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  • The Ferns Report:Vindicating the Abused Child*
  • Catriona Crowe (bio)

"Irish Catholic Preist, Father Seán Fortune, was a bullying, serial pedophile who preyed on young boys." The BBC television correspondent documentary program"Suing the Pope," broadcast on 19 March 2002, began with this statement by the presenter, Sarah McDonald. What followed was a series of testimonies from young men who had been abused as children by Father Fortune, with contributions from others who had been affected by him and had observed him, and most notably, from Bishop Brendan Comiskey, who, as bishop of the Diocese of Ferns in County Wexford, was responsible for monitoring and intervening in Father Fortune's activities but who had failed to protect these children from abuse that one of them described as "absolutely bloody horrible." One of the abiding images from the program was that of Bishop Comiskey gently closing his door againstMcDonald, having refused to answer her questions about Father Fortune.

"Suing the Pope" shocked the country. The brutality, rapaciousness, duplicity, and manipulation exhibited by Father 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 and at worst a criminal cover-up combined with appalling disregard for vulnerable children. The young men who [End Page 50] gave testimony, Colm O'Gorman, Pat Jackman, Damien McAleen, and Donnacha MacGloinn, were all utterly convincing, and Monica Fitzpatrick, whose son, Peter, had killed himself, possibly as a result of abuse by Father 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 Father Fortune was the catalyst for an avalanche of other complaints against him, said on the program: "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, and 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 program, announced the appointment of George Birmingham, SC, to carry out a preliminary investigation that would identify 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 had been 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, of their full cooperation with any inquiry. The terms of reference of the inquiry contained a condition that withdrawal or withholding of cooperation by church or state authorities would result in the inquiry being granted full statutory powers.

The nonstatutory nature of the inquiry meant that it could not compel witnesses to attend or 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 cooperation of most relevant parties with the inquiry may have obviated these difficulties, but it is noteworthy that the Commission of Investigation into child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Dublin, announced in 2006, will have all these powers. [End Page 51]


The Ferns Inquiry was established inMarch 2003 as a three-person team under the chairmanship of Mr. Francis D. Murphy, formerly of the Supreme Court. He was joined by Dr. Helen Buckley, senior lecturer in the Department of Social Studies, Trinity College Dublin, 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 (which numbered ten) can be summarized as follows:

  • • To identify complaints or allegations made against Ferns diocesan clergy...


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