Uncovering the Truth abour Ferns

  • 26 October 2005
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Colm O'Gorman on his 24-year struggle to uncover the truth in Ferns


Driving up the N11 into work on Tuesday morning (26 October), the day of publication of the Ferns Report, I found myself reflecting on the other road I have travelled over the past 24 years – a personal, and often public, journey to achieve justice and uncover the truth of the Roman Catholic Church's response to clerical sexual abuse.

That journey that would lead ultimately, and perhaps inevitably, to a final acknowledgment of the depth and extent of corruption at the heart of an institution that had, from birth, told me who I was and who I should aspire to be.

I remembered those with whom I had travelled. I remembered and was thankful for those who put themselves on the line to expose the awful truths that we must now all come to terms with. My brothers and sisters who have been an extraordinary source of support and encouragement, my partner who has proven endlessly patient and loving, the people I meet in the street who offer their encouragement.

I remembered the professionalism and integrity, the compassion and respect of Detective Garda Pat Mulcahy, who I met when I made my own criminal complaint in February 1995.

Pat was the epitome of decency and objectivity. He undertook an exemplary investigation which uncovered the extent of abuse in that case and ultimately led to the greater public exposure of the widespread abuse of others in Ferns. In a saga that has many who can be demonised, there are also many who must be commended.

We should never forget that their integrity and courage was even more remarkable against a backdrop of a nation in denial.

Ireland was not ready for the stark and disturbing truths that we needed to own.

Truths that we had spoken of in whispers, in code that is uniquely Irish.

I remember one man, when I asked him if he knew about the scandal, saying, "ah yeah, people would tell you alright, but without really telling you". In other words, we shared gossip about priests who were "having sex" with children in order to get the salacious pleasure of gossip and innuendo without ever having to take responsibility for what we knew.

We could say no one ever told us, we never knew. Well, we can't do that anymore. Now we have to acknowledge that many of us did know, and that our knowing was too uncomfortable, too unsettling for us to own.

We must recognise our collective failure to protect the children of this State, this republican democracy. We cannot blame successive governments or public representatives for not attaching sufficient importance to child protection, we cannot say they should have known; we can only say we did not attach enough importance, we should have known.

My hope is that in naming and owning those failures, and in acknowledging our individual and collective responsibility for them, we might be mature and sophisticated enough to realise that the greater failure is not in getting something wrong, but rather refusing to acknowledge it and put it right.

The only appropriate legacy of the crimes detailed in the Ferns Report can be that we act to strengthen our child protection system and criminal legislation in order to work towards a future where such crimes are truly a matter of history.

It is time to consign the scandal of clerical sexual abuse to history. But we can only do so when we have learnt the lessons that this history can teach us.

If we are to be able to close the book on this now; if we are to be able to turn on our radios and televisions and open our newspapers without seeing the demonised faces of men like Fr Sean Fortune and Fr Brendan Smith, leering out at us as grotesque caricatures of the evil that their crimes represent, we must focus our minds and efforts, and those of our public representatives, on the necessary changes in law.

We won the battle to have the Inquiry established, we succeeded in ensuring that this Inquiry had robust and purposeful terms of reference and we were blessed to be able to assist those courageous woman and men who gave their personal testimony to the Inquiry. Now we have to ensure that we do justice to that history and to the work of the Ferns Inquiry by ensuring that we act upon its recommendations and findings.

Colm O'Gorman

Colm O'Gorman is the director of One in Four