I deeply regret thanking my grammar school headmaster for my education.
We were walking along the marble corridors of St Colman’s College in June 1979. He was chuckling as we studied the framed photographs of the winning football teams. I was in seven of the trophy winning pictures. He also featured in each one basking in the glory of the school’s success. He was proud of the teams and the good name of the college. He patted me on the back and wished me well in the future.
If I could go back and undo that day I would. I hate the way he fooled me. I liked him. I knew he had a reputation as a hard man but in the 70s a lot of teachers carried a cane or strap and had no qualms about using their weapon of choice. Fr Malachy Finegan was like all the others, tough and fair or at least that’s what I thought.
Last week I watched Tony Gribben talk to Sharon O’Neill on UTV. Tony was a year ahead of me at St Colman’s. He described the abuse he suffered at the hands of Malachy Finegan. The headmaster I thanked was a paedophile. He carried out serious sexual assaults on a number of pupils. At least 12 are claiming some form of deserved compensation. No amount of money could ever make up for what that clerical monster did.
I feel ashamed that as an 18-year-old I had no idea about the dark side of Finegan. I hope if I had known I would have spoken out. I hope I would have challenged him and called the police. At that time the boys suffering at his wicked hands didn’t speak out. They were terrified. They had nowhere to turn. Finegan knew he had the power and he felt free to abuse at will.
The Catholic Church has a shameful record on child protection. Protecting the reputation of the church was often more important than protecting the lives of children.
A boy being abused in St Colman’s College would not have been believed. One teenager who did eventually seek help was told he was sinful.
There was no point in complaining to the church and in the 1970s the idea of approaching the police wasn’t a realistic possibility for teenage boys in Newry. Firstly at the height of the troubles, the RUC did not see the issue as a priority and secondly the IRA would have frowned greatly on anyone seeking assistance at the local police station. There was nowhere to turn. The idea of telling your peer group wasn’t possible either. You would most likely have been ridiculed and ignored.
I wonder how many of my former school mates were abused by Finegan. I admire the courage of those who have come forward. I wish as a senior pupil I had been able to help and I am sure adults who worked there feel equally fooled by the ogre. He destroyed lives and he escaped punishment. He was moved by the Catholic Church to a parish in Co Down.
When he died he was given a full priestly funeral even though he was known to be a paedophile. One of his victims campaigned to have his headstone removed from his grave in Warrenpoint cemetery. Thankfully this has been done. A small token towards eradicating him from our midst.
His face has also been removed from the team photos on the corridors in St Colman’s. I was back there recently as a guest of the present principal. I was happy to return on behalf of the good people associated with the place. The college continues to be oversubscribed as pupils from Co Down and various parts of Armagh seek an outstanding education. Present day staff and pupils are successfully reinstating the good name of St Colman’s but rebuilding the shattered lives of Finegan’s victims is probably an impossible task.
My thoughts are with every one of them.
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