At St Peter’s

Colm Tóibín

Everybody was afraid of Dr Sherwood. My mother was afraid of him at meetings of Pax Romana, the lay Catholic discussion group in Enniscorthy, our town, because he had a way of glaring at women members when they spoke. He didn’t, it seemed, like women speaking. At St Peter’s College, the seminary and boarding-school where I went at the age of 15 in 1970, he was dean of the seminary, but he had once been dean of discipline of the boarding-school, and had a fearsome reputation as a merciless wielder of the strap. I studied him carefully when I first saw him; he was gaunt and unsmiling. Soon, even though he had no business on the lay side, I saw him at work. Four or five of us were hanging around the squash courts after lights out. When he saw us, he stood quietly at first and watched us; then he picked on the most innocent and vulnerable boy. He called him over and began to interrogate him while pinching one cheek hard and then the other cheek and then pulling his ears with enormous slow ferocity and then moving to his slow-growing sideburns until he had almost lifted our poor friend off the ground. Dr Sherwood was evil. I made up a song about him with a vile chorus.

Soon, he was replaced as dean of the seminary, although he still hovered darkly in corridors. The new dean, Dr Ledwith, was young and friendly and open and very good-looking. He was also reputed to be really smart. One of my friends knew him from home so he often stopped to talk to us. He was a new breed of priest; he had studied in Europe and America. Many of the teaching priests spent their summers in parishes in America so they were full of new ideas. Everything was open for discussion, or almost everything. I went to a brilliant lecture by Dr Ledwith on ideas of paradox within Catholic doctrine. It was whispered that he would one day be a great prince of the Church.

I got to know some of the other priests and realised that for some students – there were three hundred boarders – being friends with a priest meant that you could go up to his room and hang out, make phone calls, listen to music, watch TV. I became friends with a few of the priests, but in my last year became especially friendly with a physics teacher, Father Collins, because my best mate was one of his brightest students.

All of the teaching priests, except Father Collins, had rooms off a corridor in a modern extension. Father Collins’s rooms were in an older building. It was easy to go up and down to his room without being noticed, as the two other priests in his part of the building were often away. His stereo system was amazing. I listened to Tommy there and Jesus Christ Superstar. He always had a box of sweets. I could ring home on his telephone. On Saturday nights after lights out, with his full connivance, we could break all the rules and sneak up to his room and watch The Late Late Show, a controversial chat show on Irish television. We were often there until after midnight.

After The Late Late Show, we would switch over to a British channel to watch a programme about new films. One night, without any warning, it showed the naked fight scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed in Women in Love. I was pretty interested in the clip, but I knew to keep quiet afterwards. Modesty was a primary virtue at the school: there were doors on each shower and we all slept in cubicles. In the debating society everything was open to discussion except homosexuality, which no one would have even thought of mentioning.

I knew that Father Collins took a very dim view of homosexuality because he had deeply disapproved when I told a joke about Oscar Wilde at the debating society. And when a friend, who looked slightly effeminate in any case, began to part his hair in the middle, he was told by Father Collins that it was better to part it at the side; a middle parting, he said, was a sign of homosexuality. Nonetheless, there were often vague whisperings about Father Collins. I knew that he liked my friend, but I never allowed myself to think too much about the implications of that. Nothing ever happened.

The dormitory was overseen by a seminarian whom I liked and respected. He was fair-minded and decent. Through him, I got to know another seminarian called James Doyle. He would stop and talk if we met in the corridor, even though fraternisation between seminarians and lay students was frowned on. He had many opinions and enjoyed gossip and had a habit of winding me up so I could never quite tell whether he was serious or not. I liked him.

In the second half of the 1990s these three men – Michael Ledwith, Donal Collins and James Doyle – became part of the pantheon of Irish priests whose names were often mentioned on the news. In 1990 James Doyle pleaded guilty to indecent assault and common assault on a young man and was given a three-month suspended sentence. Five years later, Dr Ledwith resigned suddenly as president of Maynooth College, Ireland’s main seminary, and went to America. He had been secretary to three synods of world bishops in Rome and had served three full terms on the International Theological Commission, the group of 30 theologians who advise the pope. He had made a private settlement with a young man after allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour. He is no longer involved with the Catholic Church. In 1998 Father Collins was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment, after pleading guilty to four charges of indecent assault and one charge of gross indecency at St Peter’s College between 1972 and 1984.

