Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 22 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Michael Connolly: 'I grew up in a republican area, I couldn't go and tell the RUC'

Taking a stand: Michael Connolly was a victim of clerical abuse

The Clerical Abuse NI campaigner has vowed never to rest until the Stormont Executive takes responsibility for victims like himself failed by the state. He is demanding an overarching inquiry into clerical abuse, he tells Joanne Sweeney.

Q. What's the current situation with the Clerical Abuse NI campaign?

A. The be-all and end-all of all of this is that we want a clerical abuse inquiry. I was abused by a parish priest in the village of Donagh in Co Fermanagh, where I grew up — Canon Peter Duffy. But I also have to join with all the other victims in Northern Ireland who have been left out of the Historical Abuse Inquiry that's currently taking place in Banbridge, Co Down.

Q. What's the current state of play?

A. I’m not hopeful. It’s very disappointing that the Northern Ireland government has refused, despite our best efforts, to even respond to the meeting that took place with Junior Ministers Jennifer McCann and Jonathan Bell well over a year ago now. I've recently written directly to the first and deputy first minister and the response has not been anything better than I've been receiving over the last year.

Q. There appears to be some movement on investigating historical abuse committed outside residential institutions and at Magdalene Laundries as First Minister Peter Robinson talked about “scoping work” being currently undertaken by officials at last week’s OFMDFM committee. Are you encouraged by this?

A. I very much welcome the announcement of OFMDFM that officials have been instructed to scope out and compile a report regarding victims of abuse that have not been included in the present public inquiry.

Victims not included in the inquiry have become increasingly frustrated with the lack of response from the Executive but look forward to the official report due to be published in the autumn.

Q. Why have victims of clerical abuse such as yourself been left out of the inquiry? Are you angry about that?

A. Yes. What's the difference between a child who has been abused by a paedophile in a residential institution in the morning who then went out in the afternoon and did the same thing to a child in the parish? Is the child in the parish different from the child in the institution? The answer to that is obvious and the government seems to ignore that fact which is a breach of human rights as all children are entitled to a fair hearing and justice.

Q. Why do you think you are being ignored?

A. I think it's down to that very close relationship between the Catholic Church and Sinn Fein and there are issues there that could be exposed if a proper inquiry was to be held. I was brought up in a predominantly republican area. We were not allowed to speak to the RUC or report anything to the authorities.

If we would have done, then they would have been looking for my body in a grave some place out in Monaghan or somewhere the other missing are buried. So scared were we of that possibility, that it just didn't happen. You had the social control of the Catholic Church on one side in Catholic or republican areas and you had the political control of the state, and we fell in between these two.

Q. The Executive is run by two ruling parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, surely it can't all just be down to a lack of will from Sinn Fein?

A. The DUP are a Protestant party and you have Sinn Fein which is a completely Catholic party. You have politicians saying that it's a Catholic problem, so don't be spending money on it and then you have Sinn Fein who are probably blackmailed by the Catholic Church or afraid to rock the boat.

Q. Do you think that the Troubles cloaked a lot of child sexual abuse that was going on?

A. Absolutely. There was a very close relationship, and I can only speak from a nationalist perspective, between republicanism and the Catholic Church. If you were abused by a priest, you would have senior republicans telling you to get on with your life and forget what had happened to you. And if a senior republican was doing the same thing to you, he would have the local parish priest advising you in a similar fashion.

Q. Did that happen to you personally?

A. No, it didn't happen to me personally but I was totally frightened of going forward to report any abuse and I lived with that for years and years afterwards.

After I moved to England, I still thought of other children living in that village and even then I was too frightened to report any incidence of abuse.

QHow long were you sexually abused?

A. From the age of seven or eight to the age of 14, I was abused by the McDermott brothers and the parish priest Canon Peter Duffy, the nephew of Bishop Duffy. I testified against two of the McDermott brothers — John and Peter Paul — in court in 2010.

Q. You've said before that whenever you finally got the courage to go to your parish priest to complain about the abuse that you were receiving from the McDermott brothers, you were abused by him too?

A. There was no authority that I could go to apart from the priest. Before I went to him I had great faith in the priest. He had been very kind to me, he gave me money and bought me gifts, like a bicycle and a watch so therefore I put trust in him.

With hindsight I can see I was well-groomed by him.

He sucked my parents in as well, who were strict Catholics, by making them sextons of the church and they rang the church bell.

I couldn't say no (to the McDermotts), I had nowhere to go so then when the priest started to abuse me I was lost, I was imprisoned, mentally.

Q. How did you find the courage to report the abuse?

A. Two other men, who are heroes to me, came forward to make a complaint about the McDermotts. I gave a statement to Enniskillen police in 2009 and arrived down and met a fantastic member of the PSNI — she knows who she is — who was a wonderful woman. She met me at 1.30pm and I left there at 8pm. I don't know between her and me which one of us was the worst when it was finished. I didn't get home to nearly 2 or 3am, because I had to keep stopping the car to be sick on the way. It was horrendous.

Q. So what are your feelings about the HIA inquiry that’s going on in Banbridge?

A. I don't believe that Sir Anthony Hart is the appropriate person to be carrying out that investigation. I think it should be carried out by an independent judge out of state, an independent person. The entire inquiry has been moulded to suit the wishes of Stormont, not the wishes of the abused victims. There is no proper legal representation of victims who are going up there to give statements, while we have the Church on the other side who are very well legally represented. That's a power imbalance which is totally unjustified. So whatever the outcome of this inquiry, it will be totally flawed and weak.

