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26 Oct, 2018 06:28

Despite being a known rapist, my abuser was still ordained a priest – church abuse survivor

Sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has once again been brought under the spotlight by inquiries in Europe and North America. What can be done about this problem? Colm O’Gorman, himself a survivor and fighter against sexual abuse, the man who sued the Vatican, shared his story.

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 Sophie Shevardnadze: Colm O’Gorman, survivor and fighter against sexual abuse, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us today. You have been campaigning for accountability for clerical child abuse for more than twenty years. What kind of change have you made over this time? What are your successes? 

Colm O’Gorman: Well, I think, our greatest success has been finally exposing the fact that not just abuses happen on the scale that we’ve been talking about for many years, but that it’s endemic within the Roman Catholic Church, that it’s systemic and that the cover-up of abuse by church authorities was a wilful intended programme that was designed to protect the institution, its power and its money, that it was operated and directed by the Vatican at the global level, and that it’s been a global cover-up. I think, that’s something we’ve never clearly exposed. 

SS: We’ll go through all of that step by step. But first, Ireland is a very Catholic country. When you came out publicly about your ordeal, when you sued the Vatican, were you supported by the Irish - or Catholics around the world? 

CG: It was a mix. Generally speaking, when I went very public, I made a documentary with the European television station in 2002, when that aired there was a very strong and supportive response from people here in Ireland in particular. But, of course, there were people who didn’t want me to speak about what was happening. I mean, I got people warning me that I should spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder, I got death threats. But in the mean I got a huge amount of support. I think, people were appalled not just at the crimes of rape and abuse that were inflicted on me and many others by the priest in my own case, but more by the cover-up of those crimes, the facilitation of them, the collusion with them that we were able to expose by Catholic bishops and indeed by the Vatican itself.    

SS: How hard was it for you to make your case, how did the Church resistance changed things for you? Were you prevented from speaking out? 

CG: First of all, it was very difficult to get to the point where I could challenge my own, I suppose, internal inhibitors. The unspoken authority of the church wasn’t something that was external to me, it was internal. So when I first started thinking in the mid-1990s, in about 1994, about doing something about what had happened to me more than a decade earlier my first instinct was to contact the bishop as opposed to contacting the police. So I had bought into that idea that the church was the ultimate authority and it was to them that I needed to look to. Thankfully I didn’t, instead I decided about six months later in February of 1995 that I would make a complaint directly to the police here in Ireland, and that’s what I did. The priest who had abused me, the priest who raped me when I was fourteen years of age was known to be a sexual abuser and he was ordained to priest. The church knew about his offending behavior and they ordained him. He continued to abuse from his ordination right through his entire career as a priest. And he was still a priest in active ministry when I went to the police in 1995. He was only removed from ministry immediately after that. The church’s response to what I and others were were alleging was to, first of all, deny it - deny that abuse happened; then to deny the idea that they knew anything about the abuse, that they understood us. When they finally had to acknowledge that the abuse was happening they tried to suggest this was just a few bad apples, this was just a couple of bad people who had infected the priesthood and were doing terrible things. When I campaigned for accountability on part of the institutional church there was an effort to suggest that the church was above the law, that the state couldn’t investigate the church, that the church was protected from any kind of state investigation, and indeed the church asserted here in Ireland, as it’s done across the world, that their own rules, canon law - the internal law of the church - is superior to the law of the state in any jurisdiction within which they operate. So we had to get over that. And, of course, there were all the accusations of being dishonest, of being deceitful, of being anti-Catholic, of trying to undermine the church, of being a liar, of being a fantasist, there were attacks on my personal integrity - all of that kind of things were...        

SS: Everything that you have cited right now - are these the only reasons, or is there anything else that makes victims of child sexual abuse choose to report the crime many years later, like you did as well? 

