Former president Mary McAleese has called for an independent inquiry into physical and sexual abuse at St Colman’s College in Newry, Co Down.
She told RTÉ's Today with Sean O'Rourke show that her youngest brother had only recently revealed to her, at the age of 49, that he was abused by Fr Malachy Finnegan for all the years he attended the school.
She said her brother, Clem Leneghan, had been "seriously, physically, sadistically" abused, and her 90-year old mother had only learned of the abuse by reading a letter which he had published in the Belfast Telegraph some weeks ago.
Ms McAleese, who became upset as she spoke at the topic, said she had always thought that her brothers could speak to her about anything. She had been very distressed to think that her brother had suffered for so long and did not feel he could tell anyone.
The abuse went on for all the years he was at St Colman’s, she said. There were many people who knew what was going on and could have done something but did not do so.
In the newspaper letter disclosing his experience, Mr Leneghan described Fr Finnegan as a sadist.
“Throughout my seven years as a pupil at St Colman’s in the 1980s, something rotten was allowed to fester at the core of that school - I saw it every day,” he wrote.
“Thankfully, I never experienced sexual abuse there - and I feel intense sadness for those who did - but I was one of many who suffered other forms of abuse, which Finnegan knew about and allowed to flourish.”
The very first reports of abuse by Fr Finnegan dated from the 1970s which meant that “huge questions” had to be asked of the school and the diocese, Ms McAleese said. “Who knew what and when? An independent inquiry is warranted.”
During her visit to Rome last week, Ms McAleese said Pope Francis should visit Newry if he comes to Ireland next August, in the wake of the clerical child sex abuse revelations there which led to the recent resignation of the Bishop of Dromore John McAreavey.
Dr McAreavey resigned last week amid controversy over his decision to concelebrate a Mass with abuser Fr Malachy Finnegan in 2000 and to say the priest’s funeral Mass in 2002. Bishop McAreavey first became aware that Fr Finnegan, the former president of St Colman’s College Newry, was an abuser in 1994.
Speaking in Oklahoma, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he would examine the Fr Finnegan case on his return to Ireland after his St Patrick’s Day visit to the US. “I didn’t have a chance to hear the interview this morning, but I saw some reports of it and I know it was deeply powerful and has affected a lot of people. Certainly when I get home I will consult with the Minister for Justice and Minister for Children about it.
“From my limited understanding, it seems that a most of these developments, if not all of them, happened in a different jurisdiction - Northern Ireland. So that wouldn’t be a decision for Government, but sometimes dioceses can cross borders as well, so it is something I am going to have to talk to the Ministers about back home.”
In a wide ranging interview, Ms McAleese also said she had not received an acknowledgement or a reply to a letter she wrote to Pope Francis after the Vatican declined to approve her taking part in a conference in Rome.
She was confident that the letter had been delivered, as it had gone to Rome by diplomatic bag and had been collected from her home by the Papal Nuncio.
She said if the church was going to continue prohibiting women priests then it was going to have to find some strategy to include women.
When asked if she accepted the authority of the pope, she replied: “Of course I accept the authority of the pope, I’m a Catholic — of course I do.”
However, Ms McAleese said Pope Francis was not a great strategist. Rather, he was a “very spontaneous, almost scattergun person”, traits which are “disarming and lovely”.
“We’re beyond the point where that is enough.”
Ms McAleese said that the content of her speech to the annual Voice of Faith conference in Rome was similar to what she had said in a speech in Dublin in 1995.
“I am a member of the Catholic Church, I have a right and a duty to address issues. I take that duty very seriously,” she said.
When asked if it was appropriate for a former president to speak in such language, she replied: “Is there a book some where containing phrases appropriate for an ex-president?
“I’m not speaking as ex-president. I’m speaking as a Catholic, as a member of the church.
“The church tells me that I have a duty and an obligation to offer my opinion on matters for the good of the church.”