Saturday, 18 November 2017


Prof Chris Fitzpatrick, a Catholic, on how a revelation of sexual abuse changed his firmly held beliefs

Prof Chris Fitzpatrick at home in Dublin: “From between the lines I could hear the distressed voices of the abused – some of whom I may have known – ringing in my ears.” PHOTOGRAPH: AIDAN CRAWLEY

Other than its also being a revelation of cataclysmic proportions, my road- to- Damascus moment was very different from St Paul’s. I was not on a horse, galloping along some dusty road in the Middle East. I was at a pre- Christmas drinks party in south Co Dublin. I was not a persecutor of Christians; I was one of them myself – a practising Catholic to boot. Nor was God the recriminating injured party on this occasion. (“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”) Instead it was the distressed voices of suffering children that I came to hear.
Unlike Saul, who changed his nom de guerre to Paul, I did not change mine; nor did I reinvent myself as a proselyte or epistle writer or even as a martyred saint. Unlike Paul, who, without a hint of concussion, was transformed into a believer and a follower, the faith I had tenaciously held, ever since my First Holy Communion, in the institutions of the Catholic Church was shattered in one fell swoop.
It was as if a stone had been hurled through the centre of my windscreen. I could no longer see where I was going. The curtain of the temple was torn in two, and the world was suddenly a much darker place.
Let me backtrack. A few weeks before the party, which took place in 2009, I happened to become involved in a conversation with some friends about the clerical sex abuse of children. In response to a general agreement that, sadly, no one would trust a priest (or any man, for that matter) to be alone with young children these days, I replied that I had the privilege, as a kid growing up in the Dublin of the 1960s and 1970s, of having come under the positive spiritual influence of a saintly cleric, a paragon of virtue, a man beyond reproach. Or so I thought.
I explained that I had travelled all over the country and abroad ( including to Lourdes on three occasions) as part of an unofficial, semi- illegal soccer team – the GAA ban was in full force – run by this charismatic and dynamic Capuchin, who, out of devotion to his Italian boy- hero saint, had taken the adolescent’s name, Dominic Savio, as his own religious name.
At the party I happened to bump into someone I hadn’t met in a long time. We had been at school together, and had been protégés of the same friar. After some pleasantries he leaned towards me and, checking that we had a moment of privacy, said in a semi- whisper, “Did you see that Domo is all over the Murphy report?” He was referring to the report by Judge Yvonne Murphy’s Commission of Investigation into the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin, which had just been published by the Department of Justice and Equality.
Shocked, I leaned against a pillar in the kitchen as I listened to the horrific catalogue of the cleric’s crimes – which were all the more surreal against the backing track of a party in full swing.
Neither of us had suspected anything. Neither of us had been abused. Within days I had sought him out in the Murphy report and was once again physically sickened when I read what he had done. From between the lines I could hear the distressed voices of the abused – some of whom I may have known – ringing in my ears.


The Capuchin was now a convicted child sex abuser, and living under court-approved restrictions in one of the Franciscan order’s houses. For many years he had been a wolf in sheep’s clothing, like one of the false prophets in the Bible – except much worse. Why he hadn’t been locked up in jail I couldn’t fully understand: it was another appallingly lenient sentence for sexual crime.
I left the party, reeling under the horror.
For as long as I can remember, the archaic “suffer”, in the biblical imperative “Suffer little children, and forbid them not to come to me”, had carried with it an unintentionally sinister undertone. This was a priest who for me and countless others had embodied Catholic virtue – an image of Christ, beard and all. The innocence of my childhood was finally destroyed. The rug had been whipped from under my feet, and what was broken has never been fixed.
Although newspapers variously referred to him by his civilian name, John Boland, or his religious name, Fr Dominic Savio, he was Domo to the raggle- taggle schoolboys of Dublin’s northside inner city who played on his football teams, served his Masses or came down to the friary on Church Street after school for the bowls of t i nned pears and i ce cream t hat he brought from the refectory fridge, or the sweets and oranges that he magicked out of the dark recesses of his long brown habit – including, to the delight of all, his hood.


