On the Ferns Report

Catriona Crowe

Catriona Crowe

The BBC television documentary Suing the Pope, broadcast on 19 March 2002, presented a series of testimonies from young men who had been abused as children by Fr Sean Fortune. It also included contributions from others who had come into contact with Fr Fortune, and, most notably, from Bishop Brendan Comiskey, who, as bishop of the Diocese of Ferns, was responsible for monitoring Fr Fortune’s activities. One of the abiding images from the programme was that of Bishop Comiskey gently closing his door against the presenter, Sarah McDonald, having refused to answer her questions about Fr Fortune.

Suing the Pope shocked the country. The brutality, duplicity and manipulation exhibited by Fr Fortune produced a new and grotesque image of the Catholic priesthood, and Bishop Comiskey’s failure to deal with him revealed at best gross incompetence, at worst a criminal cover-up combined with appalling disregard for vulnerable children. The testimony of the young men who had been abused – Colm O’Gorman, Pat Jackman, Damien McAleen and Donnacha MacGloinn – was utterly convincing, and that of Monica Fitzpatrick, whose son, Peter, had killed himself, possibly as a result of abuse by Fr Fortune, was heartbreaking. Even fervent Catholics who would normally defend their Church had to concede that no defence was possible for this violation and betrayal of vulnerable children. Colm O’Gorman, whose complaint to the police against Fr Fortune was the catalyst for an avalanche of other complaints against him, said on the programme: ‘The one thing that I always wanted was for somebody to take this back, for somebody to take responsibility, for somebody to say, “Actually, we should have done something here, we didn’t”.’

In April 2002, three weeks after Suing the Pope was screened, Micheál Martin, Minister for Health and Children, after consultation with some of the contributors to the programme, announced the appointment of George Birmingham, SC, to carry out a preliminary investigation which would indentify the central issues for an inquiry into clerical child sexual abuse in the Diocese of Ferns, and to make recommendations as to such an inquiry’s form and structure. In August 2002, Mr Birmingham recommended a ‘non-statutory inquiry, sitting in private, capable of designing its own procedures and tailoring those to the needs of those with whom it is dealing’. Crucially, Mr Birmingham was assured by both Bishop Brendan Comiskey, who had resigned in April 2002, and Bishop Eamonn Walsh, who was appointed Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Ferns after Bishop Comiskey’s resignation, that they would co-operate fully with any inquiry. The terms of reference of the inquiry included a condition that the withholding of co-operation by Church or state authorities would result in the inquiry being granted full statutory powers.

The non-statutory nature of the Inquiry meant that it could not compel witnesses to attend or to make statements, that evidence given to it would be unsworn, that witnesses could not be cross-examined and that they would not be entitled to legal representation. The co-operation of a large number of relevant parties with the Inquiry may have vindicated this approach, but it is noteworthy that the recently announced Commission of Investigation into child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Dublin will have all of these powers.


The Ferns Inquiry was established in March 2003 under the chairmanship of Mr Francis D. Murphy, formerly of the Supreme Court. He was joined by Dr Helen Buckley, a senior lecturer in the Department of Social Studies at Trinity College, Dublin, and a specialist in child protecion issues, and Dr Laraine Joyce, deputy director of the Office for Health Management, a specialist in management and human resources.

The terms of reference of the Inquiry can be summarized as follows:

  • To identify complaints or allegations made against Ferns diocesan clergy in relation to events prior to April 2002, and to report on the nature, adequacy and appropriateness, in the context of the time, of the response to these by the church and state authorities
  • To identify, if possible, the reasons for inadequate or inappropriate responses and whether these shortcomings had since been addressed
  • To examine levels of communication between the relevant authorities, and if necessary to recommend improvements
  • To make recommendations for any necessary legislative or regulatory change required to improve child protection

The Report was published on 25 October 2005. In the course of the Inquiry, 90 people alleging abuse attended oral hearings, and a further 57 submitted written statements. More than a hundred witnesses from the Diocese of Ferns, the South-Eastern Health Board and An Garda Síochána also attended. The Inquiry analyzed complaints relating to child sexual abuse by 21 priests, dating as far back as 1966. Over 40 of the complaints related to two priests. Ten of those complained of are now dead; three have been laicized; the rest are no longer in ministry. Two were prosecuted and convicted; a third committed suicide before his trial. The Report names six of the 21 Ferns clergymen against whom allegations of abuse were made; the rest, whose names have not come into the public domain, are referred to by letters of the Greek alphabet. Since the Inquiry claims it received full co-operation with its investigations, it is important to note that roughly half of those accused or convicted of abuse did not co-operate. Frs Collins, Doyle, Alpha and Delta and Monsignor Ledwith all attended the Inquiry. The first two are the only Ferns priests to have been so far convicted of child sexual abuse. Of those accused who are still alive, Frs Beta, Gamma, Iota, Kappa and Upsilon appear not to have attended.

