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Irish Times struggles with non-Catholic abuse

History and Ideology leave the 'newspaper of reference' ill-equipped to cover abuse in Protestant Homes and by Protestant clergy

In 2001 Irish Times reporter Carol Coulter wrote a short article outlining allegations of abuse affecting Smyly’s Church of Ireland Children’s Home. The report referred to preparation of a report by the health board. What the report said and indeed whether it was written were never reported. The paper did not investigate further.

On 16 January 2003 Coulter commented on:
“…the stereotypical treatment of our longest-standing minority, the Protestant community, which has been presented as a homogenous group whose minority status somehow puts it beyond any criticism or analytical discussion”.

Coulter, who was from a Protestant small-farming background in the west of Ireland, is now Director of the Child Care Law Reporting Project and Adjunct Professor in the School of Law, NUI Galway.

She further observed:
“In college I was puzzled, and sometimes irritated, by the distorted and extraordinarily benign view my Catholic friends had of the Protestant community in Ireland… [It did] not accommodate differences in historical origin, geography or class. It glosse[d] over the undeniably unpleasant aspects of this history, like the disproportionately powerful grip a section of the Protestant community held, up into the 1960s, on swathes of the Irish economy, and the religious bigotry which surfaced from time to time. Nor d[id] it accommodate the reality of the economically underprivileged in the community”.

Coulter noted of a neighbour’s child sent to a Dublin orphanage, due to her mother being unable to manage financially on a small farm after her husband’s death:
“… this girl was now the beneficiary of Protestant ‘charity’, and would be trapped in this exclusive environment at the lowest level of its rigid hierarchy, destined to work at the bottom of the service industry, often run by prosperous members of the same religion”.

In the course of researching the untold story of marginalised southern Protestants, I met ‘John’, another victim of this process. He was the institutionalised son of a Protestant unmarried mother. After birth in 1946 in the Church of Ireland Magdalen Home, its associated Nursery Rescue Society farmed him out, literally. John became a free agricultural labourer from the age of five, offered to families masquerading as foster parents, who treated him appallingly. For example, Christmas Day typically consisted of eating scraps separately from his ‘family’, and receipt of a colouring book and crayons as a ‘present’. Approximately six other similar children he knew during the 1950s and 1960s descended into a life of poverty, depression, alcohol and drug misuse. Deeply affected and profoundly depressed by physical and emotional knocks that kept on coming (discovering at age 58 a separated twin sister, adopted in Northern Ireland), only he survived to tell the tale. John’s is one of many such stories, largely hidden.

As Coulter noted also in her 2003 piece:
“While the backgrounds and situations of the [Roman Catholic] children in […] industrial schools received widespread public discussion, no one thought to inquire about the children in Protestant orphanages.

Where did these children come from? Why were they there? If these children did have living family members, why were they in institutions? None of these questions were asked, as if they fell outside the known boundaries of public discourse about Catholic and non-Catholic, rich and poor, privileged and marginalised, into which the other discussion of the children’s institutions fell”.

These were, assuredly, important questions, contributed on the basis of personal and professional experience, in a newspaper that was a product of the community about which Coulter wrote. Her reference to “prosperous members of the same religion” could encapsulate the work of 1959-74 Irish Times Chairman Ralph Walker. He was involved in the regulation of unmarried mothers and their abandoned children in the Protestant evangelical Bethany Home, through his legal firm, Hayes and Sons. In addition, his father sat on Bethany’s Managing Committee, while his aunt ran it.

Irish Times 30 June, 8 July 2014. The story above on abuse in a Roman Catholic setting appeared prominently on page three after three days.
The similar story on the right, about a Protestant survivor, appeared at the bottom of page two after 30 days, submerged in a sea of stories about the Roman Catholic abuse crisis.

The Irish Times

The Irish Times is considered one of the more open and accessible newspapers. It was originally the newspaper of business interests within a relatively privileged Protestant and mainly pro-British unionist minority, the remnant of a colonial ruling elite.

After partition came into effect in 1922, the numerically declining Protestant population adapted to life in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic and Irish nationalist 26-County state. However, residual privileges remained intact, largely preserved by protectionist economic policies. Despite dire predictions, Roman Catholics generally had no interest in doing to Protestants what had been done, historically, to them, and continued to tolerate widespread employment discrimination.

Under its last Protestant Editor Douglas Gageby (1963-74 and 1977-86) and in line with the progressive evolution of southern Protestant attitudes, the paper became a recognisably Irish nationalist, liberal and also pluralist newspaper. Gageby’s Irish Times’ nationalism and republicanism were nurtured as he grew up in 1930s Belfast. He was influenced by the “broad, generous doctrine” he encountered in editor Frank Gallagher’s new Irish Press newspaper.

Under Gageby, the paper experienced a steadily rising circulation, attracting liberal Catholic, left-wing, and republican readers. They were disenchanted with the southern state’s facilitation of the Roman Catholic Church’s overweening conservative influence. In helping to effect change, the newspaper became a recognisable pillar in the post-1960s modernisation of southern Irish society. It was not a seamless transition.

When the Northern Ireland Troubles broke out, then managing director Major Thomas McDowell and ‘friends on the board’ intrigued against Gageby and some of his reporters. After offering his services to the British government, in October 1969 McDowell advised the British Ambassador that Gageby, though “an excellent man”, was on Northern Ireland matters “a renegade or white nigger”.