CG: Well, I suppose, the first thing, and I worked also clinically with people who’ve been sexually assaulted - my background actually is a psychotherapist working with victims of sexual violence, - I’ve never worked with an adult or child victim of sexual violence who hasn’t somehow spoken of what had happened to them. In the context of children they speak of this more behaviorally than verbally because they don’t have a language to explain what’s happened to them. Even when I was fourteen years of age, this was back in 1981, there wasn’t a language available to me to allow me to understand, never mind to explain what had happened and what this man was doing. It was an incredibly frightening, confusing, threatening time in my life when suddenly the acts that he perpetrated upon me called into question everything that I believed about the world. I mean, up until that point I’d been told some fairly fundamental things as fact. One that the church was good and the priests above all were good and were not to be questioned, they were absolutely good. Two that if I behaved myself and was a good person everything would be ok. Three that adults would only ever hurt me if I did something wrong, so therefore, if I’ve been hurt I must have done something wrong. And suddenly I’m raped by a Catholic priest. There was no way I could understand that, never mind articulate it. And I was so ashamed by what had happened that I internalised all of that shame and that silenced me. That was me at fourteen. At six, seven, eight or ten it’s going to be even more difficult for children to speak out. Victims of sexual violence carry the shame of society - the shame that society and the perpetrator of the crime won’t own. That shame becomes very internalised and it’s very silencing. I should also say that it’s very threatening to speak out. If one knows that the perpetrator and the institution around the perpetrator is incredibly powerful, and at that time and up until very recently the Catholic Church was more powerful that the state, the Catholic Church was more powerful than our parliament when it came to what happened within our society, it’s a fairly intimidating institution to challenge.     

SS: We are now seeing a flurry of sex abuse scandals around the Catholic Church - once again. The Dutch church has been accused of covering up sexual abuse. The German church is mired in the number of sexual abuse scandals. There is another case in France. More American scandals are popping up, with the federal attorneys involved. What is behind the latest wave? 

CG: Well, we’ve just seen more and more revelations. I mean, what’s significant finally is that  we’re seeing state authorities, federal authorities in the United States have announced that they’ve opened up, the Department of Justice has opened up an investigation into Pennsylvania, and it’s believed that investigations into other states at the federal level will also follow. But there has for whatever reason been a reluctance on the part of states to step in and investigate these crimes and in particular these cover-ups. That finally happened in Australia recently. One of our big successes from 2001 was winning those inquiries here in Ireland. So I campaigned for an inquiry known as the Ferns Inquiry in 2002 that finally got up in running in 2003 and reported in 2008. It was one of the first such inquiries to look at the role of both the church and state authorities in the management of concerns, of suspicions, of complaints of child sexual abuse perpetrated by Roman Catholic priests here in Ireland. And that found very deep and systemic failures within the church, but also within state law and policies in practice, but that also pointed the finger at the Vatican. So states needed to step in, and that’s only happening more recently. But, of course, what’s also critical is that as soon as a victim speaks out, as soon as somebody decides to speak publicly, that provides an opportunity or an opening for others to speak. And that’s been very significant. It’s been nearly 25 years at this point since I went public and spoke out about this for the first time, and it never ceases to amaze me that everytime I speak on this I get contacted by people who say “me too”, who say “ I never thought I could speak about this, but now I think that I have to”. So it’s the opening up of it really. The breaking open of silence allows people to speak.    

SS: But also the new laws that are being made for this kind of cases have a lot of loopholes in them. For instance, in Pennsylvania, which, like you’ve mentioned, has seen the latest wave of child sex abuse revelations, a law is in the works which, on the one hand, will allow victims to sue their predators even if the abuse is beyond the statutes of limitation, but on the other - the victim will only be allowed to sue a person, not an institution. What sense will this law make for victims if their predators may be dead by that time anyway and there’s no one to bear responsibility for what happened to them? 

CG: That’s where we have to be very clear about the critical obligation of states. So if we look at what international law says about states it’s for the state to guarantee access for justice and remedy for victims of human rights violations, and obviously the rape or a sexual assault of a child or any person is a human rights violation. So in however a state is going to put in place a remedy to guarantee access for justice, it has to guarantee access. And blocking remedies involving institutions is problematic, but I can also see why from the point of view of taking on the Roman Catholic Church it might be important to begin to identify named individuals - because, for example, the Catholic Church has so many different personalities - legal and otherwise - that it can be very hard to identify how the institution is to be sued. So when I decided I would sue the Pope I had to work out: am I going to sue the Pope as the Bishop of Rome? Am I going to sue him as a Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church? Am I going to sue the legal personality of the Holy See which has observer’s status of the United Nations? Am I going to sue the Vatican City State and him as a head of the Vatican City State? Which personality will I pursue? We’ve seen it in Australia, and even efforts to do the same here in Ireland where the Catholic Diocese have effectively said: “You can’t sue us ‘cause we don’t exist, we’re not legal persons.” They are not incorporated, they don’t exist as legal entities with any kind of statute, and so they can be very difficult to pursue. The church has been very good for two thousand years at developing structures and mechanisms that allow it to be unaccountable, to find a way to not be held accountable for its own failings and its own crimes. And it can be tricky to find laws or to design laws that can hold it properly accountable. But it’s the obligation of states to do that. 