Although the Report’s remit is restricted to the Diocese of Ferns, which comprises most of Co. Wexford and parts of Co. Wicklow, it necessarily must deal with national legislation, regulation and practice as they affect the issue of child sexual abuse. This requirement placed a heavy burden on a team anxious to report within a short timescale, and may account for some weaknesses in the document, including inconsistencies in style and content, an unhelpful structure and layout, a failure to situate the Ferns abuse in a wider context, missing information on alleged abusers, and the absence of an index.


In its first substantive chapter, the Report looks at the history of public and state consciousness of child sexual abuse and states: ‘Over the next decade [1965–1975], the extent of sexual abuse of children both within and outside families was recognised as a world-wide problem.’ The Report does not tell us by whom or where this recognition was held. The next paragraph notes that the Department of Health’s 1976–7 report and memorandum on non-accidental injury to children made no reference to the sexual abuse of children; that further guidelines in 1983 mentioned it only in passing; and that guidelines finally established in 1987 for the identification, investigation and management of child sexual abuse dealt only with abuse perpetrated by the child’s family or carer and did not deal with abuse perpetrated by others, nor with abuse not reported until the victim was an adult.

The Report does not reveal why Irish state agencies that employed professionals in the field of child protection took so long to deal with an issue ‘recognised as a world-wide problem’ since 1975 at the latest. A regime of appropriate state-sponsored education, information and guidelines about child sexual abuse, with the legislative powers and personnel to support it, would surely have made a great deal of difference to the victims mentioned in the Report, and forced the Church authorities to conform to civil law and practice rather than canon law. As it was, the Church did not formally acknowledge its proper obligations to civil and criminal law until 1996.

The expert group which advised the Inquiry team on these matters told them that perspectives on treatment for alleged offenders have changed radically over the last twenty years. Until the late 1990s, psychiatrists believed that a sexual propensity for children could be controlled through medication and therapy, and were prepared to recommend that such offenders be returned to ministry, with certain restrictions imposed. Current thinking is more pessimistic, holding that not even very good treatment can eliminate the risk of re-offence. From the late 1970s, the Report reveals, priests with behavioural problems, including child sexual abuse, were sent for assessment and treatment to reputable psychologists and psychiatrists in Ireland and to a treatment centre in Stroud in England, but these professionals often were not made aware of the allegations against the priests, and their conclusions were often ignored.

The Report reveals that in 1986, Kevin McNamara, Archbishop of Dublin, consulted his legal advisors about the possibility of legal liability arising for the Archbishop as a result of clerical child sexual abuse. He was advised by counsel that he could be sued for negligence if an offending priest, returned by him to ministry, were to re-offend, unless he had received categorical assurances from a psychiatrist or other qualified person that the priest was cured. In the case of a priest against whom an allegation of child sexual abuse had been made, counsel advised that a bishop would have a duty in law to withdraw such a priest from his duties if it were possible that there was a basis for the complaint. The insurance company Church and General obtained permission from Archbishop McNamara to circulate the legal opinion he had received, and between 1987 and 1990 most dioceses in Ireland took out policies with the company to insure against sex-abuse claims.

This was a pivotal moment when consistent information on their legal responsibilities and potential liability was made known to all Irish bishops. Why did Kevin McNamara not take the initiative in drawing up guidelines for appropriate response to allegations of child sexual abuse by priests, and promulgate them through the Episcopal Conference? Almost ten years were allowed to elapse before such guidelines were created. The Inquiry does not comment on this missed opportunity.

The first document produced by the Irish Catholic authorities laying out guidelines for dealing with clerical child sexual abuse was the 1996 Report of the Advisory Committee of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, entitled ‘Child Sexual Abuse: Framework for a Church Response’ and referred to as the Framework Document. This included an unambiguous instruction that any allegations of sexual abuse of a child by a priest or religious should be reported to the civil authorities, and that immediate consideration should be given to the removal from ministry, for the duration of the investigation, of anyone so accused. The Framework Document outlines structures and procedures for dealing with allegations, including designated staff to oversee process, education, promotion of awareness, support for alleged victims and accused, and creation of an advisory panel, to include lay experts in the field of child protection, to advise the bishop of each diocese.

This is all very impressive, if late in the day for an organization that had been aware of the problem for many years, but the Ferns Report also tells us that the Framework Document has not been granted a ‘recognitio’ by the Holy See, without which it has no legal status under canon law, and may or may not be espoused voluntarily by any bishop. Has the Episcopal Conference asked the Holy See for such a ‘recognitio’? The Ferns Report does not tell us, though it does call attention to the strange management structure of the Catholic Church, which constituted one of the obstacles to dissemination of consistent guidelines on child abuse before the introduction of the Framework Document. Bishops operate like independent monarchs within their dioceses, not subject to supervision by archbishops, by the Episcopal Conference or by the Primate. They are responsible only to the Pope. What looks like a hierarchical management structure is missing the normal reporting and supervisory mechanisms on which such structures depend.