When news of this racist-sectarian epithet emerged in 2003, McDowell denied he had used it, though it is clear he had betrayed the newspaper’s trust.

In 1974, partly in response to political volatility introduced by the conflict, the Irish Times Trust was set up, largely under McDowell’s control.

Existing directors, including Gageby, were bought out. Gageby retired as editor, though he came back in 1977, due to an editorial and financial crisis. The Irish Times still operates within the editorial charter of the Trust, that is dedicated to fairness and accuracy, and to publication of divergent, minority, and dissenting opinion.

The Irish Times is a liberal paper today. Like a lot of southern Irish society, it is post-Roman-Catholic. It is less nationalist and has toleration and objectivity blind spots, particularly as they relate to sectarian social controls beyond the reach of the Catholic Church. In other words it is post-Catholic more than post-Protestant.

The story considered here impinges on Catholic-Protestant relations and also on perceptions of the extent of improper behaviour towards children within still recognisably distinct communities. Apprehensions about stories perceived as damaging to Protestant institutions may reflect liberal Catholic or Post-Catholic fears of undermining or subverting the idea of a ‘Catholic–nationalist’ malaise at the heart of Irish society. Partly due to this inhibition, Coulter’s advice to her colleagues was not acted upon.

Unfortunately, then, stories of abuse with a ‘Protestant’ label have tended to be marginal to the narrative of abuse southern Irish-style.

For example, to return briefly to John’s story, its treatment constitutes something of an Irish Times exception. It also illustrates difficulties encountered in attempting to publish such stories. In early June 2014 I wrote up John’s story, on his behalf, and gave it to the Irish Times. It found its way to Religious Affairs Correspondent Patsy McGarry. He prepared an article based on the material and spoke to John. He then told John it would be published on various days following. It failed to appear and John asked McGarry why. He professed himself equally puzzled. I enquired through the news editor and was told that the story might not appear, but that “Patsy is recasting the piece and we may be able to use it soon”. I became especially intrigued when a similarly arresting story, illustrated, about abuse in a Catholic setting appeared prominently at the top of page three on 30 June, a mere three days (so I was informed) after it was submitted. John’s story appeared on 8 July, substantially as supplied over a month earlier. However, it was presented at the bottom of page two, in a page dominated by stories of abuse within the Roman Catholic Church, in a place (as also illustrated) least likely to attract attention. It appeared to be visually contextualised as, relatively, unimportant.

In outlining how the paper came to treat a more recent story about an abuser called Patrick O’Brien as effectively a non-event, I then explain with examples the dual standard affecting stories of adult abuse of children and also marginalisation within the Church of Ireland.

Case Study: Patrick O’Brien

Irish Times 11 November 2016: one-day report of Patrick O’Brien sentence after not covering trial: two Courts News Ireland agency reports. Most significant story by Patsy McGarry is at foot of page and was not followed up. O’Brien’s first victim, Kerry Lawless, never contacted.

In October, November and December 2016, I attempted without success to persuade the Irish Times that it was devoting too little coverage to the trial, conviction and sentencing of one of Ireland’s more prolific paedophiles, Patrick O’Brien. He abused, among others, children in the St Patrick’s Cathedral choir and its associated Grammar School.

In November and December the paper rejected six letters intended for publication (though two appeared in the Examiner and two in the Church of Ireland Gazette). In answer to communications mainly by email (twice on the telephone), no discussion was entertained about the letters. Without imparting much information on non-coverage, the Reader’s Representative in the Editor’s Office, Eoin McVey, emailed me three short notes.

On 24 November Editor Kevin O’Sullivan briefly repeated a previous McVey message (about which, more later).

Preparatory to writing this article, the paper was asked ten questions about its stance, comparing it to previous, related, reports and to a then running story. McVey reported my questions too “exhaustive” to contemplate, due to “other [unspecified] demands on our time from our readers”. An offer to ease the newspaper’s burden, by providing examples of reporting inconsistencies, was rebuffed.

In some ways this response may be considered unsurprising. Media organisations are good at transmitting news to their readers, but are traditionally reluctant to explain why some information is not news. The impression often given is that newspapers are too busy preparing and publishing the latest important information to discuss the point. They are stubborn too and are as adept as those they impugn, at withholding information. Once set on a course it is often difficult to shift editorial direction. When it happens it is usually unannounced. Newspapers will, though, sometimes permit a modicum of letters-page dissension, but not in this case.

The newspaper’s response is inconsistent with its stated mission.

On 20 October 2016, Patrick O’Brien was convicted on 51 sample counts (meaning more were unspecified) of molesting fourteen boys. His abuse dated back to the 1970s. The Irish Times did not report O’Brien’s trial and conviction. On 20 and 21 October I asked why and included links to other media reporting. I told the editor, “On the surface, it appears to be a significant story. I can’t think of a good reason why not [to cover it], but you may be in a position to provide one”.

Eoin McVey responded on the 25th:
“The trial was certainly one that we hoped to cover but it ran up against capacity obstacles. We intend to cover the sentencing at length”.

McVey refused subsequently to explain the term, “capacity obstacles”.

Three weeks later on 10 November O’Brien was sentenced to 13 years in prison. There are assumed to be more victims yet to come forward. The chances of their telling their story depends on publicity that would also assist gardaí pursuing investigations.