SS: Colm, when Pope Francis was elected in 2013 he called for ‘decisive action’ in tackling the issue of child sexual abuse. Do you feel that the action has been taken? 

CG: Frankly, no. I think, Francis has been enormously disappointing on this issue. And I don’t say that with any pleasure. I admire what he has to say on the whole range of social justice issues from refugees to people on the margins, to poverty, to discrimination. I think, he’s a strong advocate for the whole range of issues. But on this issue he’s been enormously disappointing. For example, when he went to Chile a couple of years ago - a country which has been really blighted now by revelations of sexual abuse and cover-up of those crimes within the Roman Catholic Church there, - and when victims spoke out about the appointment of the bishop who was known to have covered up the abuse perpetrated by a priest, rather than honestly respond to that charge and address it, the Pope accused the victim who had spoken out of slander, he accused them of calumny which means slander. I mean, he attacked their integrity. Afterwards, when there was a huge public reaction to that, he wrote back and said: “I hadn’t been properly briefed by bishops, and I had been misled by them before I travelled to Chile.” You know, that’s either dishonest or it’s incompetent. The Vatican itself had carried out investigations into those cases as early as in 2011, and for many decades now it has been an obligation of bishops to report any allegation of the sexual abuse or the rape of a child or minor to the Vatican which decides how that case should be handled and what should happen next. The Vatican had chapter and verse on what had happened in Chile. Francis knew he was going to a country where the abuse issues were a big deal. So he either didn’t bother to get briefed, or he was briefed and decided to be disingenuous and dishonest in how he responded there. None of that looks good.      

SS: How do you think the public repentance will help the problem? How will it stop perverts from molesting boys and girls? 

CG: Well, first of all, I can understand why some people might fixate on the idea of repentance almost from a religious perspective. What I’m interested in is truth and justice and, frankly, love in its truest possible meaning - the kind of principles that churches are meant to be grounded in and values that they are meant to reflect. So I have no desire to see Pope Francis or any bishop, or Cardinal, or any church leader humiliated and exposed in that way. But what I do want them to do is to stand for truth, to stand for justice, to reveal the facts of what was known, of what they knew, of how their institution and they responded to these crimes, and to make themselves properly accountable, including before the law.   

SS: I wonder if the Pope is doing as much as he can in the framework and paradigm that he exists in. For instance, I know that in February he’s going to summon his bishops to a council to discuss the sexual abuse problem. I don’t know if that’s going to change anything, but he’s doing that. And he has said recently that his efforts are kind of bearing fruit: that the number of new cases is low, compared to the old ones; that the Church attitude towards sex abuse has changed, and it now has a “new conscience” about it. Do you feel he may have a point here? I mean, it’s hard to doubt his sincere conviction… 

CG: I’m afraid it’s not hard to doubt it, and the objective evidence is there for why people should doubt it. First of all, Pope Francis is the last elected absolute monarch of the planet. He’s an absolute monarch. He’s the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, on the church teaching he’s the representative of St. Peter, of God on Earth. He has that kind of power. He has an entire judicial system available to him, he has the mechanisms of a state - the Vatican City State, - its laws, its police, its criminal justice process. He has the unquestioning loyalty of many millions of Catholics around the world. He’s an incredibly powerful individual. With one word, with a stroke of a pen he can change much of church law when it comes to how these issues are to be addressed. He hasn’t done so. And he’s not the first pope to summon bishops to Rome after revelations of scandals are revealed and there’s huge public outrage. Pope Benedict did it, Pope John Paul II did it, and these summits amount to an awful lot of pictures of people looking solemn and very little change. And as for the suggestion that we can now believe that there’s less abuse - based on what evidence? The church doesn’t reveal the number of cases that are reported to it and how it manages it. There’s absolutely no transparency. I’m afraid I don’t take any comfort in any assurances of the Vatican that they are taking it seriously because to this day no pope has told the plain truth, not a single pope, no senior representative of the Vatican has ever honestly acknowledged the fact of the cover-up. They’ve denied it, they’ve suggested it a lie, and when they’ve begun to acknowledge that there may have been a cover-up in the recent years they pointed the finger at bishops at the local level - despite all the evidence that clearly exposes the fact that this cover-up was directed at the most senior level from the Vatican.       