These men and others like them became public enemies; they were often filmed leaving courthouses with anoraks over their heads (although it should be emphasised that Dr Ledwith never faced any charges in court). Part of the reason Doyle was given a suspended sentence was that he promised to leave the Republic of Ireland. He went to England. The country wanted rid of these priests.

Everyone in the country had strong opinions about these men. And so did I. Mine had their roots, I suppose, in the fact that I had known these people and liked them and in the fact that I was gay. The word being used to describe them was ‘paedophile’, which struck me as wrong. They were simply gay; they had believed that their homosexuality, in all its teenage confusion, was a vocation to the priesthood. Whereas other boys, as religious as they were, could not become priests because they were attracted to women, these men had no such problem. No one ever asked them if they were homosexual. Thus they moved blindly and blissfully towards ordination and, eventually, towards causing immense damage to vulnerable young people.

It was easy to ask the question: if heterosexuality were not only forbidden but unmentionable, if blokes married other blokes, and you, as a good closet heterosexual man, were put in charge of a boarding-school of three hundred girls aged between 13 and 18, would you not at one point over a long career make sexual demands on one of the girls? Or hit on one girl in a seminary of girls aged between 18 and 25? It was a great argument and I enjoyed making it. I was sure I was right. I am not so sure now.

This is because of the publication of the Ferns Report, written by a tribunal chaired by the former Irish Supreme Court judge Francis Murphy. Ferns is a diocese made up of County Wexford in the south-east of Ireland and parts of some of the bordering counties. The tribunal was set up by the Irish government because there seemed to be more clerical offenders in this diocese than in any other, and in reaction to a BBC documentary about abuse there.

The report explains why Father Collins’s rooms were not close to those of the other teaching priests. In 1966 he had visited the dormitory known as the Attic, which became my dormitory four years later, and, according to the Ferns Report, had performed ‘examinations of an intimate nature involving the measurement of the length of the boys’ penises on the pretext of ascertaining whether or not they were growing normally. The inquiry was told that approximately twenty boys were involved. Father Collins has disputed the detail of this account of the alleged abuse.’

Dr Sherwood and another priest, according to the report, soon afterwards approached the bishop’s secretary with this news. The bishop sent Collins ‘to a pastoral ministry’ in Kentish Town in North London for two years. The bishop did not inform the Diocese of Westminster why the priest was being sent there. The bishop was called Donal Herlihy. I knew him a bit. He had spent many years in Rome and was rather disappointed to be returned to an Irish backwater. It was said of him that he would have made a very great bishop if only he had believed in God. His sermons in Enniscorthy Cathedral were lofty in tone and content. He loved Catullus and Ovid and Horace and he could not refrain from quoting them to a bewildered congregation. I once sat through a long sermon on the small matter of the ‘lacrimae rerum’. While Bishop Herlihy was very worldly in an Italian way about many issues, his worldliness did not, I think, stretch to a priest under his control wishing to measure the length of twenty boys’ penises. He simply would have had no idea what to do.

According to the Ferns Report, the bishop ‘believed that the problem had been solved’ by sending Father Collins to England for two years and that it ‘would be unfair and vindictive to pursue the matter further’. The bishop is reported to have said to his secretary: ‘Hadn’t he done his penance?’ In 1968, Herlihy ordered Collins back to teaching. This time, however, the bishop instructed that the erring priest should have his lodgings in the old building, at a distance from the dormitories, so that he would not be so easily tempted when night fell.