On 11 November on page eight, the newspaper reported O’Brien’s sentencing with two generic ‘Courts News Ireland’ agency pieces. Propping up the bottom of the page was a 400-word article by Patsy McGarry.
While visually arresting, that was the extent of the promised “at length” coverage. Apart from two short, perfunctory, online reports, the paper has not subsequently reported the story. Like the 2001 Smyly’s story, it was another one-day-wonder. It is reasonable to conclude that, had the paper not been prompted and if the Phoenix magazine had not commented on the failure to report O’Brien’s trial, even this level of presentation might not have emerged.

In a purely news sense the paper’s stance was curious, since McGarry’s article opened the door to further scrutiny, that it then firmly shut.

McGarry interviewed the 1999-2012 Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin, the premier Cathedral in the Anglican Church of Ireland. Dean Robert MacCarthy admitted to McGarry that up to 2004 O’Brien had worked voluntarily in the Cathedral. This was even though O’Brien had served a two-year, suspended sentence after being convicted of sexual abuse of a Cathedral chorister in 1989. His then victim, Kerry Lawless, noted O’Brien’s Cathedral presence in 2004 and met MacCarthy. Consequently, only then was the convicted child abuser removed from the Cathedral.

Lawless was abused in the 1980s while a pupil at the associated St Patrick’s Grammar School. O’Brien worked in the Cathedral then too. The well-known and recently deceased 1969-1991 Dean, Victor Griffin, was in charge at that stage. O’Brien served as treasurer of the Friends of Saint Patrick’s fundraising body and was a respected part of the Cathedral’s operations. He had access to parts of the building denied to others. O’Brien is what police call a ‘career paedophile’ and used his position to abuse boys. At some point after 1989, O’Brien was allowed to return to the Cathedral in a voluntary and also public capacity. In McGarry’s piece Dean MacCarthy implied that he had no prior knowledge of O’Brien’s history, though he:
“recalled how a woman in the congregation at St Patrick’s ‘whose son was abused [by O’Brien], kept on agitating about it’”.

That indicated previous knowledge of O’Brien’s history and an inconsistency in MacCarthy’s account.
Dean MacCarthy’s Irish Times assertions should immediately have rung news alarm bells. This is not least since, in his 2012 retirement sermon, MacCarthy claimed that the Church of Ireland was:
“lucky that there was no inquiry into sexual abuse within the Church of Ireland – if there had been, I doubt if we would have been found to be blameless”.

Most, if not all, attention had been on the Roman Catholic Church. It is one of the telling curiosities of this saga that MacCarthy’s 2012 assertion, also reported by McGarry, was not flagged. It was effectively buried under a headline with an alternative news emphasis, “Dean criticises Catholic Church’s ‘lack of ecumenism’” (23 January 2012). That was lucky too.

While the Dean’s assertion was not followed up, in association with his later admission it indicates church culpability. This should have been news in anybody’s language. It was regarded as such in the weekly Church of Ireland Gazette, that on 25 November reported a clash of testimony between Kerry Lawless and Dean MacCarthy, on what the Dean knew and when he know it. MacCarthy claimed not to have known O’Brien’s history before meeting Lawless. Lawless said he did know. Dean MacCarthy’s agitated (probably distressed) and apparently ignored woman parishioner seemed proof of that.

This information was not reported or followed up by the Irish Times, which received the Gazette information on 22 November. When I asked why, I was informed by the editor on 24 November that he:
“remain[ed] satisfied with the coverage that we have given to the failings of the Church of Ireland over the years and may decide to return to it in due course”.

I was puzzled by this placid observation. It implied that an editorial view of the Church of Ireland, rather than story dynamics, drove publication. I asked if the paper was persisting with this rationalisation and was informed by McVey (7 December), “It is a fact”.

While the editor’s satisfaction was indeed a fact, the decision to shut up shop on the O’Brien story derived from his opinion. It appeared to stipulate that critical coverage of the Church of Ireland was rationed independently of real-world news events.

Then, in a 16 December letter to the Church of Ireland Gazette Dean MacCarthy changed his story. Cathedral administrator Kerry Houston reminded MacCarthy that he was told officially of O’Brien’s history in 1999. Though O’Brien continued to volunteer until 2004, somewhat incongruously MacCarthy now insisted that in 1999 he had removed O’Brien from a list of Cathedral volunteers. The Irish Times did not consider this news, either. It ignored another bombshell dropped by Dean MacCarthy, who claimed that his 1991-99 predecessor, Dean Maurice Stewart (deceased), was told also by Houston but “did nothing”.

Irish Times, 30, 31 January 1998: part of coverage devoted to Derry O’Rourke’s child abuse conviction and Irish swimming crisis. An article on page 6, Home News, titled ‘Long history of sex-abuse complaints in swimming’ on George Gibney, above right, failed to identify his association with Church-of-Ireland-ethos Newpark School and its Trojan swimming club, which Gibney founded

Opinion Leader

The Irish Times is not the only kid on the media block, but it is a significant opinion leader publication. It is a link in an information chain involving print and broadcasting. If the Irish Times link breaks, sometimes a story dies.

On the day O’Brien was sentenced, 10 November, RTÉ’s religious affairs correspondent Joe Little interviewed Kerry Lawless for the 9pm television news. The following day the Herald newspaper picked up on Lawless’s criticism of the Church of Ireland. The Irish Times ignored it.

