DUBLIN — Colm O’Gorman was an eager 13-year-old teen, still on fire from John Paul II’s visit to Ireland in 1979 a year and a half earlier, when he met Father Seán Fortune. The priest invited him to help start up a youth group at his new parish.
However, after arriving on the first night, O’Gorman was not invited to join the group. Instead, he was put in a room, alone, while Fortune sent the other kids away.
“That night he sexually assaulted me for the first time,” O’Gorman said.
Disillusioned and shocked by what happened, O’Gorman told the priest what had transpired could never happen again, and the priest blamed the youth instead, saying, “You’re right, you can never let this happen again.”
“He used my horror, my confusion, my distress, my terror that what happened would come out to blackmail,” he said. And the abuse, he said, “got worse and worse. The second or third time he brought me down, he raped me for the first time.”
Today the Dublin Executive Director of Amnesty International and founder of the One in Four organization, O’Gorman had become depressed and suicidal, and at 17 decided he had to get out of the situation. He said he was offered money by Fortune in exchange for finding someone else like him, but younger, who could be preyed upon.
O’Gorman finally left home at 18 and lived on the streets of Dublin for six months before getting his life back together.
It wasn’t until 1995, he said, after he had processed the trauma of what happened, that he finally decided to come forward to the police. It was during a civil process that O’Gorman discovered not only that there were four other victims abused by Fortune involved in his case, but that authorities had unearthed evidence that the Church had received several complaints about Fortune over the years but moved him around instead of suspending him.
That, he said, is what ultimately drove O’Gorman to activism – wanting not only to prevent future abuses, but to hold the hierarchy accountable.
Not only did he found the One in Four foundation, a charity dedicated to supporting victims of abuse, but he also produced the 2007 documentary “Sex Crimes and the Vatican,” a BBC Panorama program on clerical child sexual abuse.
He has been an outspoken critic of the pope and the Vatican ahead of Francis’s visit to Ireland for the Aug. 22-26 World Meeting of Families in Dublin. He’s organized a demonstration at Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance on Sunday at 3:00 p.m. meant to raise awareness about sexual abuse and to demand greater action.
Despite the drafting of child safety guidelines and the establishment of programs aimed at abuse prevention, O’Gorman says nothing has changed in the Church, citing the recent publication of the Pennsylvania grand jury report as proof.
For O’Gorman, the report is shocking but it’s not progress, because “it’s not that this wasn’t already available to people, it’s not like we didn’t know. I’m really interested in the degree to which many people continue to be, for whatever reason, blind and deaf to blatant fact.”
Referring to a recent letter from Pope Francis on the abuse crisis, O’Gorman said the message has a stronger tone but falls short of identifying the real problem.
“What we see is increasingly strong language when it’s forced,” he said, noting how the letter, published Aug. 20, “talked about crimes regarding individual priests, but when it talked about the failings of the institution, it talked about sins. So we’re still in that semantics of not acknowledging crime.”
He pointed to Francis’s plea for forgiveness, saying such declarations are now commonplace, and while the pope talked about cover-up, “he didn’t say who perpetrated the cover-up or who was responsible for it, nor did he say what he was begging forgiveness for.”
O’Gorman took issue with the way abuse cases are described, saying the word “scandal” falls short of the reality.
“These aren’t scandals. These are horrific crimes against women, against children, against vulnerable adults, perpetrated on a grand scale, facilitated and covered up by a conspiracy, operated at the highest level from a global organization,” he said.
O’Gorman said he lost faith in Francis during the pope’s visit to Chile in January, where the pope at one point said victims accusing a local bishop of cover-up were guilty of calumny.
Despite the actions Francis has taken since, accepting the resignation of five prelates charged with mishandling abuse cases and also taking away the red hat of American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick after accusations he had abused minors, O’Gorman is skeptical to believe that real progress has been made.
“I see a repetition of what we’ve seen all across the world with other popes, with this pope; a response to scandal, a response to public outrage. Not a proactive, determined approach.”
Pointing to American Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s pullout from the Aug. 22-26 World Meeting of Families in Dublin, O’Gorman said that in his view, the fact that Wuerl was even on the roster is proof that the Church is not taking the issue of abuse seriously.
Wuerl, who was slated to give a keynote address on the family, decided to step aside due to piling criticism after the Pennsylvania grand jury report charged he had mishandled several abuse cases while serving as bishop of Pittsburgh.
While Wuerl handled some cases well, “he dealt with other cases catastrophically poorly, and the consequences of that are extraordinary,” O’Gorman said, noting that most of the information detailing Wuerl’s record was pulled from diocesan archives, yet he was still slated to give a prominent talk at a family event.
He asked, “What’s changed?”
He was also critical of recent statements by American Cardinal Raymond Burke, who, after the publication of the Pennsylvania report, faulted a “homosexual culture” in seminaries.
“That sort of commentary is just evil,” said O’Gorman, who is gay.
“This is a commonly held view, and it’s obscene,” he said, pointing to the deep sense of shame and unworthiness that many gay people, especially those who are victims of abuse, feel.
“Those kinds of statements cause people to end their lives because of the judgments that come from them, which is so strongly internalized for many people, and the despair and hopelessness that they instill,” he said.
“So when a cardinal says that, there’s a good chance that people will die as a consequence.”
Noting there’s a lot of pressure on the pope to speak about the abuse crisis in Ireland, O’Gorman said he expects Francis will make similar statements and gestures as in the past, but he’s skeptical any meaningful action taken will be taken.
The pope, he said, will hold a private meeting with no statements, and the media will pick up the story saying he prayed and wept with victims who shared their experiences. The pope might mention the failure of bishops, he said, but stressed that for him, any apology will be insincere, because “an expression of regret is not an apology.”
In terms of what can be done as far as real progress in rectifying the situation, O’Gorman said the solution boils down to one thing: “The truth. Just tell the damn truth.”
Francis, he said, has acknowledged cover-up, but he needs to “own it.” Further investigations need to be made and bishops held accountable, he said, and called for systemic change.
“It’s disrespectful to ask us to simply believe that they’ve now had a road-to-Damascus moment where they’ve realized that their conduct wasn’t acceptable but they don’t even need to name it,” he said, adding that Francis doesn’t need a 2,000 word statement.
“He needs about four lines,” he said. “Just the truth.”