Bishop Donal Herlihy, who headed the Diocese of Ferns from 1964 to 1983, seems to have paid scant attention to administration, leaving no more than the contents of a shoebox of personnel files on his priests for his successor. Bishop Comiskey bought a filing cabinet within a week of his arrival in 1984, and attempted to gather information on the priests serving in the diocese. He complained to the Inquiry that priests were reluctant to report suspicions about their colleagues to him; because he was new to the diocese, he did not have an informal network of informants. However, when complaints were made to him, his responses were dangerously inadequate.


St Peter’s College, the Wexford seminary (with boarding school attached) where priests were trained for the Diocese of Ferns, produced an alarmingly high number of alleged and convicted abusers, including Fr Donal Collins, who was its principal from 1988 to 1991, having taught there since 1964. Assessment and screening of candidates for the priesthood seem to have been virtually non-existent until the early 1980s, and such assessment as there was tended not to be acted upon if negative. Grave doubts were expressed by colleagues about the suitability of Sean Fortune and James Doyle for ordination, but they were ordained anyway.

The Inquiry’s investigations of the legal and managerial structures of the South-Eastern Health Board and the Garda Síochána shed light on numerous deficiencies in legislation. The Children Act, 1908, which governed Health Board child-care powers until 1996, did not confer any power of intervention in child-abuse cases perpetrated by anyone other than a parent or carer. The Child Care Act, 1991 (not fully operational until 1996), did not significantly extend these powers. The Children Act, 2001, which replaced the 1908 Act, reiterates the principle that the state should intervene in the welfare of a child only where the child’s family fails to ensure it. This is a wholly unsatisfactory situation. The Inquiry rightly recommends that the legislation be updated to include specific reference to abuse by extra-familial persons, and that guidelines be produced on the same issue. What is amazing is that none of this has already happened.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, for the purposes of this Inquiry, seems to have put aside what the Report calls his ‘unreviewable discretion’ and revealed his reasons for not prosecuting alleged abusers in the vast majority of cases. Prosecutions were initiated only where there were multiple alleged victims of an accused or, in one single-victim case, where the abuse was witnessed. The DPP denied that his office had a policy of non-prosecution where there was one victim whose account of abuse was completely denied by the accused. Nonetheless, at least in regard to the cases under review in this Report, no prosecutions were initiated by him when this was the case.

Chapter 4 of the Report outlines the allegations of abuse made to the Inquiry. The information is laid out in sections relating to each priest, with his accusers’ testimony paraphrased. (The near absence of direct quotation in the Report is curious, and at times seems to create unnecessary ambiguity.) All of those who made allegations of abuse are assigned false names. At the beginning of this chapter, the Report states: ‘With the exception of the two priests who pleaded guilty to certain charges brought against them and to certain limited and specific admissions referred to in Chapter 5, all of those allegations and complaints are and were vehemently denied by all of the priests living at the time when the allegations were made against them.’


The graphic detail in which the abuse is described, while gruesome to read, is a necessary corrective to the atmosphere of secrecy and shame that has surrounded these experiences for so many years. The violent rapes carried out by Sean Fortune, the public groping by James Grennan and James Doyle, the genital examinations imposed by Donal Collins and the endless exploitation of the vulnerable need to be proclaimed in detail. The most distressing information in this chapter, worse even than the harrowing accounts of the abuse, is the record of the long-term damage the abuse has done to the witnesses. Suicide, depression, alcoholism, marital breakdown, difficulties in relationships, family rifts, self-blame, guilt, fear of exposure and loss of faith are all detailed.

One shortcoming of this part of the Report is the piecemeal nature of the narratives of abuse. These would be easier to follow and to assess individually, and would paint a more thorough picture collectively, if the Inquiry had established certain basic facts consistently for each witness. The Report does not always state the age of the witness when the abuse occurred; whether or when civil proceedings were taken, or the result of these; whether or not a complaint was made to the health board or gardaí; who, if anyone, the complainant told about the abuse prior to the Inquiry; or what prompted the witness to disclose the abuse. Also, the structure of the Report makes it unnecessarily difficult to understand how the authorities dealt with each offender or alleged offender. Chapters 5, 6 and 7 give details, in turn, of the diocesan, health board and Garda response to the allegations against individual priests. It would be a lot clearer to give each priest’s history from abuse to intervention by the authorities in a single continuous narrative, rather than chopped up across four chapters.

