On a stormy March night in 1999, the Rev. Sean Fortune lined up a lethal combination of sleeping pills and pain medication and washed it down with a pint of Powers Gold Label whiskey. He left a sealed envelope with his will on his dressing table, along with his prayer book and a poem titled “A Message from Heaven to My Family” that he asked to be read at his funeral. Then he lay on the bed in his priestly garb to die.
Eleven days earlier, Fortune, 45, had been arraigned on 29 charges of sodomy, indecent assault and gross indecency for sexual assaults on eight boys during his time as curate in the nearby village of Fethard. Declaring his innocence, he had fought for four years with the help of Catholic authorities to prevent the case from going to trial, but now he had run out of appeals. Other victims were waiting to press charges.
More than three years after his suicide, Sean Fortune’s life and crimes have come back to haunt the church. A BBC television documentary four months ago recounted more than a decade of abuse and neglect during which Fortune rampaged through several parishes while church officials looked the other way or made half-hearted attempts to rehabilitate him. A few days after the broadcast, his former boss, Bishop Brendan Comiskey, one of the nation’s most renowned Catholic leaders, was forced to resign.
The church has launched two internal investigations and pledged to reexamine complaints going back several decades, and the government has initiated its own inquiry, which resulted in a confidential preliminary report being turned in last week. And the press has turned its attention to other cases of priestly abuse that church officials allegedly ignored or covered up for years.
Similar scandals in Europe in recent years suggest that the wave of priestly abuse cases in the United States is far more than just an American phenomenon. In Poland, Archbishop Juliusz Paetz was forced to resign this year after an investigation disclosed he had made sexual advances to young seminarians. Last September, Bishop Pierre Pican in France received a three-month suspended sentence for concealing information about a pedophile priest in his diocese. Several dozen priests have been convicted of pedophilia or ousted from their posts.
Nowhere in Europe, however, have the church and the government been more shaken than on this overwhelmingly Catholic island. Several notorious pedophile priests have been exposed and convicted in recent years. Last year the church agreed to pay $110 million in compensation to hundreds of people who were physically and sexually abused as children by priests and nuns in church-run, state-funded vocational schools. St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth, the country’s most distinguished seminary, has come under a cloud following allegations that teenage pupils were sexually harassed by teachers.
But the scandal over Sean Fortune seems to have struck an even deeper nerve, perhaps because his activities were so blatant and extended beyond sexual abuse to a general reign of terror over the parishes in which he served, or perhaps because the authorities were so unresponsive for so long. Spokesmen for the diocese where Fortune served and the Catholic Communications Office of Ireland referred a reporter to recent declarations by church leaders expressing deep remorse for what happened and pledging future vigilance. That’s not enough for many of the victims.
“People feel a real sense of betrayal,” said Colm O’Gorman, who said he was raped by Fortune at the age of 14. He now heads One in Four, a London-based group that counsels abuse victims. “This is a truly historic moment for the Catholic Church in Ireland. The issue isn’t any longer whether priests raped children. It’s what the church knowingly did and didn’t do to stop it.”
The priesthood in Ireland has always been a very special calling. In a poor but devout nation, priests were looked upon not just for spiritual guidance, but for political and moral leadership as well, and they were often held in awe by their parishioners. To defy a priest was to court bad luck in this life and damnation in the next.
Virtually everyone recalls Sean Fortune as a hyper-energetic and charismatic young man. “He was charming and he was funny and full of enthusiasm,” recalled Pat Jackman. When he first met Fortune, Jackman was an 11-year-old pupil of the day school at St. Peter’s College, the seminary in the city of Wexford where Fortune was teaching while studying for the priesthood. “There was always a smile on his face,” Jackman said of Fortune. “We were drawn to him.”
But even before Fortune was ordained in 1979, it was clear that his enthusiasm had a sinister side. Jackman said he was stunned when on a Catholic Boy Scout retreat, he and four other boys watched Fortune grope and masturbate another youngster in the tent they all shared.
The boys said nothing to their parents. “We were brought up to mind your manners and keep your questions to yourself, especially when it comes to priests,” Jackman said. But word leaked out — and the Boy Scouts banned Fortune from involvement in the group. Still, the church took no action, and even though Catholic authorities had heard reports of his sexual abuse, they allowed Fortune to be ordained.
