Cardinal Seán Brady celebrated mass on Easter Sunday with some pretty words about rebirth, apologies and child sexual abuse. He did not mention that in the previous week he was asked by survivors of clerical sex abuse to resign. He did not announce his resignation. Instead, during his Easter Sunday sermon, he pledged to remain in his position:
“I am resolved to continue to keep the safeguarding of children central to the Mission of the Catholic Church in Ireland. We all have a critical part to play in safeguarding children.” [source]
Implicitly, Brady refuses to resign. He will not carry out the request of the survivors of clerical sex abuse. Yet he sees no difficulty including in preaching about the seriousness of the wounds inflicted by the church:
“We must take them seriously. We can only move on into the future if we first own our own personal misdeeds. We have to recognise the harm they have done and be resolved to do whatever is necessary to atone for the crimes that have happened and prevent their reoccurrence. Once again, I apologise with all my heart to all survivors of clerical child sexual abuse. At the Good Friday ceremonies in Dundalk I pledged that proper reparation would be made for the harm that has been caused and I renew that pledge this morning.”
While it is not quite a non-apology apology, it comes close. As the primate of all Ireland, Brady speaks in generalities. He does not apologise for his personal sins of omission and commission.
Indeed, the portrayal of Brady as a youthful, ignorant school master is a public relations exercise. He received his advanced degree in canon law at the elite Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. There is no Catholic education institution more highly regarded than that he attended. The man is an expert on canon law and has been since 1957.
At the young age of thirty nine, Brady was asked by his bishop, Francis McKiernan, to conduct a canonical inquiry into an allegation of child sexual abuse by Norbertine priest Brendan Smyth. The upshot of the inquiry led to the suspension of Smyth’s confessional privileges. Brady reported to McKiernan who, in turn, passed the information to Norbertine Abbot Kevin Smith, Smyth’s superior.
The question is why was the information never passed on to the police. To answer that, I delved into the history of the monastery. I spoke extensively to people from the diocese of Kilmore, many of whom knew the protagonists well.
I was told that Felim Colwell, Abbot at Kilnacrott until 1968, was a strange man. He had grandiose ideas and an inflated view of his own self importance. At public ceremonies in Saint Patrick and Saint Feidlim’s Cathedral in Cavan, Colwell would dress entirely in white, mimicking the Pope, and proffer his ring to be kissed. This was unusual and made quite an impression on those who attended such functions.
Colwell played power games with with the local bishop, Austin Quinn. Quinn was ruthless in his control of diocesan power. Any whiff of suspicious behaviour in the priests under his control resulted in exile without explanation or investigation. Quinn acted on all letters and reports by the laity, even if those letters were unsigned. The bishop considered Colwell’s actions as theft – the theft of parishioners and the revenue they brought to the diocese.
The abbey at Kilnacrott was far from the centre of power. Its location was not accidental. Bishops did not appreciate the interference of abbeys and the split that this caused in the congregation. Local people attended the weekly masses at Kilnacrott. It was a popular choice and Colwell used this to escalate the power play between himself and Quinn.
Colwell aimed to increase the standing of the abbey at Kilnacrott through an ambitious building programme. His aim was to construct a huge monastery to replace the building already in service. The result would add to his prestige. However, during a fund-raising tour of the United States to realise his grand plan, Colwell fell off a train while drunk. After his return to Cavan in a wheelchair, the new building was abandoned. Recollections differ on whether a quarter or a third of it had already been built.
The various grandiose projects fell to pieces as the abbot drank. His monks, relieved of any discipline, went wild. One used his position to skim money off the abbey’s pig farm and in doing so became the single worst polluter in Cavan. River Inny and Lough Sheelin have still not recovered from the algal bloom caused by the dumping of pig manure.
Another monk ran a sweetshop for children out of the back of his car. Brendan Smyth was not supposed to have access to a car nor the funds to buy sweets, but the lack of discipline at the abbey allowed Smyth freedom. He raped and abused children with impunity.
Abbott Kevin Smith succeeded Colwell in 1968, but Smyth’s movements were not curtailed. It is interesting to note that Colwell and Smyth both figure on the Necrology of the Order of Canons Regular of Prémontré. Smith, however, does not.
By 1975, Smith was established as abbot in Kilnacrott and Francis McKiernan as bishop of Kilmore. Each man was relatively new to the job, but continued the non-communication communications strategy. A priest I spoke to remembers being told that the Catholic church was to “not scandalise the parishioners.”
A clean face was to be presented at all times. Suppression or relocation were the only solution to any hint of scandal. The priest mentioned that disobedience was not an option. He told me he does not know whether he would have made the same choices as Brady.
It was in this atmosphere that the inquiry into the activities of Brendan Smyth took place. McKiernan and Smith acted as judges and young Brady took notes. After swearing the two young child survivors of rape to secrecy, McKiernan and Smyth removed Brendan Smyth’s confessional privileges.
Brady should have interjected at this point. He was an expert in canon law, educated to the highest level at the best institution. Under canon law, the removal of confessional privileges is taken after a priest makes use of information revealed during confession. Using information gained through the sacrament of confession means instant ipso facto excommunication.
Brendan Smyth should have been excommunicated and hauled in front of the civil police from the moment his confessional privileges were revoked. This did not happen. Brady has not answered why he never revealed this particular tenet of canon law or its application in the Smyth case.
Smyth was not excommunicated. He continued to rape and abuse children for the next seventeen years in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the United States, using his collar to gain access to children and the trust of parents.
Why was Smyth not excommunicated? Only Brady knows the truth. One theory is that Smyth could have revealed the disorder at Kilnacrott, subjecting the Church to embarrassment and loss of face. Another is that neither Smith, McKiernan or Brady believed the child witnesses. Brady may speak of apologies and mistakes but does not explain the decisions surrounding the case or what was in the case notes as taken by himself. After all, Brady was the recording secretary to the cover up.
A recent press release from the Catholic Communications Office states that the children were sworn to secrecy “to avoid potential collusion in the gathering of the inquiry’s evidence and to ensure that the process was robust enough to withstand challenge by the perpetrator, Fr Brendan Smyth.”
Two Irish citizens were sworn to secrcy to ensure a robust case. But that case was never heard in a civil court and there is no indication that the church held an inquisitorial review. It was a conspiracy of silence to maintain the illusion of order. The cover up was there to ensure the maintenance of the church’s reputation. The institution was valued above human rights.
Ultimately, Brady acted in his own self-interest. Whistleblowers are not promoted to the office of cardinal nor that of primate of all Ireland. In 1974, a young priest, Bruno Mulvihill, tried to warn the Papal Nuncio about the potential scandal, and found himself transfered out of Ireland, to a remote parish in Germany.
Brendan Smyth was not excommunicated and McKiernan, Smith and Seán Brady permitted him to roam free in clerical grab. Had canon law been applied, he would not have the protection of the collar. Had civil law been applied, Irish citizens would have been spared the trauma of rape, abuse, disbelief and cover up.
There is no question that Brady should resign. In a just world, he would also face criminal charges for his role in the cover-up.