The importance of appropriate counselling for victims and their families is very clear, and seems by now to have been fully accepted by the Church, at least in the Diocese of Ferns. It is not so clear that the South-Eastern Health Board, now a reconfigured part of the Health Services Executive, has the same commitment. The Report tells us that after the alleged abuse of ten little girls at Monageer in 1988 by Fr James Grennan, a very disturbing and divisive event for the community as well as the girls, the South-Eastern Health Board, which had validated their complaints, was unable to offer counselling to them, because of lack of resources: there were only four social workers serving all of Co. Wexford. One would imagine that almost twenty years later the situation would have changed for the better, but the recent report of the Ombudsman for Children reveals totally unacceptable waiting periods for interview, let alone counselling, for children who disclose abuse. If this is still a resource problem, why are we not hearing loud protests from social workers about it?


The priest who takes up by far the most space in the Report is Fr Sean Fortune, against whom 26 complainants gave evidence to the Inquiry, and who would have been tried on 66 counts of child sexual abuse had he not killed himself before his trial, thus denying his victims their day in a criminal court. The catalogue of his abuse is dizzying, ranging from anal rape to brazen attempts at bribery for sex to terrifying psychological manipulation of his victims. Pat Jackman described him in Suing the Pope as ‘unrepentant’, and he seems to have had no sense of what damage he was doing to these boys. He described his behaviour to one of the many psychiatrists to whom he was sent as ‘just messing’.

Because he lied all the time to these psychiatrists, and Bishops Herlihy and Comiskey didn’t inform each new one of the conclusions of the previous one, or fully inform any of them of the allegations against Fortune, they could not reach an accurate diagnosis of his dysfunction. There were five in all involved in his case from 1981 to 1989. One of them, Dr Ingo Fischer, who was chosen by Fortune himself, insisted that Fortune must be in active ministry if he were to be treated successfully. This insistence played a part in Fr Fortune’s appointment to a curacy in Ballymurn in 1989, where he remained until his arrest in 1995.
By the time of Fr Fortune’s ordination in 1979, he had been the subject of at least two allegations of sexual abuse, as well as separate complaints of improper behaviour falling short of abuse, relating to his time as a seminarian at St Peter’s College and to his involvement with the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland. This in itself ought to have been enough to prevent his ordination in 1979, but it was not. Bishop Herlihy received four reports in 1981 from Monsignor Professor Feichin O’Doherty, who was Professor of Logic and Psychology at University College Dublin, expressing grave concern about Fr Fortune’s personality and predilections and observing that some of his actions could be ‘classified as indecent assault in Civil Law’, but did nothing. Over the period 1984–95, Bishop Comiskey got conflicting advice from four more psychiatrists and from canon law experts, as well as receiving further complaints about Fr Fortune, and yet he allowed Fortune to remain in active ministry for almost the entirety of this period, and never initiated action against him under canon law or civil law. Bishop Comiskey told the Inquiry that he was sure that any precepts imposed on him under canon law would have been appealed to the Vatican. However, during the 1980s, the level of rumour and suspicion regarding Fr Fortune’s alleged activities was so high that Bishop Comiskey ought to have consulted the civil authorities, and ought to have kept Fr Fortune out of contact with children. The Report is rightly critical of bishops Herlihy and Comiskey for their lack of action, which certainly allowed many children to be abused, perhaps including some who have never come forward.

The first complaint to the gardaí about Fr Fortune was made in February 1995, by Colm O’Gorman. Many others came forward after this first courageous step was taken. The garda most heavily involved in building the case said that the investigation revealed ‘a blister ready to burst’. By August 1995, 66 charges had been assembled against Fr Fortune, covering a period between 1979 and 1987. The DPP recommended prosecution. Fr Fortune was arrested, and his case was to go to trial at the circuit court, when he sought and was granted judicial review for prohibition of his trial. The High Court turned him down in December 1997. He then appealed to the Supreme Court, which directed that the prosecution should proceed in January 1999. Fr Fortune killed himself in March 1999, while his fitness to stand trial was being investigated by the court. The Inquiry finds the Garda investigation of complaints against Fr Fortune to be professional and satisfactory, and the personnel involved to have been sensitive to the victims.
The Report’s account of the diocesan response to Fr Fortune ends dramatically with his suicide. Two of his employees found him in a darkened house, lying on his bed fully clothed with a set of rosary beads in his hands. One of the employees found three letters, one titled ‘A Message from Heaven to my Family’, one to his brother, and one to the employee who discovered them. The letter addressed to her contained an instruction to give it to all the newspapers. In it, he denied all allegations against him and branded his accusers ‘a pack of liars’. He left detailed instructions about his funeral and requested that Bishop Comiskey not attend. He claimed that ‘Bishop Comiskey was responsible for all this as he had raped and buggered me’.