They sent him first to a parish in South Belfast, where there were more complaints, then on to the Church of St. Aidan outside Fethard, a fishing and farming village of about 200 families on the southeastern coast.
Gemma Hearne, a local nurse, and her husband Declan, an accountant, were excited at first to have a young activist priest in town. But soon there were clashes. Declan Hearne was a trustee of the local community hall, St. Mary’s. Fortune insisted that the hall belonged to the church, not the village. He warned parishioners to keep their children away from the hall, staged rival social events at the church and even put a curse on the trustees from his pulpit, saying their first-born children would be crippled. “It seems silly, but the old people in town believed it,” recalled Gemma Hearne. “It’s unlucky to go against the priest.”
Eventually, the trustees surrendered. They posted a notice on the door of St. Mary’s: “Regrettably we are forced to close due to foul intervention and interference by the local CFTB [Curate for the Time Being].”
It was the first of many power struggles, the Hearnes recalled. When Fortune put a padlock on the gates of the graveyard so that parishioners would have to call at his house for the key, someone snipped it off with a bolt-cutter.
Fortune was more than six feet tall and in later years weighed nearly 300 pounds. He dressed like a cross between an archbishop and a rock star — he often wore the full soutane of flowing black cape and robe, a pink skullcap, a chain with a crucifix on it and a large, gold signet ring. Children in the village called him Flapper because of the way his robes flapped when he walked.
He was a whirlwind of energy. He formed 34 church organizations, including women’s groups and four levels of youth groups. He had the basement of his house renovated into a youth club, complete with pool table, soccer table and video machine. Another part was turned into a place of refuge for troubled boys.
The Irish Sunday Press dubbed him “Father Goldfinger,” and reported that he had managed to extract 4 million Irish pounds per year — close to $6 million — for projects ranging from a day-care center for the elderly to a nursery school and a 24-hour counseling service. The monthly parish newsletter was crammed with events.
He also launched a community employment project using government funds. Locals say he had up to 30 unemployed people at a time on its rolls, sweeping streets, painting houses and operating a nightly bicycle patrol of the houses of the elderly. Each participant got 60 to 70 Irish pounds per week, and Fortune skimmed 5 to 10 pounds from each — for “administrative expenses,” he told them.
There were other money-making schemes. Fortune cajoled and bullied the elderly and the infirm into paying for blessings. He charged for blessing fishing boats and graves, and for hospital visits. One elderly woman paid him 50 pounds a week for blessings that she believed helped keep her alive, according to Gemma Hearne.
“He split and divided and bullied his way,” she said. “He went after the most vulnerable, the elderly and the young.”
Furious by now, the Hearnes and other community leaders made at least two visits to Bishop Comiskey to complain. They also went to the Papal Nuncio, the Vatican’s representative to Ireland. The authorities expressed concern and promised to investigate. But the villagers say they never heard back.
“We were six years trying to get rid of Sean Fortune and we were six years banging our heads against the door,” said Declan Hearne. But beyond the financial improprieties and the petty tyrannizing, there were the sexual abuses of Sean Fortune.
‘I Was Horror-Struck’
Colm O’Gorman, then 14, was at a Catholic theater workshop when a tall priest emerged from behind a velvet curtain onstage and singled him out for a chat. Two weeks later, the same priest came by O’Gorman’s home in Wexford to invite him to spend the weekend in Fethard helping organize one of the parish’s youth groups. The only problem, added Fortune, was that there was only one bed in his new home. They would have to share it.
He came back on a Friday to pick up O’Gorman for the 25-mile drive to Fethard. “We had tea and eventually we went upstairs,” O’Gorman said. “I was about to drift off to sleep when I felt his hand go round my waist. I froze. I didn’t know what was happening. And then he put his hand on my genitals. And things went on from there.
“When it was over, I got out of bed and went downstairs. I made tea — a good Irish thing to do. I remember that I felt responsible. He’s a priest. I felt I’m bad and he’s good. He really picked up on that very quickly.
“I was horror-struck by the idea he might say anything to my parents. So I agreed to go down and stay with him again. The second time he started to abuse me as soon as I got in the car. And that’s the pattern that developed.”
O’Gorman said the abuse continued for two years. At one point he resisted when Fortune came to pick him up for the weekend. But his mother, assuming that the priest was a good influence on her difficult son, insisted that he go.