RTÉ Radio One’s ‘This Week’ programme interviewed Lawless on 20 November. He received this attention because he is a hero, directly responsible for O’Brien being in jail. After forcing the removal of O’Brien from St Patrick’s late in 2004, he began contacting former classmates in 2010, to ascertain if they too had been abused. Lawless encouraged those who were victimised to speak to gardaí. They were convinced when Lawless told them of O’Brien’s 1989 abuse conviction, about which, surprisingly, they were unaware. Their evidence sent O’Brien to jail in 2016. The Irish Times should have considered that remarkable achievement the basis for a profile of Lawless. Alas that was not possible since, astonishingly, the paper never at any stage contacted Lawless.

Lawless claimed on RTÉ that in 1985 Cathedral authorities knew O’Brien had settled yet another abuse allegation privately. In 1987 Lawless’s parents informed then Dean Griffin and grammar school headmaster Brian Weir of O’Brien’s abuse of their son. I am reliably informed that, possibly earlier, a senior cleric advised at least one Cathedral official to avoid O’Brien. The official duly warned his children, who were too terrified to tell their father that O’Brien was already abusing them. Parents of St Patrick’s choristers were not told at any point that their children had been in regular contact with a child abuser. Known and as yet unknown victims suffered in silence, fear, humiliation and terror. Had Cathedral and school officials acted then, O’Brien’s paedophile career might have ended earlier. After all, when Kerry Lawless contacted classmates in 2010 decisive action ensued.

This dereliction of the Cathedral’s duty of care is a significant news point also. It is surprising also that, as far as is known, gardaí did not widen their investigation and speak to parents and children.
When O’Brien was convicted for a second time in November 2016, St Patrick’s initially disclaimed any responsibility for O’Brien’s actions, though in a second statement the church apologised for not providing care to victims. The statements avoided suggestions of responsibility for O’Brien’s behaviour. The, not the newspaper, reported the second statement.

All of this is news, though not news that appeared in the Irish Times. The website, not the newspaper, reported minimally, in 400 words, some of the ‘This Week’ content. The anodyne report constituted what academics call plagiarism, in failing to state the RTÉ source of the information. Readers were therefore not alerted to the possibility of internet play-back of the RTÉ programme. The reporting, at 10.22pm on a Sunday night, was just short of not reporting it at all. It was an act of suggesting that there was ‘not much to see here’. Certainly, there was nothing to see in the newspaper’s print edition.

Of considerable interest on the ‘This Week’ programme was a second interviewee, Canon Stephen Neill of Celbridge. He was in the news some years ago, having discovered the Irish Anglican roots of US President Barack Obama in Moneygall, Co Offaly. He is also the son of former Dublin Archbishop John Neill. He is outspoken, liberal and articulate – an Irish Times sort of person in usual, though not in these, circumstances. He brought those qualities to bear on St Patrick’s failure to admit its failures concerning O’Brien. He tweeted, facebooked and wrote about it in the Church of Ireland Gazette (2 December). He appeared for RTÉ interview when his church superiors avoided the limelight.

Again big news but not Irish Times news.

The paper was aware of all of these developments because I kept them informed. I had not intended originally to write this account, as I expected to see the story in the Irish Times.

How should the paper have covered the story, in particular Dean MacCarthy’s admissions?

Possibly in the way Patsy McGarry broke a story on 1 December concerning alleged sexual abuse in the elite King’s Hospital School. A 13-year-old boy was the victim of a bullying incident at the hands of fellow students. The story centred on a failure by school authorities to inform the child-protection body TUSLA in a timely manner. The story was across the top of page one on 1 December, and on 2 December (with more on page three). On 3 and 5 December, it appeared again, on page three. The incident was not quite as serious as first appeared, in that within an abusive environment there appeared to be a serious and brutal threat, rather than the actuality, of a sexual assault. Nevertheless, the paper developed the story prominently. It did not, like some newspapers, engage in celebrity-spotting by publishing photographs of some of the Church of Ireland school’s prominent former pupils.

The story’s development indicated how an opinion-leader newspaper can drive news. McGarry was interviewed on RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland on 1 December and RTÉ news bulletins then led with the story. On 2 December he was on Sean O’Rourke’s Radio One morning current affairs programme. Other papers picked it up. It ‘got legs’.

The role of opinion-leader newspapers is revealed also in the O’Brien case, though in a negative sense. Nicola Tallant in the Sunday World newspaper did her homework on Patrick O’Brien, discovered and interviewed Kerry Lawless, and published exclusive information both before and after O’Brien was sentenced. She correctly noted the story’s implications for the Church of Ireland. The Sunday World appeals to a largely working-class audience. It specialises in criminal-underworld scoops and the outing of paedophiles. Somewhat snobbishly, it is not considered in the same light as newspapers destined for middle and upper middle-class consumption.

The demographic constituency attracted by the Irish Times has more socio-economic and therefore, depressingly, more media weight. Despite the fact that Tallant’s excellent reporting was superior to McGarry’s, it was destined for relative obscurity. Unlike McGarry on King’s Hospital, she was not immediately (or ever) on radio programmes talking about O’Brien. Ironically, the bottom of page-eight positioning by the Irish Times of McGarry’s one substantive piece on O’Brien, and the paper’s overall positioning on the story, meant that the two publications ended up more or less equal in impact terms, though clearly unequal in the quality and quantity of content.