The recipient of this extraordinary missive did not give it to the newspapers. She gave it instead to her local curate, who kept it in a safe in the presbytery for two years and then burned it. The Inquiry, which was told about the letter by the curate, concludes that there was ‘no evidence to support the very serious allegations in that letter and [the Inquiry] does not believe them to be true’. Fr Fortune’s often-expressed threat to ‘bring Bishop Comiskey down with him’ did not succeed in the way he had imagined.

Fr Fortune’s case does not figure in the Report’s chapter on South-Eastern Health Board responses. It is surprising that the health board had no involvement at all in such a prolific abuser’s case. No explanation is offered for this.

Sean Fortune made his way through many systems – educational, supervisory, ecclesiastical, psychiatric – and was not stopped from his predatory behaviour until almost twenty years after it had started. He did incalculable damage to many people, divided communities, and discredited the church to which he belonged. He was completely without remorse, and never admitted to any of his crimes. While this Inquiry can outline his behaviour, and make judgments about those in a position to stop him, it cannot explain what element was missing from him to allow a life of such wickedness and delusion.


The earliest allegation of sexual abuse in the Diocese of Ferns to which the Report refers was made against Fr Donal Collins, who taught science in St Peter’s College. In 1966, it was alleged that he inspected and measured the penises of up to twenty boys in St Peter’s school dormitory on the pretext of checking their development. Bishop Herlihy sent him to London for two years, not for treatment, but to work in ministry in the Diocese of Westminster. There is no record of Bishop Herlihy having informed Fr Collins’ new bishop that he had been sent there because of allegations of child abuse, but then there are no records at all relating to the abuse and subsequent actions. (The Report does not reveal whether the Inquiry contacted the Diocese of Westminster to establish whether any such records exist there.)

In 1968, Fr Collins was recalled to St Peter’s and restored to his teaching post. Bishop Herlihy reportedly remarked to his secretary, ‘Hasn’t he done his penance?’ The only stricture imposed on him on his return was that he should live away from the students’ quarters. There were no further complaints against him until 1989, although it is now known that he continued to abuse throughout that period. He was appointed principal of St Peter’s in 1988, after a wide consultation process and on the unanimous recommendation of an expert advisory panel.

In 1989, complaints of abuse against Fr Collins began to be received by Bishop Comiskey. Fr Collins aggressively denied these allegations. Two years of inaction followed. In 1991, several more accusations were made against him. While admitting to ‘indiscreet and inappropriate conduct with young boys’, he denied the extent of the charges made against him. He resigned from his post as principal on grounds of ill-health. Bishop Comiskey asked him to attend a treatment centre in the United States, and he refused. He finally attended a centre in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1993. It subsequently emerged that he had not been totally frank with his assessors about the extent of his abusive activities. He was then asked by Bishop Comiskey to attend the Granada Institute in Dublin for further assessment.

In September 1993, Fr Collins admitted the broad truth of many of the allegations against him. Bishop Comiskey called on him to retire from active ministry. Comiskey told the Inquiry that he did not report the abuse to the gardaí or the health board because Fr Collins was no longer in ministry and therefore no danger to children. By 1995, the diocese had begun to report allegations of abuse to the civil authorities. In that year, Fr Collins was charged with multiple counts of indecent assault and gross indecency, and one count of buggery, against four former students at St Peter’s College. He sought, through judicial review, prohibition of his trial. He was turned down in 1997. In 1998 he pleaded guilty to four charges of gross indecency and one of indecent assault against students in St Peter’s College between 1972 and 1984. He was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment and served one.

On his release in 1999, Bishop Comiskey put him in charge of the diocesan website. He was allowed to say Mass in a local convent with the permission of the nuns. In 2002, Bishop Walsh asked Fr Collins to consider seeking voluntary laicization. Fr Collins replied that ‘he could not abandon his priesthood which was an intrinsic part of his identity’. He was forcibly laicized in 2004.

As with Sean Fortune, the Report mentions no intervention from the South-Eastern Health Board into any of the many allegations made against Fr Collins, and does not comment on this lack of intervention. The Inquiry is satisfied with the Garda’s handling of the allegations and the prosecution.

The Report’s sometimes puzzling conclusions on changing perceptions and responses to child sexual abuse are mirrored in its account of the diocesan response to the allegations against Fr Collins. About Bishop Herlihy’s dispatch of Fr Collins to London in 1966, the Report states: ‘The Inquiry understands that sexual abuse, whether with adults or children, was, at the time, seen by Bishop Herlihy as a moral failure: the psychiatric and criminal aspects of it were not identified. Furthermore, the impact which such abuse had on victims was not recognised by many professionals working in the area at this time and did not become a subject of serious study until some years later in the United States.’ We are not told whether Bishop Herlihy was alone in this assumption, or whether other church and state authorities held the same opinion.

