Man who loved the spotlight buckled under its glare

 

Four years ago this month, in the small village of Ballymurn in Co Wexford, a letter was read to parishioners on a Sunday morning. It was from their bishop, Dr Brendan Comiskey.

They were told their curate, Father Sean Fortune, to whom Dr Comiskey paid warm tribute, was on "administrative leave". Dr Comiskey said he was aware that the people of Ballymurn would join him in thanking Father Fortune and expressing appreciation for all the good which he had accomplished.

The congregation was told that Father Fortune had sought to be relieved of his post and would not be returning to Ballymurn. It was a surprise, but then the parishioners were used to surprises from Father Sean. He could never be accused of being boring.

However, the letter did not state that Father Fortune was under investigation for sexual abuse of young boys. A complaint had been made and gardai were conducting an investigation centred around the village of Fethard-on-Sea, Wexford, where Father Fortune had served for a number of years during the 1980s.

In the months following, while Dr Comiskey was being treated in the US for alcoholism, it was reported that Father Fortune had been effectively suspended from clerical duties. It was a big change for the curate, who had one of the highest profiles in the diocese, broadcasting regularly on South East Radio as part of Christian Media Trust, the church-owned broadcasting company.

Even when effectively suspended, he continued, to the embarrassment of other clergy, to attend church functions and to visit the elderly in hospital. He even attended a seminar on sexual abuse, organised by the diocese, for priests.

Father Fortune trained as a priest in St Peter's College, Wexford. He was ordained on May 27th, 1979. He spent a year in the North working in an orphanage in south Belfast. The RUC has a file investigating his alleged abuse of three children during that time.

After that he spent a year in Mount Oliver in Dundalk and was subsequently transferred to Fethard-on-Sea as a curate. He stayed there until 1987, before being transferred to London. It has been suggested that when there he was treated for paedophilia. On his return, he was sent to Ballymurn.

Few people, politicians included, would be able to boast the number of press mentions which Father Fortune accumulated over the years, not counting any of those referring to the abuse case.

However, even if the question of sexual abuse of young boys had never arisen, some of the other activities engaged in by Father an For tune should at the least have merited the attention of his church superiors, if not the gardai.

It can hardly be imagined what it must have been like for this man who loved the spotlight to be caught under its glare for an offence such as sexual abuse. However, he used the justice system to his advantage to delay the criminal case for almost four years. This brought much pain to his victims, but clearly this day two weeks ago, when he heard each charge read out to him and faced many of his victims in the court room, he must have realised that the hour of reckoning had finally arrived.

That day in court he spoke of his ill health and clearly the enormity of the case weighed heavily. While first on administrative leave, he was quoted as saying he would soon be back to his work at the Institute of Journalism and Theatre "as soon as my doctors al low me . . . my condition is very serious and I am not yet out of the woods".

His suicide has offered no comfort to any of those involved - not to his victims, who would have wanted him to face his actions in a court of law, not to his family, who have suffered greatly since the abuse allegations came to light, and not least to the Garda, who devoted such effort to the investigation. Throughout its investigation, The Irish Times heard repeated praise for Det Garda Pat Mulcahy for his dedication and sensitive handling of the case.

Mr Colm O'Gorman, one of Father Fortune's victims, spoke of his distress at hearing of the suicide and how it might have been avoided if the priest had been sent, as originally ordered, for psychiatric treatment instead of to Mountjoy Prison.

"The system failed for me and for him. Mountjoy put even more pressure on him. On one level I welcomed that but not what has happened now. It is not right for us or for him."