What is interesting about all of this is that no one at any point considered calling the police. The Catholic Church in Ireland in those years was above the law; it had its own laws. By the time I arrived at St Peter’s in 1970, Father Collins had been fully restored to the swing of college life. He prepared students for the Young Scientists Exhibition in Dublin every January, spending time alone with them, travelling to Dublin with them. He was in charge of the darkroom, and taught me and many others how to develop photographs. In 1972 he directed the school play. In 1974 he was put in charge of swimming lessons. The other physics teacher, also a priest, gave his classes and then disappeared each day. There was no law in the school saying that a teaching priest had to have any involvement with students outside the classroom.

Dr Sherwood continued to haunt the corridors, making a constant nuisance of himself. He must have noticed all of Father Collins’s activities. Since the priests had three meals a day together, there must have been a moment when Collins alluded in passing to the swimming lessons or the sessions in the darkroom. Did Sherwood catch the eye of one of the other priests and give him a knowing look? Or did they all pretend it was nothing? According to the Ferns Report, one priest who ‘lived downstairs from Father Collins … from 1970 to 1971 and again from 1985 until 1988 … was aware of the traffic on the stairs going to his, Father Collins’s rooms, even after lights out, but stated there was “not the slightest suspicion of anything untoward”’. The report also states that it received ‘direct evidence from past pupils and a lay teacher who were in St Peter’s during that time, to the effect that Father Collins’s continuing inappropriate behaviour with young boys was well known in the school during that period and it is clear that sexual abuse was occurring during that time’.

Also, the report states that ‘at least six priests’ working in the college at the time knew why Father Collins had been sent to England in 1966. The bishop’s vicar-general said in a statement to police in 1995 that ‘it was generally believed that Father Collins had a problem with abusing young boys in 1966 and that Bishop Herlihy had sent him away because of it.’ I presume that he meant the priests only when he said ‘it was generally believed’, because it was not, in my opinion, generally believed by the students, despite the evidence given to the Ferns Report by past pupils; it lay instead in the realm of innuendo, rumour and nudges. It was not generally believed, in my opinion, by the young boys getting swimming lessons or being taught to develop photographs, with the exception of the very few picked on for abuse, most of whom told nobody what was happening until many years later, or by parents, or by the police.

Father Collins began to abuse at St Peter’s again in the early 1970s, according to the report. Once more, he measured penises, but this was only for starters. Over a four-year period one boy was masturbated four to six times a year by Collins. In the 1990s, ten boys made allegations against him, including that he ‘forced’ one of them ‘to engage in mutual masturbation and oral sex’ and that he on one occasion attempted anal sex. All of this occurred between 1972 and 1984. In court in 1995, some of his victims spoke about the detrimental effect the abuse has had on their lives.

Collins knew no fear. In 1988 he took time off from his many extra-curricular activities to apply to become principal of the school. By this time Bishop Herlihy had gone to his reward, and there was a new bishop, Brendan Comiskey, an outgoing, friendly man who paid serious attention to the press and to public relations. He appointed Donal Collins as principal, despite being warned against doing so, according to the Ferns Report, by two priests.

The first allegation of sexual abuse since 1966 came in 1989, within seven months of Father Collins’s appointment as principal. In 1991, as more allegations were made, Collins removed himself to Florida, where he sought help and worked in a parish. Bishop Comiskey did not tell the parish in Florida of his history. Although Collins admitted ‘the broad truth’ of the allegations against him to the bishop in 1993, the bishop told the police in 1995 that the priest was continuing to deny the charges.

The first allegations against James Doyle were made to my old friend Dr Sherwood in 1972. Sherwood’s response was, according to the report, ‘questioning and dismissive’. When the president of the college heard the allegations in 1972, however, he suggested that Doyle should join a religious order and not become a diocesan priest. This president was replaced the following year by a president who allowed Doyle to be ordained. When Bishop Herlihy heard a complaint against Father Doyle in 1982 he sent him to a psychologist who wrote that it would ‘seem desirable that he should have a change of role, away from working with young people’. When a new priest, in whose parish James Doyle was a curate, was appointed in 1985, no one informed him of this report. Five years later, Doyle pleaded guilty to indecent assault and received a suspended sentence.