On Bishop Comiskey’s response to a number of complaints in 1991, the Report states: ‘Bishop Comiskey told the Inquiry that the thinking at that time was that people who offended in this way could be rehabilitated, and provided they were given what later became known as a “Certificate of Fitness to Minister”, they could be reappointed to parish duties. The Inquiry has identified support among medical experts for that view at that time.’ The ‘medical experts’ are not named.
We are told that Fr Collins’s therapist in Connecticut in 1993 wrote to Bishop Comiskey recommending that he be ‘appointed to a parish but receive on-going psychological counselling’; we then learn that Fr Collins had not disclosed the full extent of his abuse to this therapist. There is no attempt to establish what the therapist would have advised had he known the full extent of the abuse. We are then told that ‘in September 1993, Fr Collins admitted the broad truth of many of the allegations made against him’. We are not told to whom this admission was made, or under what circumstances, or whether this crucial disclosure was a result of the therapy he had undergone. The admission was certainly not made to the gardaí, to whom he continued to deny his guilt until 1998. Bishop Comiskey required Fr Collins to attend the Granada Institute for assessment and treatment in 1994. The Report tells us nothing about the outcome of the assessment, or what course of action was recommended by his therapist there.

Because Fr Collins’s case spans the whole period in question, it allows the Inquiry to look at the behaviour of three bishops over almost forty years, and to put it in a more general context. The Church fully deserves all of the criticisms levelled at it, but if what it was doing was in line with accepted professional practice at the time, as the report suggests, it would seem that the professionals deserve a lot more criticism than they get in this report. The speed with which the Report was produced apparently ruled out any serious research on the history of practice in this area in the UK, surely a very useful comparative example. Nor does the Inquiry seem to have examined the extent to which teachers, hospital workers and others with access to children were accused of child sexual abuse during this period, or what happened to them.

I have referred above to the extraordinary fact that Irish child protection legislation and guidelines still do not adequately address the issue of child sexual abuse by persons other than parents or carers, a fact rightly criticized by the Inquiry. How is it that the legislature, responsible for introducing and enacting such legislation, is not roundly condemned for its failure to protect vulnerable children?


Although most of his working life would be spent away from Wexford, Monsignor Michael Ledwith was ordained as a priest for the Diocese of Ferns, and thus remained under the jurisdiction of the diocese. The Ferns Report commences its account of his case with a summary of allegations made regarding his conduct while serving as a vice-president of Maynooth College. In 1983, according to the Report, six seminarians at the college expressed concerns to Brendan Comiskey, who was then Auxiliary Bishop of Dublin, about ‘what they saw or believed to be the lavish and worldly lifestyle of Monsignor Ledwith’ and about ‘information or rumours that might have suggested that the Monsignor had a homosexual orientation’. Comiskey suggested they meet seven ‘key Bishops’ to discuss these concerns.

The seminarians, or some of them, met the bishops, three of whom are now dead. We are told that two of the remaining bishops, Cardinal Cahal Daly and Bishop Eamonn Casey, made statements to the Inquiry in which they said that Monsignor Ledwith’s allegedly lavish lifestyle and his spiritual life were the issues raised, and that nothing was said about sexual orientation. The seminarians, who also gave evidence to the Inquiry, insist that the matter was raised. The Report states, as it must in other situations where there is direct conflict of evidence, ‘The Ferns Inquiry cannot resolve this issue.’

An investigation of Monsignor Ledwith’s lifestyle and spiritual habits, carried out by Bishop Kevin McNamara, revealed the former not to be extravagant and the latter to be conducted in private. The seminarians then approached Fr Gerard McGinnity, the senior dean, and put their concerns about Monsignor Ledwith’s possible sexual orientation before him. No specific allegations were made, relating to themselves or anybody else, but Fr McGinnity felt that the issue was so serious that he should take it further. He spoke to Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, Archbishop Dermot Ryan, and Bishop Kevin McNamara, all of whom are now dead. He also made these opinions known to the Papal Nuncio in a confidential document, the contents of which somehow became known to others. Auxiliary Bishop Comiskey then apparently learned of Fr McGinnity’s contact with the three prelates, and told Bishop Casey that Fr McGinnity had suggested that there was ‘some sexual impropriety in Monsignor Ledwith’s relationship with certain students’. Bishop Casey then seems to have taken it upon himself to consult with two of the three bishops to establish what Fr McGinnity had told them.
Now a third group of bishops enters the picture, the Maynooth Board of Visitors, who met in the college in May 1984. Bishop Casey was a member of this Board. He met Fr McGinnity, and asked him if he could produce a student with a complaint of inappropriate sexual behaviour against Monsignor Ledwith. Fr McGinnity could not do so, and emphasized that his concerns lay with ‘the practice of this man in cultivating same-sex friendships with people who have a certain appearance, and trying to bring them off on their own’.

