The boy with the angelic face


IT WAS a shock to see him in the bracelets, head down and into the prison van. Last time I saw him, was in my class in Christian Brothers, Limerick, circa 1952. He was gentle, undersized, one of a class of 40 and more boys from the city, at the mercy of De Brudders.

We had some lay teachers, the older ones eccentric to a man. Hardly surprising given the years of teaching in a tough city and where being a husband, father and teacher, in those depressed times, was probably more than humankind could bear without breaking. And they broke, those laymen, into gambling, alcoholism and sexual addiction. Others appeared benign. To the pure, all things are pure.

Brother Gibson’s fetish was to call out a miscreant, as he saw it. The calling out was an excuse to place the boy on his lap, in front of the class and put his hand up the leg of the short grey trousers and fondle the boys genitalia. In front of the class who noted Gibson’s face get puffed and red with excitement, as his hand groped and the black berretta tumbled off his head.

Even at 11 or 12 then, we did not know enough – to know what was going on in front of us. Just this periodic spectacle of ‘Gibbie’ as we called him fondling the boy, the boy squirming, Gibbie getting redder and redder and then exploding.

When it came to my turn, I felt the clammy hand up my leg and hopped off his lap. “Go to the Superior for punishment” Gibbie roared. On the way down the stairs from 5th year, I met Micko coming up – he had been sent down also for squirming off the lap. “What’s up..?” asked Micko

“Gibbie tried it on and I ran – I’m for the Superior now.”

“He’s as bad, Micko said.” turning away with a laugh.

I lurked in the bicycles shed until time for a break and resumed class without comment or punishment. The boy who did not jump off the lap, the boy who was undersized and timid, the boy with freckles and fair hair – the boy who was, dare I say it – angelic – that boy became the man I saw in bracelets being ushered into the prison van, all of 40-odd years later.

By then, the class had splintered and gone their ways in the world. Most of us emigrated. Some I came into brief contact with over the years. I had no reason to think of the angelic boy until – as a reporter in the courts in Dublin, I had reason to pause at a name on the list of cases. Only now it had Brother in front of it.

Then I remembered how at one stage of the De Brudders recruiting, the word went around the class that angelic boy had signed up – he was barely 15. I thought no more of it, until forced in that shocking moment of recognition in Dublin’s Criminal Court.

Though it was not “my mark” that day, I lingered to see the prisoner taken away. It was him and I had tears in my eyes. What chance did he have, going into an all-male seminary as a teenager? When sexuality is being formed and women are the Devil. What torment did he go through over the years, when his sexual outlet was males? What agonies of guilt and remorse, as he started to do what had been done to him?

The Catholic Church can answer that – central to the scandals – with a weighty commission of cardinals and physchologists. The rest of us know the answer.

Kevin O’Connor is a freelance journalist