Q. Is it a mixed blessing that victims like you are not included in the Banbridge inquiry then?

A. The work that was done in the campaign to establish that inquiry was fantastic.

People were very dedicated to get out there to establish the inquiry and you have to take your hat off to them.

Unfortunately, the people at Stormont have taken advantage of them and they've been sold a pup in many ways.

It's disgraceful of the Northern Ireland government to take advantage of people who have already been taken advantage of many times in their lives before.

Q. You sound very angry with the Executive?

A. I'm very frustrated and angry as it's fair to say that we have been first abused as children by paedophiles and now by a government who say that they are involved in a peace process and speak about dealing with the past. If you don't deal with our past, we can't move forward.

If you can't establish the facts of the past, you can't live properly in the present and then move on with the future.

Q. So you see victims like yourself as the hidden victims of the Troubles?

A. Absolutely. You have physical abuse and sexual abuse. I know one young man that comes from this city alone who was repeatedly handcuffed and tied to a railing and raped not far from this hotel (the Europa). He's a constant wreck worrying about his own children living in the same area he lives in.

Q. Do you mean he was abused by republicans?

A. Yes, he was raped by local people in his area and that's been covered up. He is too afraid to go to the authorities about what happened to him so he's actually almost a mirror image of myself back 40 years ago today.

Q. How many victims does Clerical Abuse NI represent?

A. We represent a wide spectrum of people from across Northern Ireland and beyond America and Australia, running into 600. Many of them have got into contact with us usually after the diocesan reports have been issued. A lot of them were in boarding schools as well, children who were abused by priests and teachers.

We also represent women who were sent to the Magdalene Laundries as well.

Q. What's the personal cost to you to have to meet fellow victims and help them fight for justice?

A. Sometimes it’s good to talk and lift the lid about what happened to you in the past and to do that with another victim makes you feel that you have great empathy with each other. We do have great empathy for one another. I feel quite lucky to have a lovely wife and three children and to be where I am today. But there's many others who just didn't make it, even from the area that I come from.

Q. What was the lasting effect on you?

A. They took away my childhood, my education. When I left school I could hardly read or write; I was a nervous wreck with very low self-esteem.

Five years ago, the most important thing that I did was to take the whole thing by the scruff of the neck and take back my education. I started a few courses at Letterkenny Institute (Mr Connolly now lives in west Donegal) and successfully got through that, enrolled in a law degree which I have just finished.

Q. Why did you choose to study law?

A. I felt that it was practically impossible for me to get involved in a campaign like this and not have a knowledge of the law, a qualification and the legal training in order to address the issues that we are up against.

Q. This seems like a campaign that you can't or won't walk away from?

A. No, it's a campaign that I'll never walk away from. I'm struggling to get myself through college to qualify as a solicitor, to keep my family.

Everything that I do, I do at my own expense.

Q. So what exactly do you want to achieve by your campaign?

A. I want the people who have been abused to be recognised by the Northern Ireland |government and for it to take responsibility for the wrongs of the past.

It was neglect of Northern Irish small communities that allowed this abuse to take place.

I think that all victims here should have the opportunity to hear the government saying: “We are sorry for the wrongs of the past and we are going to put it right so it never happens in the future”.

Q. So are you talking about compensation?

A. That's a matter for the government. I think recognition and justice are more important. It's not about compensation. Compensation means very little. I know plenty of people who got compensation and it's the fact that they got a cheque in their hand.

That was their recognition, ‘yes it happened to me', but they never spent the cheque. It's not about money for me and most of the victims that I speak to.

In fact, it's an insult to say to us that it's about money because it's not.

Q. Should the Catholic Church not be included in your sights?

A. We know that we can't trust the Catholic Church, particularly after Ian Elliot's resignation after the report. I tried to get in touch with Dermot Martin, (Bishop of Dublin) and have a chat about the issues in Northern Ireland and how victims are left out and feel neglected and they refused to speak with us.

I would rather sit down with the Catholic Church and work with them, not go against them because it's to no one's advantage to be pulling away from one another.

There's a lot of good work that goes on in the Catholic church, but it completely pulls the bottom out of it when they refuse to talk to us.

Q. Are you a practising Catholic still?

A. I'm not. I feel bad about that in many ways as I like to go to church. I would love to have the same belief that my parents had in the church.

That would be something, that would be lovely to belong to that community again. But no, they have taken that away from me despite my best efforts.

Q. Have members of the Protestant community reached out to you?

A. Yes they do, I get messages on a weekly basis and that includes Protestants. Sometimes people get in contact and you never hear from them for a long time.

It's usually people who need and want to talk and that little first contact lifts the lid a bit, and it lifts slowly. It happens in all communities.

Q. What's your view on the recent disturbing revelations about the Tuam babies?

A. What is particularly disturbing and frustrating for abused victims across Northern Ireland is to see the spontaneous response of the Irish government to address issues of abuse with little hesitation in their jurisdiction.

What also is very frustrating for victims is to see the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams voicing his opinions in the Dail regarding the babies who are buried in the graveyard in Tuam and speaking of the dark past while choosing to remain silent on the horrendous acts of abuse that have taken place in Northern Ireland over decades, to which he and his party are fully aware.

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