Immediately following this encounter, Bishop Casey reported to the Board of Visitors and they ‘agreed that a person who made such a serious allegation against the Vice-President without being able to produce evidence of any inappropriate relationship, could not continue as Senior Dean’. McGinnity was sent on a year’s sabbatical, then asked to resign his post in Maynooth.
Monsignor Ledwith became President of Maynooth in 1985, and served in that capacity until his retirement in 1995.

The Inquiry did not ask the seminarians to elaborate on what they meant by ‘lavish lifestyle’ or ‘homosexual orientation’. If Monsignor Ledwith drove a fast car, or drank expensive wine, or favoured silk cravats, he would certainly not have been the first Prince of the Church to so indulge himself. Whatever about the seminarians’ concerns, ‘lifestyle’, whether lavish or puritanical, is none of the Inquiry’s business. Neither, I would suggest, is sexual orientation, as opposed to criminal sexual activity. Sexual orientation has never been criminal, even in the dark days when homosexual activity was. Unless the Inquiry shares the Catholic Church’s belief that even homosexual orientation is an impediment to priesthood and contact with young people, a very dangerous position to adopt, there would seem to have been no need for it to investigate this part of Monsignor Ledwith’s life. It should also be pointed out that seminarians are adults, not vulnerable children.

What is properly the Inquiry’s business is the accusation of child sexual abuse made against Monsignor Ledwith in 1994 by ‘Raymond’, referring to abuse which began in 1981, when he was 13, and continued for two years. Bishop Comiskey reported the allegation to the health board and the gardaí. The allegations were investigated on behalf of the diocese and found to be ‘capable of being true’. Bishop Comiskey asked Monsignor Ledwith to attend for assessment at a centre in the US. Monsignor Ledwith initially agreed to this but became unhappy about the tests he would have to undergo. Bishop Comiskey began canon law proceedings against him, but found these to be ruled out by a statute of limitations.

The Trustees of Maynooth College proposed to dismiss Monsignor Ledwith from his post. He challenged their right to do this and prepared a lengthy document in which he strenuously denied the allegations made against him. After a hearing at the Archbishop of Dublin’s house, Monsignor Ledwith, having expressed grave reservations about the fairness of the procedures taken against him, declared that he had no choice but to retire from the Presidency of Maynooth College.
Sometime during all of this (the Report does not tell us when), ‘Raymond’ instituted civil proceedings against Monsignor Ledwith. Ledwith, on legal advice, settled this claim without admitting liability. The settlement included an obligation of absolute confidentiality, and neither party has spoken of the case since. According to the Ferns Report, ‘Raymond’ agreed to release Monsignor Ledwith from this obligation when the latter was investigated by the church authorities, but the Report does not say whether or not Monsignor Ledwith was told of ‘Raymond’s’ offer, or, if told, what his response was.
Another allegation of abuse was made against Monsignor Ledwith in 2000, and a Garda investigation got under way, but was halted after two months by the complainant’s admission that the allegation was false. ‘Raymond’ never instigated criminal proceedings, apparently because he feared exposure of himself and his family. He made it clear to the health board that he would not co-operate with a Garda inquiry and would deny the allegations if approached by them. Monsignor Ledwith was dismissed from the priesthood in 2005.


The three bishops whose terms of office in the Diocese of Ferns come under the scrutiny of this Inquiry emerge very differently from the process. Bishop Herlihy, who held office from 1964 to 1983, is partially exonerated by the Inquiry because of the general lack of knowledge of sexual abuse at the time; the fact that he left hardly any written records of the cases with which he dealt has also worked in his favour. But he is criticized for putting known abusers back into contact with children.
Brendan Comiskey, who was in office between 1984 and 2002, comes out of it all by far the worst of the three bishops. It is possible to make a case for Bishop Comiskey as a well-meaning man, with what he later acknowledged to be a severe drink problem, who was caught in a time of transition when knowledge and anger about clerical child sexual abuse was growing and emerging into the open, where it met inadequate responses from almost everyone. His testimony to the Inquiry must have been agonizing, considering the number of times he had to admit forgetting something crucial, or failing to do something he obviously ought to have done, and it is to his credit that he participated in a process which needed his input. But the damage done to children by his failure to act on many occasions is terrible and tragic. The Sean Fortune case alone reveals many moments when he could and should have acted, and did not. In failing to take the necessary measures to protect and vindicate children in his diocese, Bishop Comiskey enabled avoidable appalling damage to young lives. It cannot be easy to live with that knowledge.