SS: I always wonder why most of these… I mean, you ponder upon, why are all these sex abuse scandal are within the Catholic Church. Maybe, being celibate is not something that is required for priests by the Bible right now. It’s not required from the Greek Orthodox church. My priest has eight kids. Other Christian churches do not require celibacy from priests, the Orthodox Church, like I said, even encourages priests to have families, and at some point the Roman priests could marry as well, if I remember correctly. So maybe if it isn’t something that is set in stone could it be overturned? Do you think it could partially help the problem? Could the Pope say one day “enough of this, go and find wives”? Would that help get rid of this problem? 

CG: Well, a couple of quick things. First of all, we know about what’s happening within the Roman Catholic Church partly because of its size and scale and its global influence. The fact that we’ve been able to expose much of what’s happening right across the Roman Catholic world, it’s become a huge and significant issue. But I should say as a therapist I worked with many people who’d been abused within many faiths and within many religious settings and churches, so it’s not unique to the Roman Catholic Church. But the Roman Catholic Church is probably unique in terms of its global reach and scale. On the question of a link between celibacy and paedophilia - I don’t think the link is a direct one in the way that you’re suggesting it, indeed there’s no research to suggest that it has. Just personally as a man I don’t understand how a requirement to be celibate would somehow turn an adult into somebody who would sexually assault a child. If I’m in a position when I’m being forced to be celibate and I don’t feel that I can manage that, I may well decide that I’ll have a clandestine sexual relationship with another adult but not with a child. Needing to break the requirement for celibacy doesn’t turn people into child rapists. It perhaps turns people into people who have hidden sexual adult relationships, and there’s no link to suggest something between the two. However, the fact that the Catholic Church is an institution and the priesthood is a vocational institution within which one hides or denies one sexual self, that itself may be one of the reasons that can explain that people with very dark and sinister aspects to their sexuality in their sexual conduct are attracted to it. Equally, it’s a role that gives and has given people extraordinary access to children, an unquestioned control in access to children, so the ability for a sexual offender to access victims, to be free to abuse with impunity has been extraordinary. So I think, those are the dimensions of the church, its structure, the structure of the priesthood, the fact that the church not only wants to prevent abuse from happening, but it will collude in that being covered-up, it will facilitate it. It has often seen the priest almost as a victim and the child as the tempter of the priest. Its concern has generally been for the priesthood and for the institution, and not at all for the victim.     

SS: Just really briefly, cause we’re running out of time. If you take away the white collars and the organ sounds, other stories of sexual abuse will end up looking very similar to those we’ve just discussed. I talked to a woman who suffered rape in the U.S. military - the same attempts to cover-up, to shame the victim are there. It’s the same. There are many cases of sexual abuse of minors in boarding schools, orphanages, you’ve mentioned that as well. Is the church really that different from the rest of the world in this regard? I feel like it’s probably a mirror of the society… 

CG: Absolutely. I mean, the church at the end of the day, despite its proclamation of itself as a divine institution, it’s a human institution, it’s run by people, it’s run by men. And we are flawed. We don’t know how to conduct ourselves properly or appropriately. Institutions generally work to protect themselves. And the more powerful the institution, the more money, the more authority, the more position it has, the more aggressively and even violently it’s inclined to protect itself. We see that right across the world. I worked for many years in the United Kingdom. We saw there major investigations into historic abuse of children in council-run homes, in homes and institutions that were run by the state there. Institutions work to protect themselves. And again, that’s why it’s incredibly important that we have laws put in place by the state that ensure and demand good child protection practice, but also that would punish those who cover up or facilitate these crimes as well as those who perpetrate them. 

SS: Colm, thank you so much for your interview, for your time, for this insight. We wish you all of the best of luck in everything that you’re doing.

CG: Thank you very much.

SS: And I hope you succeed. We were talking to Colm O’Gorman, survivor and fighter against sexual abuse, the man who sued the Vatican, talking about the crisis the Catholic Church is going through with the latest child sex abuse revelations.