His left arm was paralysed as a result of a birth injury, and he had told us on many occasions that photographs of him holding a wafer and empty chalice had to be sent to Rome for him to be passed fit to take holy orders.
Despite his disability he could play the piano ( Fats Domino and The Beatles) and the mouth organ and could juggle small apples and oranges one- handed. He viewed his physical vulnerability as a blessing that brought him closer to those in need of spiritual succour – and to God.
Along with the sweets and fruit that he secreted in his habit he sometimes had one of Padre Pio’s mittens or a relic of the true Cross. He visited (and reputedly cured) the sick, anointed the dying, and blessed new cars and house extensions and throats prophylactically.
When he visited homes he would lay his right hand gently on the bowed heads of all who stood in the hallway, bestowing blessings as we lined up to say goodbye. He was especially devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary and to his own widowed mother.
Mothers loved him. He also loved their young sons. He hinted that they might join up some day. He regaled his audiences with hilarious accounts of the high jinks that he and his classmates got up to when they were away studying for the priesthood – all good, cleanfun. Because he loved soccer, and gave their sons the chance to play with leather footballs rather than plastic ones, fathers liked him, too.


He was wary of daughters and older brothers who were interested in girls, and they were wary of him and kept their distance.
Young boys loved him. Although he was a priest, he was like one of us. He had a good right foot and could bend a ball long before David Beckham could. He often told us about his namesake, Dominic Savio, who even as a very young boy wanted to be a saint. (We didn’t.)
Despite his piety and otherworldly powers of healing, he was also at times anarchic and didn’t seem to mind when we came back from Lourdes with metal combs we’d bought there that were in the shape of flick knives but with a picture of Our Lady on the handles.
Despite his devotion to Our Lady he used one of them to comb his own hair, as a joke. Although mothers thought it a little disrespectful, they let it pass. “Boys will be boys,” he would impishly pronounce. “How innocent he is,” they said, and forgot all about it.
Because he had taken the vow of poverty (along with those of obedience and chastity) he could not own a car. An almost telepathic consensus, among the working-class women who idolised him, that his ministry should not be restricted by a lack of transport led to the purchase of a small car, along with the tax and insurance, for him to use. Paid for through raffles, cake sales and whip-rounds, the car was parked in the nominal owner’s drive, not far from the friary. As a named driver the Capuchin could now travel far and wide – without breaking his vows. Not even the canon lawyers could catch him.
Parents considered him both harmless and trustworthy, and they willingly entrusted their children to him.
Behind the smokescreen of vestments and incense, like many of his ilk, he preyed on his defenceless charges. Convicted of nine counts of indecent assault against one victim, he acknowledged up to 100 offences against 20 children and was judged to pose a significant risk to boys between the ages of nine and 14. He is now dead, and his name is rarely mentioned.
This story is, tragically, not unusual. Dominic Savio was cut from the same cloth as the outwardly decent and charming Christian Brother – described by Fintan O’Toole last month – who abused children in Belfast.
There are thousands of similar stories, replicated in almost every diocese on every continent. They are now part of the narrative of the Catholic Church, better known to many than the liturgy of the Mass. We can but imagine the physical, mental and spiritual pain suffered by those who were molested and raped and had their lives destroyed by paedophile clerics.
They say that all history is local and that one’s view of the world is predominantly shaped by personal experiences and by the individual stories of others. And so the shock waves of what Dominic Savio and others did travelled far beyond those whom they most grievously injured – and affected us all.
The inadequacy of the church’s response to the crisis added insult to injury. Church attendance has plummeted in two generations, starting with mine – part of the collateral damage. And we were the lucky ones. We only lost our faith in this church, and our innocence. Vocations have also dwindled to a trickle.
Even committed parents dissuade their children from any thoughts they might have of entering the religious life. Who would blame them? Seeing Bishop Eamonn Casey and Fr Michael Cleary on reruns of Reeling in the Years, leading the papal singalong in Galway, still rankles those of us who remember being cynically duped in another context.
Some will defend the church, of course, saying that a few rotten apples don’t necessarily spoil the barrel and that lots of organisations have their share of deviants and hypocrites. That may be true. The difference is, however, that the likes of the Irish Amateur Swimming Association, the BBC and Hollywood never pontificated on how we should live our intimate lives.
Nor did they (including the perpetrators among them) ever claim to have sacramental powers, the forgiveness of sins among them. To borrow a phrase from Matthew, in hunting for specks of dust in the eyes of others, the church missed a plank in its own. A legacy of corporate cover-ups, com- bined with an often deplorable lack of empathy with and compassion for the victims of sexual crimes has seriously eroded the moral authority of the Catholic Church and cast a long shadow over its model of governance and canon laws.
Placed alongside the church’s hard-line views on such issues as contraception, homosexuality, divorce, clerical celibacy and women priests – why not women bishops and popes? – it would make you wonder if the powers that be are living on the same planet as us mere mortals.
Similar thoughts must cross the minds of the many decent priests, nuns and brothers who do their very best and now find themselves in an almost impossible position, trapped between an out-of-touch, inflexible hierarchy and oppressive public suspicion.
And although the foundations are still shaking, the church doesn’t seem to get it. Unable or unwilling to move, it seems increasingly stuck in a time warp. Recent pronouncements on the HPV vaccine are one example of this. Decrying a role for condoms in halting the spread of Aids is another. So is equating the rights of an embryo and a woman.
These views are not only morally and medically wrong but also dangerous. The Ireland of the 21st century is a modern, secular, pluralist republic. As citizens we must respect the rights of others and draw distinctions between private and public morality, between the affairs of personally held religious belief systems and the affairs of state. The role and influence of religion in modern civil society needs a more nuanced reinterpretation.
The idea of avowedly celibate men, deliberating obsessively over the small print of consensual sexual morality and “sins of impurity” – from the glittering splendour of the Vatican all the way down to the dark recesses of the confession box – seems disturbingly dysfunctional.
Male hegemony is not some God-given right; I have never seen it written on any tablets of stone. It is a form of abuse, just like abuse based on race or sexual orientation. It has, however, been a problem in the church for a very long time, superimposed on historical social norms – bound up with politics and power. It should no longer be part of the subtext of what it means to be a Catholic.
Were Jesus to arrive for the first time now he would, I’m sure, be an equal-opportunity- promoting Messiah with a gender- balanced, diverse band of Apostles and with less dogmatic views on human nature than many who currently claim to speak on his behalf.
Like many Catholics, I voted for marriageequality in May 2015. I will also vote for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution; I suspect many Catholics will do likewise.
The time for another reformation is long overdue. Maybe, 500 years later, it’s time for another Martin Luther – preferably a woman – to nail her theses to the doors of St Peter’s. And if Jesus is around, maybe he’d clear out the temple again.
l‘ Boys oved him. Although he was a priest, he was like one of us. He could bend a ball long before Beckham
m‘ Like any Catholics, I voted for marriage-equality. I will also vote for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment.

