Victim of Fr Brendan Smyth calls church changes ‘window dressing’

Helen McGonigle says church has changed its historical behaviour very little

Brendan Smyth raped and sexually assaulted Helen McGonigle in the US when she was aged between six and nine years old. Photograph: Colin Keegan

A woman who was sexually abused by serial paedophile Fr Brendan Smyth has criticised the Catholic Church for its “disturbing” failure to change its ways.

“It’s all nothing more than window-dressing to me. They haven’t taken real action. Release the files, prosecute the predators and compensate the victims.”

Helen McGonigle was raped and sexually assaulted by Smyth in Rhode Island in the US in the 1960s, when she was aged between six and nine years old.

The attacks took place in locations including a school, the church basement and his car. He also assaulted her mother after he was sent back to the parish following treatment in hospital in Ireland.


She was commenting after a review of four congregations by the Catholic Church’s National Board for Safeguarding Children, carried out in 2015-2016, was published on Wednesday. It found that in regard to the De La Salle Brothers, the Norbertines and the Nazareth Sisters, “their performance in the recent past does not demonstrate any real change from their historical behaviour in terms of ensuring good safeguarding practice or putting in place effective pastoral responses to complainants who have made allegations of abuse”.

Smyth, a member of the Norbertine Order, was jailed in 1994 for sexually abusing children.

Repeating patterns

"It's disturbing," said Ms McGonigle, "because you would think with all the attention that has been brought upon clerical abuse and on the case of Fr Brendan Smyth specifically, and also the Norbertine Order, that they would have taken steps to change their ways over time.

“If the Vatican, or the Norbertines, or the Catholic Church as a whole is not forced to change its ways then the practices and the patterns will continue.

“The Catholic Church has not even changed its canon law that provides for secrecy – that’s still in place, and that places victims under pontifical secrecy,” she said. “They can do all the window-dressing they want and have all these reports come out, which are just horrific and which state the truth for the historical record, but we have to put the Vatican on notice that they’ve got to change, and it has to come right from the top.

"The window dressing of Pope Benedict and Pope Francis apologising to victims isn't enough. There has to be action."

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times