My Opinion Piece from today's Irish Times
I REMEMBER both my anger and sadness rising as I sat in offices of the Department of Justice early one morning a year ago reading about the nine-year-old girl who had to experience a priest put his hands inside her trousers during confession so as to abuse her, washing his hands in an altar bowl after wards. I felt sad for the boys who had to endure a priest’s predilection for “corporal punishment”, which gardaí subsequently described as brutal and having sado-sexual connotations.
I felt sad for the boys who were taken on holiday by “Fr Dante” and who were subject to his rules that all the boys were to sleep naked, that the bathroom door was to be left open when they were showering, that “punishment” was to be smacking on the bare bottom and that a different boy had to sleep with the priest every night. I felt sad for the boys who were sexually abused by Fr McNamee having been attracted to the indoor and outdoor swimming pools at his parochial house in Crumlin, which adults were excluded from using.
I was angry that another priest had sexually abused one boy while taking photographs at the same time and was so aggressive with another boy that he knocked him unconscious. On subsequently moving to the diocese of San Diego, he received a reference from Archbishop Connell to the effect that he was “an excellent priest in many ways” and “a priest in good standing”. I was angry that another priest, against whom allegations of child sexual abuse had already been made, was appointed chaplain to a school for deaf children, and that the first complaint against him there was made within a month of that appointment. This was a priest who kissed girls in confession and rubbed his hands all over their bodies inside their clothing. I was angry that despite these complaints he remained a curate in a parish for another four years.
I was angry that Fr Payne had been left in a position to sexually abuse at least seven more boys after I had told the archdiocese of Dublin about him in 1981.
As I mark the anniversary of the publication of the Murphy report, I think about the awfulness of what so many children endured and I wonder how they coped with what was happening to them. I wonder too about how their lives have been affected since; did they survive? Did they ever find happiness? How are they now?
I think about my own childhood experiences as an 11- or 12-year-old boy with Fr Ivan Payne. He had asked me to his house after serving 8am Mass during the school summer holidays; he said it was his way of saying thank you. Instead over time he got me into a pattern of going down to his house on a regular basis where he molested me as we sat on his couch watching television. I was so glad of that television – I had something to focus on while he did what he wanted. I froze. I didn’t acknowledge what he was doing in any way shape or form. I didn’t want to and I didn’t know how to. Rarely did he. My way of coping was to keep my eyes on the television. I remember on one early occasion I got up from the couch and went upstairs to the bathroom. When I came back downstairs and walked into the sitting room I could have sat in any other chair away from him. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. That would have been to acknowledge what he had been doing and I felt completely unable to do that. I sat right back down beside him. He didn’t need to use any harsh words or violent acts to control me. His position as a priest of our parish and the grooming he had initially engaged in were enough to secure my compliance. I was never going to tell anyone either. He knew that too. What words would I use? Who could ever believe what I would have to tell them? Everyone would know what I had been involved in, which is how I saw it at the time.
In the months leading up to my Junior Cert I felt strong enough to tell Fr Payne I wasn’t coming to his house anymore, I needed to study. Over the next couple of years I did my best to put the past behind me but it was impossible.
I felt very bad about myself on every level. I felt unattractive. I didn’t like my body. I covered up as much as I could, often wearing too many clothes during the summer when jeans and a T-shirt would have done. I didn’t join in sport at school. I felt far too inhibited. I would never have felt free enough to run down a basketball court or play football.
Worst of all I felt I had let Fr Payne do things that no other boy in class would have allowed. As an adult I can look back and see that’s not how it was, but as a struggling teenager, such thoughts were crushing.
I noticed the boys in school and wondered about girls. When I was 17 or 18 I wanted to ask a particular girl out but I wasn’t sure what she would expect me to do. I had some idea by then of what I might want to do but was this normal? Is it what other boys were doing? Or did I only know about such things because of my experiences with Fr Payne? If so, would she react badly and tell everyone?
At a time when I should have been throwing myself at every opportunity that presented itself, I withdrew, further compounding my feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Little wonder I found solace in alcohol and clumsily tried to overdose with tablets – all I really wanted was to let people know that I was hurting badly and couldn’t cope, but I didn’t know how to say it.
In my 20s, I had experiences and relationships with women and then with men. I’m sure the realisation that I was gay would have come to me a lot earlier if I had been left to grow up and develop in my own way and in my own time, free of Fr Payne’s interference.
Over time with these experiences and relationships it became clear to me that I had great difficulty enjoying emotional and physical intimacy with the same person at the same time and I have always attributed that to my experiences with Fr Payne.
So years after the childhood sexual abuse had ended, its effects had me engaged in a pattern of behaviour which compounded the isolation and loneliness I had felt as a struggling teenager. Alcohol made that bearable but was doing its own damage.
When I first went public about those childhood experiences 15 years ago, I had no idea that my battles with church and State would be matched by a personal battle to look at what I had become and try to recover.
I think again about how many thousands of children suffered experiences like mine at the hands of priests whom Catholic bishops had covered up for over many decades.
Today, as those bishops (and the commentators who still minimise what they did and make excuses for them) bemoan how hard done by they feel at the media and public response to the Murphy report, I invite them to think about the enormous suffering caused to so many children simply because for those bishops the reputation of the church was more important.
Let it not be more important than the truth.