For abusing the trust of our spiritual guide and then abandoning her, I am sorry


A public apology was placed in The Irish Timeslast week in relation to the Pilgrim House Community, a controversial and private religious grouping. It was signed by four of the group's directors. Here, one signatory BRIDGET ANNE RYAN, explains why she apologised

I WAS one of four people who made a public apology in this newspaper last Thursday to Helena O'Leary for the damage done to her, a Christian peacemaker, spiritual teacher and mystic.

I decided, as did the other three signatories, that on that day I would make no comment on the advertisement because I did not want to say anything that might distract from its simple purpose.

In this article I am speaking only for myself; although four people shared a desire to make an apology our reasons for needing to do so were very personal and very different.

I first met Helena O'Leary in 1994 when I was editing the Irish Catholicnewspaper. I knew her by reputation as a spiritual teacher with unique insight and wisdom on the "God-given gift of people with intellectual disabilities". I had also heard about her work on behalf of illegal immigrants in Ireland and France.

When I went to Hyde Park in Co Wexford, where Pilgrim House was based, I knew, having visited many different types of community, that I had never encountered anything like the spiritual movement that was Pilgrim House Community. At our first meeting Helena O'Leary told me that as "Christians we must not define ourselves by what we oppose". There is no spiritual value in being anti-war, she said; instead we must be pro-love. And here, she said, introducing me to a man who had lived in an institution for people with mental handicaps for 40 years and who had come to live in Pilgrim House, is a prophet who can lead us. "Here is a man who cannot abuse a child or make war, a man created by God without ego who can teach us to open up and receive the message of freedom. He can teach you how to be if you stop dismissing him."

Over the next year and a half I visited Hyde Park on many occasions. I was drawn there by the deep sense of peace, by the energy and the beauty of the place; a chapel being built, a bakery running by the sheer joy in the atmosphere. I saw more and more the actions of a woman who believed that the Resurrection was real and that human beings have the power to transform their lives.

I witnessed the lives of 13 people irrevocably changed, six of whom were adopted from Romania after the fall of Ceausescu. They were the children no one went in search of. Helena O'Leary was told that she should not take them, that she could not take them, that all of them would never speak, that three of them would never walk - they were called the irrecuperables.

Within three years of living in a spiritual environment and working with an education programme designed specifically for their needs they were speaking and immersed in the world of art, studying the Impressionists.

In 1996 I married an ex-priest. It was a union based on denial of childhood trauma. We both said to Helena O'Leary that we wanted to be part of this magnificent life which gave glory to God. I said that I shared the spiritual principles on which Pilgrim House was based. This was not true. I did want to experience peace in my own life but at no personal cost. Despite my happy, successful professional exterior my life was in turmoil. I was angry and aggressive. I felt that the world owed me happiness because I had been raped as a child. Helena O'Leary had doubts about our motivation for being part of Pilgrim House and she expressed them many times. But I reiterated my desire to be part of Pilgrim House and asked for people's trust. Trust was given to me because "no one owns a spiritual movement", she said.

I abused that trust. When problems in my marriage began to appear I allowed the environment of Pilgrim House to be blamed for them. I and my former husband had a history of personal irresponsibility. In my case, as an adult I had chosen to be a victim and my ex-husband had his own personal difficulties.

We had left Pilgrim House and when the marriage ended I returned. I knew that our personal issues were not resolved and that Pilgrim House, and Helena O'Leary in particular because she was the person who embodied most clearly the values of openness and truth, would be vulnerable to scapegoating. I knew that and did nothing.

I continued to live as part of Pilgrim House, and despite my ongoing resistance to the personal work which is needed for any human being to heal, I did continue to heal.

I was surrounded by such a powerful spiritual force that I could not but be affected by it.

In 2001, when a severe trial came into the life of Pilgrim House in the form of a media attack in the aftermath of the suicide of a woman who was part of the community for many years, I did not protect and defend this life which had so nurtured me and healed me from the lies that were spoken and recorded. I allowed my ex-husband to use this tragedy to have his grievances about our marriage break-up aired publicly with no thought on my part for the people whose trust I had so violently broken. Immense damage, spiritual and economic, was done to Pilgrim House.

Pilgrim House Community ceased to exist. What exists now is an organisation of people living a shared life with people with disabilities.

I was angry at the journalists who did not bother to even try to understand the context they were writing about in 2001. I was angry that people knew but no one spoke about what was really happening in Pilgrim House - the fact that seven men with intellectual disabilities were the first people to receive Communion in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday morning at the dawn of the new millennium; that thousands of refugees and asylum seekers received welcome in Mary's Abbey bistro, which was run by Helena O'Leary; that food and supplies were sent to a group of disabled refugees living on the Somalia-Kenya border, and that a campaign was run to bring them to live in Ireland.

Recently I stopped being angry. I remembered a teaching given by Helena O'Leary in the chapel in Hyde Park every day - "we do not ask people to do anything that we are not struggling, as imperfect people, to do ourselves. Human beings are frail, and so many of us have been taught, falsely, that we have to find God. But you cannot find what is not lost. God is in you."

I accepted that I lacked authenticity in questioning other peoples' motivation for attacking the spiritual life when I was not holding myself accountable. I accepted that I was limiting my own life by not taking personal responsibility.

With Thursday's apology that personal, spiritual work has begun.

Bridget Anne Ryan is secretary of the organisation Pilgrim House