His case is interesting because it was the first prosecution in the courts of a Ferns priest. It is not hard to imagine how much the people of the diocese could have hated James Doyle. Surely he would have been pelted with turnips, which grow plentifully in the area, as he left the court? Instead, people blamed the local newspapers for printing the story, provoking, the Ferns Report says, ‘a considerable backlash’ against one local paper in the Wexford area ‘as it was felt that Father Doyle had been badly treated by the publicity his case had attracted. As the media had already given enough information to disclose the identity of the complainant, this backlash was also directed towards him and his family.’ Thus in 1990 it was made clear that complaining about these priests to the civil authorities would take considerable courage. Bishop Comiskey told the Ferns Inquiry that ‘prior to 1990, the question of reporting child abuse complaints or allegations to the Garda authorities never arose.’

The case of Dr Ledwith is stranger. In 1994, an allegation was made that he had abused a 13-year-old boy in 1981, a matter which Ledwith disputes, claiming that he did not meet the boy until after his 15th birthday. In any case, Ledwith settled with the boy and his family, paying a sum of money with no admission of liability and with a confidentiality clause. After the boy had had a meeting with Bishop Comiskey, the diocese of Ferns paid for ‘intensive counselling’ for him and his family. In 1983 and 1984, when Ledwith was vice-president of Maynooth, there were complaints to bishops about him from the seminarians, relating to his ‘orientation and propensity’ rather than any ‘specific sexual activity’. When a senior dean at the seminary continued to make these complaints to the bishops, he was asked to produce a victim. When he could not, he was removed from the seminary.

When the Ferns Report came out, I was eager to read it because I had known these three men. I had believed that the problem lay in their becoming priests. If they had gone to Holland or San Francisco, I believed, they would now be happily married to their boyfriends. But as I read the report, I began to think that this was hardly the issue. Instead, the level of abuse in Ferns and the Church’s way of handling it seemed an almost intrinsic part of the Church’s search for power. It is as though when its real authority began to wane in Ireland in the 1960s, the sexual abuse of those under its control and the urge to keep that abuse secret and the efforts to keep abusers safe from the civil law became some of its new tools.

In 1988 in Monageer, just outside Enniscorthy, for example, Father Grennan sexually molested ten girls, aged around 12 or 13, while he heard their confessions. Their teacher sent for a social worker, who interviewed seven of the girls; the parents of the other three refused to allow their daughters to be interviewed. The girls, interviewed separately, ‘described much the same activity in different ways’, the social worker wrote.

At confession Father Grennan would grasp the child’s hands in his hands and pull them towards his private parts. The zip would be described as half down and there was never any allegation of his putting their hands inside of the unzipped area. He would pull the child close and rub his face and mouth around their jaw while asking them questions about their families etc. He was also described as putting his hands under their skirts and fondling their legs to mid-thigh level only.

While this was going on the rest of the children were told to keep their eyes closed; they were told that if they opened them, they would be chastised.

When the bishop was told about this, he decided he did not believe it. He did not speak to the social worker or the principal of the school. He agreed that the priest should leave the parish for a while, but then return for the confirmation of the very girls he had been abusing. So Bishop Comiskey and Father Grennan stood proudly on the altar waiting for the ten little liars to come up to be confirmed. Two of the families walked out with their daughters. Grennan continued in his role of manager of the school.

Since the social worker was employed by the local health board, the police had to be alerted. They took statements from the seven girls. Before the statements could be typed or copied and a covering report prepared, the policeman who took the statements ‘was instructed to hand over the files notwithstanding’. One of the senior policemen who saw the files judged, without consulting anyone, that prosecution of Father Grennan ‘would only damage the complainants further’ and did not send the statements to the director of public prosecutions. The statements, still not copied, disappeared.

An old priest rubbing his face and mouth around your jaw is bad enough, but many of the cases in the Ferns Report are much more severe. The year after I left St Peter’s, Sean Fortune arrived in the seminary. It was alleged to the Ferns Inquiry that he started almost immediately to abuse. He began by fondling boys and masturbating. On one car journey, for example, he asked a boy about a scar on his face and then began masturbating. When he ejaculated, he smeared his sperm on the boy’s face, telling him that it would heal his scar. Within a few years the allegations included oral sex, and then he began to rape his victims anally, leaving one 16-year-old boy ‘in a mess on the floor, bleeding heavily’. He befriended families so he could meet their sons, picking on students and altar boys. One of his alleged victims committed suicide in the late 1980s. Father Fortune himself committed suicide, while facing multiple charges, in 1999, 26 years after he began his career as an abuser.