It can be demonstrated that the Irish Times reporting of the O’Brien story was atypical. On 1 December, McGarry concluded his King’s Hospital story by reporting that in 2008 the school paid compensation to abuse victims of Derry O’Rourke. He managed the King’s Hospital swimming pool. If the paper had covered the Patrick O’Brien trial in the manner that it had covered O’Rourke’s January 1998 trial, it would have been in the best traditions of the paper, within limits.

No capacity problems prevented day-to-day coverage, including on front pages, of that trial and its aftermath, or promotion of the views of victims, or of critics of a swimming association whose negligence allowed abuse to thrive. The trial judge ruled that the media could not name the King’s Hospital swimming club. It would appear that the Irish Times would not have done so anyway. That is because an accompanying report on George Gibney, also a serial swimming abuser, failed to name another Church of Ireland ethos school, Newpark Comprehensive, and its associated Trojan swimming club, as a place where Gibney abused children. Interestingly, the Irish Independent broke the legal ban, naming King’s Hospital school and pool, plus it named Gibney and Newpark as well.

Johnny Watterson broke the Gibney story originally in the Sunday Tribune on 4 December 1994. The following day the Irish Press and Independent named Gibney, Newpark and Trojan. In a considerably shorter report, the Irish Times declined to name even Gibney. The paper named him a week later, but still not Newpark or Trojan. Afterwards, Watterson moved to the Irish Times. He wrote the January 1998 Irish Times story, mentioned above, that maintained the apparent Times policy of not naming Newpark or Trojan. It was a practice unique to the Irish Times, to which Watterson had not been not subject in the Tribune.

Later in June 1998, when reporting the findings of Roderick Murphy’s official inquiry into abuse in Irish swimming, the paper had no difficulty naming O’Rourke, though Murphy’s report anonymised him. The paper might also have identified the unnamed school and club where abuse took place, but chose not to. One reporter, Carol Coulter, named Newpark as a place where George Gibney committed his assaults. Other reports naming Gibney (also anonymised in Murphy’s report) avoided identifying the Newpark school swimming pool or Trojan club. Ten years later, in 2008, after victims sued successfully, the paper finally reported that O’Rourke’s abuse took place at the King’s Hospital swimming pool.

I pointed most of this out to the paper.

Case Study 2: Another Patrick O’Brien

I also addressed coverage of the trial of another abuser, also called Patrick O’Brien. He had no known Church of Ireland connection. Between January 2013 and January 2015, the paper published 17 articles in 10 editions on this O’Brien’s case, including on front pages (as illustrated). This particular O’Brien’s claim to infamy was that he was treated leniently due to his advanced age and reported medical condition, after conviction for abusing his daughter for ten years from the age of seven. Public disquiet was both reflected and amplified by the Irish Times. Consequently, this O’Brien had his bail pending appeal of sentence revoked. He then received 12 years in jail with three, rather than 9 years, suspended.

In comparison, the later Patrick O’Brien who raped countless numbers of children, many still unknown, received minimal publicity. The victims would be more likely to come forward if they saw, for example, a confident Kerry Lawless calling publicly for a sympathetic and independent process of truth recovery. It would increase political pressure for such a body to be set up. The Irish Times has never spoken to Kerry Lawless and so cannot facilitate that. That is a most surprising fact.

As the Editor explained, the discrepancy may be due to having published, from the paper’s perspective, a sufficient quantity of stories critical of the Church of Ireland. Maybe those are the ‘capacity obstacles’ that prevented coverage of the latter-day O’Brien’s trial and any follow up after sentence. It may be an ideological problem.

Irish Times front-page, 22, 26 January 2013: two of seventeen articles on a different abuser named Patrick O’Brien


Paedophilia and its cover-up is a big problem for the Roman Catholic Church. The Church’s cover-up of abuse constituted a main element of southern Irish outrage for the past 20 years.

Perhaps there is a fear that this perception might be diffused if the seemingly more liberal Church of Ireland was dragged too deeply into the paedophile mire. Perhaps that is an Irish Times calculation.

When the child-abuse problem emerged into public view in the 1990s and 2000s, the state was quite content to shuffle off its culpability to mainly Roman Catholic Church religious bodies. Responsibility for detention, welfare, health and educational provision had been given to such organisations. This early form of privatisation, inherited largely from British jurisdiction, provided services on the cheap and effective social control at arm’s length. The problem is that the Church of Ireland provided similar services in a similar manner for its flock. But that is generally ignored and many in the Church of Ireland (also Presbyterians, Methodists and others) are in denial about abuse within Protestant communities. The institutional church is concerned to preserve its assets, over and above confronting its responsibilities. The Irish Times has helped to preserve complacency with its ‘capacity obstacles’ that, for example, ignored clear news elements in the Patrick O’Brien case.

