Evil spirit of a ruined church
Since Brendan Smyth’s death 13 years ago, the spectre of the relentless child abuser has haunted both his victims and those in the Catholic Church who failed to halt his crimes. With Smyth at the centre of a new controversy involving Cardinal Seán Brady, Gerry Moriarty, Northern Editor, outlines the late priest’s grim history
HERE’S AN image. It’s still dark, pre-dawn, in late August 1997. A graveside in the Co Cavan countryside at 4.15am, seven silhouetted Norbertine priests and a few locals gathered around, four gardaí standing in the background, the lights from a hearse illuminating the scene as the coffin of Fr Brendan Smyth is lowered into the ground.
It’s like a picture conjured by a modern-day Bram Stoker, only worse because you know it’s real. They buried Smyth for sure, but his pernicious legacy lives on. He destroyed lives, toppled a government, and – with the other paedophile priests allied to the church’s own criminal mismanagement – brought Irish Catholicism to its knees. Now Cardinal Seán Brady prays, reflects and wrestles with his conscience over whether he should step down as primate of Ireland because of Smyth.
Somebody must have loved him once, and maybe there was a time when he was a redeemable figure, but most of Smyth’s adult life seems to have been dedicated to unspeakable acts against children in Ireland and the US, and possibly in Wales and Italy too, that carried terrible consequences for his victims and, on a broader level, for Irish society.
There are elements of the grotesque, evil and gothic about Smyth. Just remind yourself of that growl of his, of his contorted ogre’s face deliberately pressed into the camera as he was led from the Four Courts after being sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment in July 1997.
He’s almost an apocalyptic figure as well, like a character from a Cormac McCarthy book who leaves a trail of destruction behind him and, even in death, still causes devastation. Court hearings against Smyth when he was finally brought to some form of justice in Belfast and Dublin heard victims’ stories of attempted suicides, broken marriages, destroyed careers, mental illnesses, difficulties with sexual orientation and relationships, hatred of priests and the Catholic Church.
Chris Moore, the journalist whose investigative programme on UTV in 1994, Suffer Little Children, exposed both the paedophile priest and the Catholic Church in how it protected him, believes that Smyth was truly evil. “I believe that because of the way he treated children,” he says.
A psychiatrist, who prefers not to be named, notes that his profession speaks of evil acts but stops short of describing people as evil. “The technical term for Smyth is that he had a dissocial personality disorder, with psychopaths at the most extreme end of that spectrum – that is, people who would engage more in violent behaviour, although Smyth is coming close to that, as it were,” he says. “He was the kind of narcissistic person who was purely into his own gratification, who would repeatedly engage in harming other people, who did not learn from advice, sanctions or supports; a person who had a callous unconcern for other people and relentlessly pursued his own pleasure.”
But the psychiatrist adds that there was no evidence that Smyth had any mental illness. “He was responsible for his actions – there was no empathy for other people and there was no remorse.”
HOW DID ITget to this? Smyth was born John Gerard Smyth on June 8th 1927 (the name Brendan was adopted much later when he became a member of the Norbertine Order). He had a brother and they were raised in a terraced house in Nansen Street in west Belfast. His mother was from Co Cavan, his father from Belfast. Smyth attended the Christian Brothers school at the bottom of the Falls Road in Barrack Street.
According to Chris Moore, Smyth, in his adolescent years, was known to his friends as “The Fiddler”, which is thought to have been an early reference to his sexual behaviour. In September 1945, at the age of 18, Smyth was vested in the Norbertine Order at Kilnacrott Abbey in Ballyjamesduff, Co Cavan.
Smyth was bright, and was sent to Rome to advance his studies. The late Fr Bruno Mulvihill, a Norbertine colleague of Smyth’s who, over many years, tried to expose the paedophile, told Moore that Smyth returned from Rome under a cloud in 1951. “The talk in the abbey was that he had been sent home in disgrace because of some incident with a child.”
It was a way of life that continued remorselessly until Smyth was jailed in the 1990s, first in Northern Ireland and then in the Republic.
An unprepossessing figure Smyth nonetheless had charm, being able to insinuate himself into the confidence of parents so that he could abuse their sons and daughters. He was described as a “Pied Piper” figure who carefully groomed children and often arrived back in west Belfast from Kilnacrott Abbey to tempt children with car excursions, sweets and treats.
Smyth would visit schools and tell the head teachers that he was calling to see certain pupils at the behest of their parents, children who, as Moore observed, “were duly delivered to a room for a private audience and private abuse”. He was so brazen that he would abuse children in their homes while, in the kitchen, an unwitting mother prepared a meal for him.
This abuse of the most vulnerable continued throughout his life, notwithstanding that from relatively early on his superiors had suspicions and knowledge about him. Fr Mulvihill told Moore that Smyth’s interest in abusing children was widely known within the Abbey and that his letters to bishops and superiors over many years to alert them to Smyth’s behaviour were “ignored or ridiculed”.
Over the years Smyth was moved between parishes, dioceses and countries where he continued to prey on victims. He abused in parishes in Rhode Island and North Dakota in the US, at one stage paying a former altar boy €20,000 in compensation. He is also suspected of similar actions while on pastoral work in Wales and Italy. He was a priest on a sexual mission and while his priestly authorities knew of his actions, little was done to stop him.
IT IS SMYTH’Srelentless career of sexual molestation that is giving Cardinal Brady pause for deep reflection now. Should he and others, such as the Norbertine abbots and Catholic prelates who at various stages were made aware of Smyth’s actions, not have ensured that he was jailed for his criminal behaviour? Cardinal Brady alerted his own superiors when, as a priest, he held secret canonical investigations into Smyth’s abuse of two young boys in 1975. Yet for another 18 years Smyth was able to gratify his paedophile insatiability.
Smyth’s exposure opened a Pandora’s Box for the church. It led to a trickle of disclosures about paedophile priests and how they were protected, which has inexorably turned into a flood of revelations that has horrified the Catholic faithful and is threatening to engulf and destroy the Irish church in its current form.
Cardinal Brady, in admitting his shame, said that “the Lord is calling us to a new beginning”. He asked about that beginning: “Does it allow for wounded healers, those who have made mistakes in their past, to have a part in shaping the future?”
Smyth was finally brought to earthly judgment when a Falls Road mother and father went to the RUC after he targeted four of their children. He was arrested in 1991, but after being released on bail went on the run for three years, staying for much of that time at Kilnacrott Abbey. An extradition request was issued by the RUC, but it lay in the attorney general’s office for seven months, triggering a political crisis that led to the 1994 collapse of the Fianna Fáil/Labour coalition led by a mutually distrusting taoiseach Albert Reynolds and tánaiste Dick Spring. A complex but catastrophic series of events unfolded, involving Reynolds, Spring and attorney generals Harry Whelehan and Eoghan Fitzsimons, which ended in Labour walking out of government. Smyth was the common destructive factor.
In 1994 Smyth was convicted of 43 charges of sexually assaulting children in the North and was sentenced to four years in prison. He was later handed a concurrent three-year sentence on another 26 charges. When he was released, he was immediately arrested and extradited to the Republic where, in July 1997, he was sentenced to 12 years after pleading guilty to 74 charges of sexual assault of 20 victims over a 35-year period. A month later he died of a heart attack in the Curragh Prison, aged 70.
One of his victims was so damaged by Smyth that he successfully campaigned to have the title “Reverend” removed from the headstone of the grave where Brendan Smyth lies in Co Cavan. In death, he still tortures people.