Consequences of ‘reign of terror’ by Dominican principal at Newbridge College in Kildare recalled

‘What I cannot stomach were the other priests who clearly knew what was going on and did nothing about it’

A man who attended the Dominican-run Newbridge College in Co Kildare in the 1970s has told The Irish Times of a “reign of terror” there under convicted child sex abuser Fr Vincent Mercer, who later became the school’s principal. “Aside from the criminal sex abuse, he was a physical bully with the leather strap at every opportunity. I knew two of the innocent victims who tragically lost their lives at middle age, and their families lost husbands/fathers – such was the weight on their traumatised guilt-ridden minds.”

Peter (not his real name as he did not wish to be publicly identified) said others on the college’s teaching staff at the time “knew what was going on but failed to act and stop the evil in its track. One will never understand why; perhaps shame, fear, reluctance to bring shame on their organisation and the Roman Catholic Church, which then was almost like an Islamic state. Such was the influence and control over society, parents, the gardaí, etc. It was the cover-up that seems almost as bad.”

In 2005, Mercer (then 58) pleaded guilty at Naas Circuit Criminal Court to 13 sample charges of indecent assault between 1970 and 1977 against young boys at the college and at a Cork summer camp run by the Dominicans. The court heard the assaults had taken place at various locations in Newbridge College, including the dormitories, Mercer’s office and in the infirmary when pupils were ill.

Mercer had gone for treatment to the UK and in 2003 admitted to gardaí he had abused boys while teaching at Newbridge College, for which he received a three-year suspended sentence on the 13 counts. Defence counsel Patrick Gageby SC said Mercer would go to the victims’ dormitory at night, put his hand under the covers and feel their genitalia.


Sgt Kevin Lavelle told the court a criminal investigation was launched into Mercer’s activities in 2003 when four former Newbridge College students made complaints. Earlier that year, Mercer had been sentenced to six months’ imprisonment in relation to the indecent assault of another boy.

Sgt Lavelle said the victims maintained the incidents had had a terrifying effect on them and that Mercer had “robbed them of their childhood, their sexuality, their trust in people and their religion”.

Judge Raymond Groarke said Mercer had conducted a “reign of terror” over a seven-year period and the reputation of Newbridge College had been “considerably sullied” by his activities. Mercer had chosen his victims and locations with care and taken advantage of his students’ vulnerabilities. “There must have been a gross air of intimidation in the first-year dormitories when Fr Mercer was on the prowl,” he said.

However, in mitigation, he said he had to consider that Mercer had fully co-operated with gardaí. The judge also said Mercer had undergone rehabilitation and treatment in the UK and Ireland since 1995.

In 2013, Mercer was sentenced to three years in jail, with the final 18 months suspended, after he admitted subjecting a young boy to eight years of sexual abuse at various locations in Limerick, Cork and other unknown locations between 1986 and 1994. Based then at St Mary’s Church on Pope’s Quay in Cork city, he had been charged with 39 counts of sexually abusing the boy.

Garda Caroline Keogh told the court then of how the victim’s parents trusted Mercer and how he was a weekly visitor to their home. The abuse happened when Mercer took the boy in his car to prayer meetings as well as on overnight stays at religious centres. It began with Mercer touching the boy’s genitals outside his clothing, but he graduated to fondling the boy’s genitals inside his clothing and over time it escalated to masturbation and oral sex, the court heard.

It didn’t seem to be a secret but by our second night at the boarding schools, boys in the years ahead warned us who the dangerous priests were, who never to be alone with, who was dangerous...

Mercer’s victim told the court of how he had been “robbed of his childhood” when he was just 11 and Mercer began abusing him. He was afraid to tell anyone what was happening to him because he did not think he would be believed. ”For over 20 years, I have had to live with the mental torture, pain and anguish that Fr Mercer imposed on me. It is something I will never forget and will remain with me for the rest of my life,” said the man, then in his late 30s.

”At the outset when the abuse began, I felt confused and in some ways I suppose I normalised it. Fr Mercer was a very close family friend and I presumed then what he was doing was normal and probably happens to everybody. As I was getting older, I knew what he was doing to me was wrong, but again, terrifying fear, embarrassment and ‘would I be believed?’ set in,” said the man, adding that he believed the abuse led him to become introverted and lacking in self-confidence and self-worth.

Mercer received a three-year sentence with the final 18 months suspended and his name was placed on a sex offenders’ register for 10 years.

Speaking to The Irish Times, ‘Peter’ said that when he attended Newbridge College in the 1970s, “child sex abuse was rife there. It didn’t seem to be a secret but by our second night at the boarding schools, boys in the years ahead warned us who the dangerous priests were, who never to be alone with, who was dangerous, who just stared in the showers, and who was predatory in the dorms and especially the infirmary if one was sick and the only boy staying in the infirmary beds for a few nights after matron had left.”

The infirmary, he said “was connected directly to the priory accommodation where the priests lived. I was fortunate to avoid direct sexual abuse and, but for the grace of God, avoided a few close encounters that could have turned nasty when I ran, having been forewarned.”

The great cover-up continues, but no doubt more innocents suffered and were terrorised and still live with that today

“I was fortunate, some others were not, and the abuse went far beyond ‘feeling’ and staring in the showers.”

At the open showers, “two [priests] in particular loitered, pacing up and down like vampires, as we changed and showered, sometimes pulling our towels away as if it was some sort of game, and flicking us with the towels as if they thought this was playful”, he said.

He had attended “two funerals of classmates who tragically took their own lives later in life, having hidden the abuse they suffered from their wives and families, but having carried trauma, shame and misplaced guilt for decades in their tortured minds”.

He continued: “These weirdos terrorised us, prowling corridors at night after ‘lights out’. We never told our parents for a variety of complex reasons, fear and shame being top of the list, and not being believed,” he said. “What I cannot stomach were the other priests who clearly knew what was going on and did nothing about it. I know personally of some cases where boys told their parents but the whole ‘shame’ thing made even parents not want to bring shame on their families nor the Church – hence gardaí were not called,” he said.

“When you’re 12, your fear and respect for authority helps keep your mouth shut.” He recalled a case where a priest “was removed on the day a pupil’s father stormed into the school, but no authorities, no garda [was told], and the priest was sent to another boys’ school. The great cover-up continues, but no doubt more innocents suffered and were terrorised and still live with that today in the back depths of their minds when trying to have a natural loving healthy physical relationship with one’s wife; demons can come and bring back things they just want to get out of their heads and go away forever.”

Responding to a query from The Irish Times about members who faced allegations of abuse, a spokesman for the Irish Dominican Province said at the weekend that “with the Provincial at meetings in Rome, it has not proved possible to assemble data on the matters you raise”.

He added that “in the meantime, we invite any person who may have been abused by a member of the Dominican Order, at any time, to make contact with us on and to report any such matter to Tusla, Child and Family Agency, and the gardaí.”

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times