At one point the notion of a near Catholic monopoly on child-abuse was promoted. Patsy McGarry contributed on 12 May 1998:
“Another factor influencing […] Catholics these days is the rather remarkable fact that, whereas child sex abuse has involved so many Catholic religious, the incidence of such abuse among Protestant clergy seems entirely absent”.
A strongly worded article in July 2009 (right) by Derek Leinster refuted this thesis and the passage of time undid its certainty. The Reverend Glenn Milne from Castlepollard, Co. Westmeath, was convicted of child sexual abuse in 2005. After imprisonment he went to England. In 2011 he was convicted again, for accessing child pornography. In 2003, as part of a larger roundup, the Rector of Roscreagh, Reverend Joe Condell, was charged with possession of child pornography. For no good reason, a court banned publication of his name. In 2006 the High Court reversed the decision. Condell pleaded guilty in 2007 and in 2008 received a lenient three years suspended. A number of Northern Ireland Church of Ireland clergy were convicted of similar offenses during this period. Reportedly, a church of Ireland clergyman was moved south in the early 1980s, after he was associated with a loyalist child abuse scandal, also involving British security services, in the Kincora Boys Home. One of those convicted as part of the Kincora ring, Eric Witchell, was a Church of England monk. The main abuser, William McGrath, was a prominent evangelical preacher.

On 4 May 2002 McGarry wondered, mistakenly, “why Irish Catholic men became the most likely sex abusers in the World”. Paedophilia is not denominationally or ethnically specific, though insisting on celibate male clergy may make it a Roman Catholic occupational hazard. In reality paedophilia is an issue wherever vulnerable children are made available in dysfunctional institutional circumstances to abusers. It can arise in family and quasi-family situations as well as in civil society organisations. Abuse came into public focus through allegations in swimming circles in the 1990s. As noted, two of the main abusers, George Gibney and Derry O’Rourke, worked in swimming pools situated in Church of Ireland ethos schools and had been part of their teaching staff.

Abuse within sport is increasingly documented. From 16-28 November 2016 the published 14 news items on the English soccer coach paedophile Barry Bennell. On Saturday 26 November the paper published a 1,800-word story on child-abuse in English soccer, a problem far larger than the story of one perpetrator. Though nothing appeared on abuse in St Patrick’s Cathedral, 2,700 words were devoted the same day to historical abuse by a Roman Catholic Christian Brother, contributed by ‘a reader’, his anonymous victim.

Professional Paedophiles

Paedophiles come in all shapes and sizes. In Britain they congregated in social care and in orphanages. Some were at the top of their profession. Abuse by disc-jockey Jimmy Saville and by MPs Cyril Smith, Clement Freud and (more controversially) Greville Janner, has been documented. Whereas in Ireland abuse thrived under conditions of sexual intolerance, in Britain paedophiles thought to take advantage of the so-called ‘permissive society’ in the 1970s, by promoting tolerance of child abuse. They set up the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) in 1974. PIE member Peter Righton gave the first annual ‘Barnardo’s Lecture’ in 1973 and advised the British government on child protection at the highest level during the 1980s. He systematically abused children and facilitated a network of abuse. For example, he contrived successfully to lift a prohibition on, currently imprisoned, paedophile teacher Charles Napier returning to the classroom in search of more victims. Righton obtained a reference for this purpose from child psychiatrist Morris Fraser.

Fraser’s peculiar history was outlined in a report I wrote in March 2016 that became the basis for a BBC Northern Ireland documentary. He was Northern Ireland’s best-known child psychiatrist in the early 1970s and also was a four-times-convicted child abuser, who remained on the medical register until he vacated it voluntarily in 1995. His first conviction, in London in May 1972, was not reported and he maintained access to children in Belfast’s Royal Hospital. This was due to police (RUC) design, and also General Medical Council (GMC) negligence. One week after his effectively secret conviction the Irish Times reported Fraser’s warning that all children in Northern Ireland were potentially in danger: from the Troubles rather than from paedophile psychiatrists.

Fraser’s profile was inflated further with publication of his book, ‘Children in Conflict’, in May 1973, that was serialised beforehand in the Sunday Times. Fraser’s publicised arrest as one of a nine-man New York paedophile ring, five days prior to publication, was not the complete personal disaster that might have been expected. The Irish Times ignored the story (reported briefly in the Irish Press, though prominently in Belfast and London newspapers). However, the paper promoted and celebrated ‘Children in Conflict’ five days and three weeks later. After pleading guilty in February 1974 (reported in the New York Times), Fraser was barred from the US on conviction in June. Alongside other media, the Irish Times missed that story.
The GMC found Fraser guilty of misconduct in July 1973 as a result of his hitherto unknown May 1972 conviction. The GMC ignored Fraser’s US difficulties, before unleashing him again on the public in 1975. For once the Irish Times minimally reported the 1973 GMC finding, though a day late with Fraser’s name spelled incorrectly. In 1977 in the paper, however, Terence de Vere White prominently and positively reviewed Fraser’s ‘The Death of Narcissus’, which celebrated alleged paedophile artists. It would be surprising if the reviewer was entirely unaware of the author’s personal history.

The book formed part of a strategy by professional paedophiles to make child abuse publicly acceptable. There were others similarly engaged in PIE. Humphrey Barton, PIE’s information officer, was in real life the Northern Ireland native and Sussex University sociologist Brian Taylor. In 1976 Taylor published ‘Motives for guilt-free pederasty’ in defence of poetic paedophilia, while in 1980 he contributed a biography of the Northern Ireland paedophile novelist, Forrest Reid (republished, 2010, by Cambridge University Press). In 1981 Taylor edited the apologetic Perspectives on Paedophilia, with chapters by Righton and by Fraser. Taylor vacated his academic post during the 1990s and disappeared from public view. His Reid biography is cited still.

