

‘Distressing and disturbing’

Kearney taught in Boston College High School – a Jesuit private school in Massachusetts – for a period in the 1980s, before returning to Belvedere College.

Hickey recalled: “We returned after our Intermediate Certificate exams to find that Kearney had been sent to work at a Jesuit School in Boston, to our great relief. He was replaced by another Jesuit priest whose behaviour was completely professional.”

He added that the following year, “with great disappointment, we learned that Kearney had returned to be our maths teacher for our remaining two years, for our Leaving Certificate”.

“Fortunately Kearney did not abuse us for the following two years. I imagine that this was primarily because we were older, bigger and stronger. Possibly he understood the consequences of trying it on with us. Possibly, now more physically adult, we were no longer appealing.”

Hickey said the fact that Kearney “got away with it, and the way it was dealt with, is reflective of an Ireland which I would have hoped was gone”.

He added that due to the passage of time, and the fact it’s unlikely criminal proceedings could take place, many victims of historical sexual assault will never come forward. 

Belvedere College said it would not be commenting, referring us to the Jesuits. 

A spokesperson for the Jesuits in Ireland said the men’s accounts are “both distressing and disturbing”.

They added that a “statistical update” on information gathered from former pupils in recent months will form part of the reports to be provided following the next audit of the Jesuit Order by the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland.

The NBSCCCI audits religious groups and parishes to ensure their compliance with child-safeguarding legislation, policy and best practice.

In April the Jesuits confirmed that they had engaged two independent facilitators to “co-design restorative processes” for those impacted by Marmion’s abuse.

The facilitators, Barbara Walshe and Catherine O’Connell, have “worked extensively both as practitioners and as academics in the advancement of restorative justice processes”, the Jesuits said in a statement.

“They have worked in various contexts including with survivors of institutional abuse. Their starting point is a wish to engage directly with survivors, victims, and those who are impacted.

“Restorative processes have many different options to ensure that each person who wishes to participate is satisfied that it is safe to do so.”

The Jesuits are inviting people who have been impacted to contact the independent facilitators here.

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Órla Ryan

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