Even before he was ordained in 1951 there were serious concerns about Fr Brendan Smyth’s sexual proclivities, the North’s Historical Institutional Abuse inquiry heard yesterday.
The inquiry in Banbridge, Co Down was also told Smyth could have sexually abused more than 200 boys and girls during his period in the religious life.
The junior counsel for the inquiry, Joseph Aiken, explained that in the late 1940s serious concerns had been expressed about Smyth, with one allegation that he had abused a boy while studying in Rome.
The most senior member of the Norbertine Order – of which Smyth was a member – in Rome at the time recommended Smyth not be ordained, but his advice was overruled.
Mr Aiken also said new information had emerged from the inquiry’s investigations about Smyth, including an admission by Smyth to a doctor after his arrest in 1994 that more than 200 children may have been abused by him.
Mr Aiken said Smyth admitted that over his years as a priest he could have sexually abused “50-100 children” and that “number could even be double or perhaps even more”. The abuse is believed to have run from the late 1940s to the early 1990s.
Mr Aiken said Smyth was convicted of 117 cases of indecent assault of 41 children in the North and the Republic. There were 74 convictions for indecent assault of 20 children in the Republic and 43 convictions for indecent assault of 21 children in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland convictions were between 1964 and 1984 and the convictions in the Republic were between 1967 and 1993.
Smyth served three years in prison in the North and upon release was extradited to the Republic. He was serving a 12-year sentence in the Republic when he died of a heart attack in prison in 1997.
Mr Aiken referred to time spent by Smyth in Wales, Scotland and the US where he faced allegations of "similar abuse". He noted there were many more allegations against Smyth, some of which he accepted.
“The reality is that it will never be properly known how many lives his compulsive offending blighted,” Mr Aiken said when opening the inquiry module focusing on sexual abuse carried out by Smyth in three Northern Ireland care homes.
Mr Aiken also recounted that on a number of occasions from 1968 up to his pre-trial period in 1994 Smyth underwent psychiatric hospital treatment in Northern Ireland, the Republic and England, which included electric shock therapy.
Mr Aiken referred to a quote by the British philosopher John Stuart Mill: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing.”
Mr Aiken said the inquiry must consider from the evidence against Smyth whether the policy of the church was to protect the Catholic institutions rather than the children they were meant to serve.
He said the inquiry would hear about "systemic failings" of the Catholic Church which may have "caused, facilitated or failed to prevent his abuse".
Mr Aiken said the evidence this week would be difficult for the victims of Smyth. “I also acknowledge it will be difficult for the individuals and institutions whose conduct is being examined by the inquiry,” he added. “They who may otherwise have done much good in our society through the most difficult of times will nonetheless be confronted with the devastating consequences of the choices they made to protect their own rather than our children.”
The inquiry is this week examining how Smyth carried out sexual abuse at three care homes in Co Down and Belfast.