Fellow travellers, such as the psychiatrist Anthony Storr, aided Fraser and Righton’s campaign. Storr wrote a positive review of Fraser’s 1973 book and contributed a forward to its 1977 US edition. He also acted confidentially as a professional referee for Fraser at GMC hearings. Storr’s 1964 book, ‘Sexual Deviation’, trivialised paedophilia as an occasional event at posh boarding schools. He was of the considered opinion (a favoured paedophile nostrum, this), that adult outrage at sexual assaults on children does more harm than the abuse itself:
“Emotional as opposed to the physical damage which is done to children is more the result of adult horror than of anything intrinsically dreadful in the sexual contact itself”.

Like the Roman Catholic Church later, he must have known he was contributing disingenuous tosh. In 1978 Fraser and Storr reinforced each other in British media on the relative harmlessness of pornographic images of children, as opposed to alleged harm occasioned by media and adult ‘uproar’.

The history and extent of paedophile activity by relatively high-status individuals has not been adequately investigated. A current British inquiry is rapidly turning into farce with successive resignations of three of those meant to lead it. It does not deal with Northern Ireland. There, the legally ineffective Hart inquiry has spent part of its time undermining victims (and also former British Army officer Colin Wallace), who were attempting to expose security force complicity in the Kincora Boys Home paedophile scandal.

Reporting Smyly’s

In the 2000s the focus on abuse in southern Ireland dovetailed into a perception that it was almost exclusively a Roman Catholic phenomenon. This was aided by the fact that there was a lot of it in the Roman Catholic Church. Discovery of the phenomenon was aided also, from the 1970s, by increasing numbers of Roman Catholics who ignored their church’s rules on consensual adult sexual behaviours, from contraception to homosexuality to sex outside marriage. They voted in large numbers in 1972 to remove the Roman Catholic Church’s largely symbolic ‘special position’ in the Constitution, though by a smaller majority in 1995 to end the constitutional ban on divorce. They overwhelmingly endorsed ‘gay marriage’ in 2016, while a majority now realises that a 1983 constitutional ban on abortion was a mistake. As deference toward arbitrary authority declined, news of non-celibate activity by priests (and a bishop) appeared publicly. Allegations of clerical sex abuse also then emerged. At that stage, behavioural guidance from an institution that systematically covered up priestly abuse lacked credibility.

But quite a lot of the abuse was a consequence of state action and inaction. The Irish state admitted legal responsibility for abuse of children allocated to badly regulated and under-funded church-run institutions, and set up a scheme for monetary redress. It set about extracting money from Roman Catholic bodies for a compensation fund, in return for indemnity from prosecution by former residents. The tussle became big news, with the state cleverly creating an impression of a guilty Catholic party putting money before children’s interests. It was win-win for the state and lose-lose for religious congregations.

Lost in this media maelstrom was the fact that Protestant institutions guilty of abuse paid nothing into this fund. From the point of view of the former residents, this was in a sense irrelevant. As the state was culpable, former residents of the Smyly’s Church of Ireland Children’s Home (for example) received compensation. Pressure was required in 2004, though, to ensure that all of Smyly’s many homes were included in an institutional schedule, making former residents eligible for redress. A former Smyly’s resident, then local councillor and now Senator Victor Boyhan, led the campaign. I have been informed that some Northern Ireland unionist politicians asked that Smyly’s not be listed as a place where abuse occurred.

The confidential Residential Institutions Redress Board (RIRB), that assessed abuse and paid compensation on behalf of the state, published no statistics on the religious breakdown of claimants. That information gap preserved an impression that abuse was exclusively a Roman Catholic phenomenon.

Obloquy directed at the Roman Catholic Church reached one of many high (or low) points in 2009, when the entirely separate Ryan Commission investigation into institutional abuse published its findings. It provided case study reports into over 20 institutions, all of them Roman Catholic.

Former residents who spoke to the RIRB were not required to speak to Ryan. I have yet to meet a former resident of a Protestant insititution who addressed the Ryan Commission. They thought, in the words of two, that it was ‘a Catholic thing’, or ‘for Catholics’. Derek Leinster, resident from birth to four years in the Protestant evangelical Bethany mother and baby home, attempted to interest Ryan in his story. He was rejected. Leinster was informed that the home, and the dysfunctional family to which he was allocated, did not come within Ryan’s terms of reference.

The Irish Times editorialised that the Ryan Commission described ‘the map of an Irish hell’ (21 May 2009). Another editorial complained that the Roman Catholic Church had contributed only 10 per cent of the €1.3bn cost of redress for victims (27 May). It failed to point out that Protestant institutions contributed nothing. One reason why such Protestant institutions felt little pressure to pay is because newspapers like the Irish Times barely reported it and because it did not suit the interests of the state to draw attention to the issue. Many Irish people will recognise various locations in southern Ireland’s abusive ‘Hell’, such as Letterfrack, Daingean, Golden Bridge or Artane. The name Smyly seldom, if ever, features. Yet Smyly residents were allegedly subject also to systematic sexual and physical abuse.