“He had completely read me. He didn’t have to work very hard. The more I resisted, the more violent he got.” One night when O’Gorman struggled, he said, Fortune raped him.
Eventually as O’Gorman grew older and more troubled, Fortune seemed to lose interest in him. In retrospect, it’s clear to O’Gorman that Fortune had moved on to other boys.
One of them, briefly, was Pat Jackman. His father was deeply involved with the church, and his mother struck up a friendship with Fortune, who took to dropping by their house regularly. One Friday night, when his parents were away, Jackman opened the door to find Fortune there. “I knew from the second I opened the door what he wanted. I could see it in his eyes,” said Jackman, who still vividly remembered the Boy Scout incident. He said he begged his aunt and uncle, living next door, not to allow Fortune to take him off to Fethard for the weekend, but they did not intervene. That night, he said, the priest climbed into bed with him and rubbed against him throughout the night.
When he got home, Jackman told his aunt what had happened. She in turn told his father, who went both to Bishop Donal Herlihy and his successor, Comiskey, to complain. Neither bishop took action.
Throughout his time in Fethard, Fortune appeared to enjoy Comiskey’s full public support. Twice in 1985 the bishop traveled from his stately mansion at Summerhill in Wexford to visit the village and praise Fortune. When Fortune left Fethard in 1987, Comiskey in a letter lauded his “enthusiasm, zeal and love.”
Privately, Comiskey had concerns. According to the book “A Message From Heaven,” by Irish Times journalist Alison O’Connor, the bishop sent Fortune to two psychiatrists. Neither psychiatrist interviewed any of Fortune’s alleged victims. Their findings were inconclusive.
Comiskey finally removed Fortune from Fethard and sent him to London, ostensibly for media training, but also for treatment. When Fortune returned to Ireland the following year, Comiskey appointed him director of the National Association of Community Broadcasting.
There were more schemes. Fortune founded a phony journalism institute and collected more than 100,000 pounds per year from students taking night courses, according to press reports. He produced religious radio programs for RTE, the state-run broadcast service. During this time, according to O’Connor’s book, he raped a 15-year-old boy in a recording booth.
Nearly a decade after he was abused, O’Gorman finally went to the Wexford police. An investigation quickly uncovered eight other victims, and charges were filed in March 1995. Fortune fought the charges in legal appeals, while Comiskey vanished to the United States for several months, where he said he received treatment for alcoholism. When Fortune’s appeals ran out four years later, he adjourned to his bedroom and his pills.
The poem that Fortune wrote for his funeral was never read, but Comiskey spoke. He acknowledged the pain of those who had sought criminal action against Fortune, but he never used the word “victims.” Observers said the speech appeared to have been carefully reviewed by lawyers.
Three years later, on the day he resigned, Comiskey finally apologized to the four men who appeared in the BBC documentary — including O’Gorman and Jackman — and to the families of all of Fortune’s victims. In a statement read to the news media outside his residence, Comiskey said he had regularly tried to confront Fortune and had sought professional advice. “I can only assure you that I did my best,” said the bishop. “Clearly this was not good enough. I found Father Fortune virtually impossible to deal with.”
Bishop Eamonn Walsh, appointed by Pope John Paul II as Comiskey’s temporary successor, traveled to Fethard in June to apologize for the church. “I know it is far, far too late and very inadequate,” he told worshipers, “but I say it to you from my heart.” The church is contesting a civil lawsuit by O’Gorman, Jackman and other victims. The Papal Nuncio is claiming diplomatic immunity.
The Rev. Joe McGrath, Fortune’s successor as priest in Fethard, refused to move into the brown sandstone house where Fortune abused many of his victims. The plaques that Fortune had erected throughout St. Aidan’s honoring donors, all of which mentioned his name, have been removed from the walls. The only one that remains is carved directly into the marble baptismal font. The font has been pushed against a wall and rotated so that the inscription is hidden.
“I still go to church and I would hope my children and grandchildren would respect the church,” said Monica Fitzpatrick. Her son Peter shot himself in 1988 at age 23, one of four Fethard youths to commit suicide around the time of Fortune’s reign, and she believes the priest’s activities were at least part of the reason.
“There are still a lot of good priests,” she said. “But there are a lot more children out there who have been hurt. The church is sitting on a time bomb.”