(Chris Fitzpatrick is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, and former master, at Coombe Women & Infants University Hospital and clinical professor at University College Dublin school of medicine. Earlier this year he resigned from the project board overseeing the National Maternity Hospital’s move to the St Vincent’s University Hospital campus because of the Catholic ethos of St Vincent’s Healthcare Group, which was to have a role in the ownership and governance of the new hospital. He is a Catholic)


This is an excellent and thorough article by Professor Chris Fitzpatrick - a lifetime Catholic.

I too knew Father Dominic Savio Boland.

I attended his Masses in Church Street in Dublin as a teenager and a seminarian.

When I was a curate in St Peter's Cathedral Belfast from 1978 until 1983 he arrived one Sunday a month to celebrate Mass for the Belfast Third Order of St. Francis.

He was a skinny, odd Franciscan friar with a disabled arm who seemed pious and oldfashioned.

My fellow priests ridiculed him for being a "Holy Joe".

He expressed horror at the foul language that was in constant use in the priest's dining room - on one occasion saying that Satan was there!

And all the time he was secretly preying on and sexually abusing little boys between the ages of 8 and 14!

There were absolutely no signs of the abuse as far as I could see.

Surely his superiors in the Capuchins had some reports?

Maybe not?

He professed to be a very holy priest.

But he has destroyed the faith of many in God.

After his exposure, he was not sent to prison - but to the Capuchin Friary in Donegal.

I did not know he was dead until I read Professor Fitzpatrick's article.

I found it impossible to find a photo of him on the internet.

Has anybody got one?


  1. Ah now, Pat, sure it’s some of the “holy” ones you need to watch!

  2. An excellent blog Pat, and a very telling analysis by the professor. I particularly like the comment, "the inadequacy of the church's response added insult to the injury. "

  3. Excellent reflective piece by Professor Firzpatrick. The deviousness of abusers is the same in all professions. While working during summer holidays on farms to earn my college fees I experienced the advances of an older man for a long time. The same man was involved in sports club of which I too was a young menber. There too advances were made and with success at times. As a teenager I was very scared but I finally spoke to the employer and club managers who didn't believe me. But after persisting about the sexual behaviour I managed to isolate this man from teenagers. It is awful to try as a teenager to protect yourself. Deviants are in every profession. Sadly, there are many abusers hidden in family life. From my present work, the reality of home abuse is frightening. We must ensure that a childhood is not stolen from any young child through deviant individuals. We must always be vigilant.

