MEMOIR : Beyond Belief By Colm O'Gorman Hodder and Stoughton, 307pp, £13.99
COLM O’GORMAN’S story and personality are well known to the Irish public. He is the Wexford man who suffered abuse in the early 1980s at the hands of Fr Seán Fortune, who later committed suicide as he was about to face criminal charges. O’Gorman went public with his story and was one of the first people to draw attention to sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Ireland and the way senior figures in the Church covered it up. His work changed attitudes to sexual abuse and led to significant improvements in child protection practice and law.
O'Gorman set up the One in Four organisation to help victims of abuse and in 2003 settled a High Court action for negligence against the Diocese of Ferns for €300,000. He had claimed that the then Bishop of Ferns knew that Fortune had posed a risk to him. He also received an unreserved apology from the Church. However, this was not enough for O'Gorman, who continued to pursue the Church authorities and made a TV documentary with the BBC entitled, Suing the Pope.
Increasingly a public figure, O’Gorman joined the Progressive Democrats, and was appointed as a senator by them. He is now the executive director of Amnesty International, and has come out publicly as a gay man who is now raising a family with his partner. In a cover blurb, the writer Anne Enright describes O’Gormans story as proof that “the gentle shall inherit the earth.” But O’Gorman is far from gentle, and no doubt he would hardly regard himself as such. He is a determined and fluent individual who has turned the trauma of his life into an extraordinary form of empowerment.
It is an amazing story and now comes his memoir, which focuses on his early life and the period of abuse with Fortune and after. It is sparely and well written and somewhat in the tradition of “misery lit”, which is very popular in publishing, except that here there is a strong political context.
O’GORMAN DESCRIBES THE PATTERN of abuse very well. After the first encounter with Fortune he confronts him quite directly. But Fortune threatens to go public and by the time it occurs the second time a pattern has emerged, and a collusive dependency which lasts for two-and-a-half years. O’Gorman had already been abused by a local farmer, and was basically a lonely soul who craved more attention from his standoffish father.
The mixture of entrapment and self-hate is well described. Eventually, O’Gorman goes to Dublin, where he’s free of Fortune but also stuck for money, and living on his wits. He allows himself to be picked up by men, for food and shelter, this being the only sort of transaction he knows.
He provides a funny and poignant image of rent boys, working off O’Connell Street, with their tight jeans and “bleached blonde hair piled high,” getting into strangers’ cars with a screech of goodbye to each other. They even give each other girl’s names like Donna and Paula. Mind you, some people will have a problem with the notion that people are somehow “forced” into prostitution. As he says of the original abusive transactions with Fortune: “I can’t do this. . . and yet I can, and have. This can’t be me. . . and yet there I am, lost. I fight for a way to make it right.”
These feelings of guilt and self hate are then projected outwards and so O’Gorman seeks to punish, in ever-widening circles, the upper echelons of the Catholic Church. For example, although O’Gorman says that he saw no physical abuse by the Christian Brothers in Wexford, he quickly mentions that the Christian Brothers were accused of physical abuse in Canada and Australia. If there’s a suggestion of it, it must be there.
This is also why O'Gorman's story is embraced by people like Mary Raftery, who made the acclaimed States of FearTV series, but for whom it seems no amount of repentance or compensation by the church will suffice for the actions of those priests who abused.
For many critics, they would as soon see the Catholic Church rolled back from any involvement in Irish life. Unfortunately, the Church gave these people valid ammunition, with its gross breach of trust, and the continuing dithering of certain old-style personalities, such as Bishop Magee recently in Cobh. O’Gorman, however, is on a more personal mission. Most moving, is his coming out in Dublin and the description of the city’s 1980s gay scene, including the euphoria and release of the gay night clubs, a spirit which even straight visitors can pick up on. He felt he had arrived “in a place where he might belong”. He felt free.
In a bizarre way, Gorman “credits” (if that is the word) Fortune with him discovering that he was gay. However, he still determined to get his revenge and, once he unmasks Fortune, he begins a journey that goes all the way to the High Court, and beyond. At first, it is shocking to read his heartless reaction to the news of Fortune’s suicide – he feels cheated of his day in court – but later he speaks with compassion for the damaged priest, and writes that “no life should be reduced” to just being a “paedophile priest or monster.”
Eloquently, he hopes that, “if Fortune has found an after life” he may have been able to “face the truth, accept his actions. . . and then finally, to forgive himself.” In saying this, O’Gorman transcends much of his terrible anger and brings some sense of resolution to what was, and is, a dark period in the story of modern Ireland.
Eamon Delaney is the editor of Magillmagazine