The Irish Times tended to report Smyly’s Homes abuse allegations and failure to pay compensation as formulaic tacked-on afterthoughts. The paper never investigated the detail on behalf of readers (or victims). As with Kerry Lawless, victims were not interviewed. Tacked-on reporting is clear on 26 May 2009 in ‘Religious groups defy bishops’ call to pay more over abuse’. It is evident also at the end of a report headlined ‘Christian Brothers’ statement welcomed’ (27 May 2009). Both reports were mainly about Roman Catholic organisations. In the front-page (illustrated) 26 May article, information about Smyly Home abuse allegations was lopped off the print edition account, to appear only at the tail end of the online version. The print edition left readers with a misleading assertion that a state “indemnity was refused to Protestant homes”. In fact it was offered on the same basis as it was given to Roman Catholic organisations, on sufficient payment into the compensation fund. Smyly’s derisory offer of €100,000 was regarded as inadequate. Only in that context was indemnity refused. As noted, occasional mention of abuse allegations in Smyly’s institutions has not led to any investigation of its detail and extent. That would require an effort to contact former residents.

The Patrick O’Brien case has been reported in the Irish Times with a similar level of desultory disinterest. The paper needs to recognise there is a problem. It should be acknowledged more broadly that it is not exclusive to the Irish Times.

Irish Times 26 May 2009: typical reporting of Protestant abuse allegations, buried in story of Roman Catholic abuse crisis. Mention of Smyly’s Home abuse allegations in main lead lopped off print, to appear in web edition only.

However, the problem of the invisible Protestant narrative is addressed explicitly from time to time by Examiner columnist Victoria White, recently in relation to Kerry Lawless’s role in O’Brien’s imprisonment. Nicola Tallant in the Sunday World and Justine McCarthy in the Sunday Times have reported on Patrick O’Brien and on the Bethany Home in a manner that the Irish Times has evaded. To rectify the problem, Irish Times reporters should go out of their way to speak to survivors of Protestant institutions and should attempt the often-difficult task of encouraging their emergence from the shadows. They can take their cue from their former colleague Carol Coulter, whose 2001 report and then-ignored observations fourteen years ago opened this discussion. First, the paper needs to show some interest. The fact that the journalists I mention above are female possibly indicates where in the Irish Times reporting pool a journalist adequate to the task might be found.

If the Irish Times, a product historically of the community from which Smyly’s and similar orphanage systems emerged, cannot be objective on this question it should either alter the provisions of Irish Times Trust declarations, or take steps to ensure that they are complied with. It may be difficult for the paper to keep its head in the sand. Its journalists, as quizzical and conscientious professionals, might, on consideration, attempt to effect some changes.

Should the paper have a change of heart, I would be happy to write for it on the issue. I signed off each message with a request that the paper publish one of my six letters on the Patrick O’Brien controversy. Ending censorship of the issue is a necessary minimum first step.

Incidentally, I wrote in April 2015 asking the HSE what happened to the 2001 report on allegations of abuse in a Smyly’s Home, (and about another matter). The HSE passed my letter to TUSLA who said a response would take a while. I am still waiting.

Niall Meehan is Head of Faculty, Journalism & Media Communications, Griffith College Dublin. He has recently completed doctoral research on the position of Protestants, rich and poor, within southern Irish society.

One of the six letters the Irish Times rejected

A letter in the latest Church of Ireland Gazette (December 16th) from retired Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin, the Very Rev’d Robert MacCarthy, attempts to c orrect the record on the child abuser Patrick O’Brien. O’Brien pleaded guilty to 52 sample charges of abusing 14 boys over 40 years. He was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment on November 10th.
Dean MacCarthy had told Patsy McGarry (Irish Times, November 11th) and the Gazette (November 25th) that he removed O’Brien from St Patrick’s Cathedral in 2004. Kerry Lawless brought the abuser’s presence to the Dean’s attention at that time. In 1989 O’Brien was convicted of abusing Lawless, a St Patrick’s Cathedral chorister.
The Dean now states that he was officially notified of O’Brien’s presence in 1999, after which ‘I then at once removed O’Brien from the list of [Cathedral] volunteers’.
It is accepted that O’Brien was still volunteering in the Cathedral in 2004, on Dean MacCarthy’s watch. The Dean even admitted to McGarry that an unnamed women in the congregation, whose son O’Brien abused, ‘kept on agitating’ about O’Brien’s presence.
At best then, though not listed to do so, O’Brien carried on his voluntary work in plain sight unmolested, while he carried on molesting young boys in secret. The new assertion therefore clarifies little, apart from confirming institutional awareness of the presence of an abuser who systematically abused St Patrick’s Cathedral choristers.
The Dean has compounded the problem facing the Church of Ireland. This is not least since he revealed that the Cathedral administrator, Dr Kerry Houston, also informed ‘my [1991-99] predecessor, Dean [Maurice] Stewart about the matter, but Dean Stewart did nothing’.
The Church of Ireland effectively did nothing about one of Ireland’s more prolific child abusers, since becoming aware of his abuse of children in their care during the 1980s.
On his retirement Dean MacCarthy remarked that the Church of Ireland was, ‘lucky that there was no inquiry into sexual abuse within the Church of Ireland – if there had been, I doubt if we would have been found to be blameless’ (Dean criticises Catholic church’s ‘lack of ecumenism’’, Irish Times, January 23rd, 2012).
The church’s luck appears to have run out. It is incumbent on the authorities to start the inquiry.
Yours etc.,
Dr. Niall Meehan
Faculty Head, Journalism & Media
Griffith College, Dublin