Because the priest in each parish in the so-called Republic of Ireland is automatically manager of the local primary school – of the 3200 primary schools in the state, 3000 are still managed by Catholic priests – this gave many of them golden opportunities to take students out of school for special lessons. Canon Martin Clancy liked them young, one as young as eight, another, Ciara, 11. When she became pregnant at 14, she went to England and had the baby. She told no one who the father was. When she was 17, Canon Clancy ‘threatened to have [the baby] taken from her if Ciara told anybody that he was the father’. When he died in 1993, Canon Clancy left Ciara three thousand pounds in his will ‘to be used for your future musical education’.

No one was safe from them. One woman who had had an operation on her lower abdomen was visited by a Ferns priest. ‘He fondled her’ and she ‘could feel his fingers moving around the vaginal area. She said that she attempted to get up when Father Gamma’ – he could not be named by the report – ‘pushed the elbow of his arm into her stomach to restrain any movement’. Another priest, whom the report calls Father Delta, was visited by a young man about to get married seeking a Letter of Freedom. The priest asked the young man to unbutton his trousers to check that ‘everything down there was in working order.’ The priest fondled his private parts for approximately ten minutes. Another young man approached a priest to report that Father Fortune had abused him. The priest asked the young man to demonstrate what Fortune had done, which included touching his penis, thus beginning to abuse him all over again.

Some of the abuse was from a bad S&M porn movie. In the mid-1960s at St Peter’s, a priest told a boy that there was a researcher from America investigating the development of boys and that he ‘would be an ideal candidate in terms of age and height’. He was told to report to a room where, eventually, he was ‘blindfolded, stripped and caned. His penis was measured and he thinks, but cannot be certain, that he was masturbated.’ He is 99 per cent certain that all this was carried out by the original priest.

The Church, of course, is sorry. Bishop Comiskey has been removed and replaced by Bishop Eamonn Walsh. Two years ago, at an event in Wexford town, I was introduced to Bishop Walsh by a priest from St Peter’s whom I had liked. The new bishop asked me if any harm had come to me at St Peter’s. I said that despite my best efforts no one, not even Dr Sherwood, had hit me. I was too embarrassed to tell him that not one of the priests had ever as much as fondled me either. And I told him that I got a good education there. It was only afterwards that I learned what had been happening all around me. The new bishop was very skilled at speaking softly. It is his job to clean up the mess that is the diocese of Ferns. He knows that the way to begin is to apologise and apologise and apologise. If he does it enough, maybe someone will believe that the years of abuse and cover-up were not an imperative but an accident, an aberration.

Bishop Comiskey is blamed for his inaction in many cases covered by the Ferns Report. He has made little comment. A few years ago he was treated for alcoholism and it is hard for him. Journalists say he is in hiding, but he is not in hiding. He lives round the corner from me in Dublin and I see him sometimes on the street. We always stop and talk. He loves the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh and we talk about that. He remembers some of my family. And he misses it, he says, the diocese and the priests. He looks sad as he moves slowly back towards his lodgings. It would be easy to think as I watch him shuffle away from me that there goes the power of the Irish Catholic Church. But that would be a mistake. Its power is slowly and subtly eroding, but it is still strong. No one is afraid of the priests anymore. They have learned a new language and imposed some new rules, but they still appoint the teachers and run the schools. On 11 November, in response to criticism of the Church’s role in education, the taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, said: ‘The state would not be able to manage the schools without the religious, and the state owes a debt of gratitude to the religious communities.’ The religious communities still also own many of the hospitals. Their years of fucking and fondling the more vulnerable members of the congregation have ended; their years of apologising sincerely and unctuously have begun. We must thank the Creator for small mercies.