Bishop Eamonn Walsh, Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Ferns since Bishop Comiskey’s resignation in 2002, emerges as a person who put structures in place to manage the affairs of the diocese effectively, including allegations of child sexual abuse against its clergy, and seems to have reconciled the demands of canon law with those of the civil and criminal law by relying on the precept that the welfare of children is paramount at all times. He is very prompt to require that any accused priest immediately stand aside from ministry and undergo assessment, and he has gone to some lengths to meet with and apologize to victims, their families and the broader community. He co-operated fully with the Inquiry, making available to it all relevant documentation, a fact acknowledged with gratitude in the Report.

One of the cases dealt with by Bishop Walsh gives pause for thought, however. In 1998 a complaint of abuse was made to the health board against the priest referred to as Fr Upsilon. Because the complainant withdrew his accusation after five weeks, the health board saw no reason to notify the diocese, and Bishop Walsh learned of the accusation only in 2004, from the Inquiry. He immediately required Fr Upsilon to stand aside from ministry and undergo assessment, which he did. At this stage, the complainant went to the trouble of contacting the Diocesan Secretary to ‘state categorically that he had withdrawn his complaint’. Nonetheless, Bishop Walsh informed the Inquiry that ‘the outcome of the priest’s current assessment and treatment programme would be critical to his future … and that he would be obliged to send a report to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’.

The Inquiry endorses this course of action on the grounds that the withdrawal of a complaint ‘should not be regarded as decisive’. There is no input to the Inquiry from Fr Upsilon or the complainant, no indication as to whether Fr Upsilon accepted that the complaint had any foundation, no acknowledgment that there have been no other complaints against Fr Upsilon, no acknowledgment of the fact that the health board saw no child protection issue when the complaint was withdrawn six years before, no acknowledgment that someone’s good name was severely damaged without any evidence to justify it. There are moments in this Report when the members of the Inquiry team forget that their interests are not identical with those of the newly reformed Diocese of Ferns. This is one of them.
There is, however, no doubt that Bishop Walsh has made a great difference to his congregation’s confidence in the Church’s ability to deal decisively with allegations of child sexual abuse, and his espousal and activation of the Framework Document and public guidelines provide a model for other bishops, which of course they may or may not choose to emulate.


The Report firmly concludes that there is no evidence that there was ever a paedophile ring among clergy in the Diocese of Ferns. There is no evidence of abusing priests acting in concert or communicating with each other to further their opportunities to abuse. It may well be that priests, there as elsewhere, were so powerful in their communities that they could literally do whatever they liked. That situation has now changed, and the process which culminated in the Ferns Report has played a large part in that.

The question arises whether Ferns is worse than the rest of the country in terms of clerical abuse. We will not know the answer to this until the various Commissions of Investigation into other dioceses conclude their work, but it is fair to guess that, sadly, it is unlikely to be very different elsewhere. What we already know about the Archdiocese of Dublin, from court proceedings against abusing priests, is bad enough; the final picture will probably be much worse. The Diocese of Ferns became the subject of an official state inquiry because of the willingness of some of Sean Fortune’s victims to publicly describe their experiences and demand justice. Had victims from Tuam or Cloyne or Limerick taken similar steps, that diocese would have been where the investigations began. One hopes that Ferns is at least different in one respect: that Sean Fortune was unique.

The Ferns Report concludes with many sensible and practicable recommendations for improvements, including updated child sexual abuse legislation and guidelines; improved communications between responsible authorities; publicity campaigns to make children and the community generally more aware of child sexual abuse; better record-keeping; continued observance by Church authorities of the Framework Document; and closer scrutiny of candidates for the priesthood.

Many of the deficiencies of the Report were probably caused by insufficient time: another few months devoted to polishing the text could have dealt with most of them. But it is, nevertheless, an extremely valuable document. We get a picture of a relatively small community over a period of forty years, beginning with almost universal respect for the authority of the Catholic Church, inadequate social services, and virtually no understanding of the existence or impact of child sexual abuse. As time goes on, respect for religious authority diminishes, painfully, and the civil authorities begin to take their rightful place as guarantors of children’s safety (although there is still a long way to go). Most importantly, victims find the courage to disclose the wrongs done them, and to seek justice for those wrongs.

The Report’s main value is its vindication of the abused child, not just the particular victims mentioned, but any abused child who has suffered in any of the ways outlined in Chapter 4. The message that is constantly reiterated is that which now underlies all guidelines, framework documents and codes of conduct in this area: that the welfare of children is paramount. By setting abused children at the centre of its deliberations, the Inquiry team have assisted in bringing into the open not just structural, institutional and moral failure in the face of these children’s complaints, but a new knowledge of the depth and force of those complaints. For this, we owe the Inquiry a debt.

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 22 Spring 2006