  4. I think Chris Fitzpatrick is a bit of an enigma.. He's obviously an educated professional man on the outside in his public persona but he seems to be in some ways like a raw impressionable teenager who allows someone else's fall from grace to completely knock him off course as well.
    I think he should cheer up and maybe go shopping for a well-fitting jumper and donate that monstrosity to the cleaning lady for dusters. ��

  5. It may just have shattered his faith in the institution of the Church. I think it is a nice jumper. The colour suits him.

    1. LOL.. His jumper doesn't matter of course... but now that you mention it, the jumper is about three sizes too big. Glad he didn't do my mesh as he doesn't have an eye for well-fitting sizes!

    2. An old comfortable jumper is very comforting. I have several.

    3. I agree that Fitzpatrick looks like an unmade bed in that shapeless jumper(The poster was right!) but like Pat, I find that an old comfortable jumper is comforting... I have two old favourites, "Baggy" and "Jersey". They are still not too bad a fit but have seen better days!

    4. I never wear jumpers, an old 'geezer's' garment.

      I wear hoodies!😈

  6. When people know a cleric as saintly and then someone else says they abused them, it is almost inconceivable, given the person they think they know and the gravitational pull of the whole weight of the rc church image to boot! One wonders why some are abused and some in the same orbit are not. Whether or not there is any degree of intention and planning probably varies between perpetrator, but these fire breaks prevent even the smallest seeds of doubt from taking root hence the writer in the piece and his former school pals initial incredulity alludes to part of the reason behind abuse not being revealed and prosecuted, but also fear of biting the hand that feeds,the church, both spiritually and socially, this however, a rapidly becoming bygone era as influence wains...and thank God! The sad fallout being the doubt and suspicion that is now cast over all clerics, but the institutional church could be more proactive rather than reactive and defensive and in the case where incidents do not involve, or would not stand a chance of successful prosecution, or until it looks like they might, all you get is their wall of silence...well..with Joshua we SHOUT, SHOUT, SHOUT!!

  7. An obstetrician who wants abortion? Nice. Whatever happened to "first do no harm"?

    1. I think the Prof wants abortion to be allowed to save the life of a mother.

    2. I wouldn't trust Fitzpatrick with any ob/gyn treatments with his casual attitude to the unborn.. Thank God I found out on time...

  8. Can’t but help reading this through the lens of DM and “Gorgeous”:

  9. What's the church procedure now in dealing with convicted clergy of sexual crimes? Are they automatically laicised? Maybe things have changed, but in the not too distant past,I've read about certain priests who were still on the diocesan payroll while serving their sentences. Sometimes even, clergy whistleblowers were more harshly dealt with by the church, as if loyalty at all costs was all that mattered.

    1. No, they are not 'automatically laicised', such is the exaggerated ontological regard in which the institutional Roman Catholic Church still holds its priests.

      Serial and chronic sexual child abuser, Fr Maciel, was not laicised by Pope Benedict, but merely 'invited' to spend the rest of his life in 'prayer and penance'. Maciel died in 2008, still an unlaicised priest.

    2. 12.39 It is very sick culture that protects a criminal and punishes the whistleblower. I find that very hard to forgive.

    3. You'll probably be laicised sooner for marrying a woman than for molesting an innocent.

    4. Being sent to a monastery for 'prayer and penance' seems a handy way out. I've been to some Benedictine monasteries where the food and accommodation were on a par with any decent hotel. My idea of a life of prayer and penance would be losing all ecclesiastical support, priviliges and offices, and having to live in a bedsit or a high rise council flat, on benefits. That's the reality for many law abiding citizens who never hurt any one their entire lives.

    5. An insightful point, 18:07. Such a reduced personal state would induce either complete dependence on God (the fast track to sanctity), or psychological and spiritual collapse through abnormal self-pity.

      Sometimes a desperate last throw of the dice is the only way of positively realigning self-destructive human behaviour.

  10. Well, it's now a criminal offence not to report abuse. They have no longer the option to cover up and move the abuser conveniently on to his next parish... The good thing is that teachers etc are also bound in law to report abuse and so the old days of a teacher being told "It's not your concern... Leave this to us.... We'll deal with it in our own way, thank you!"should definitely be over. The teacher is duty bound to report it to the agreed CP person on the teaching Staff and follow through a procedure for which she /he has been well warned and trained. The good thing also is that this applies to ANY concern the child raises with us in confidence, whether or not it was alleged to have happened on school property. The pupils themselves are made aware of that as of course they should be.

  11. The RC church sadly propagates the notion that priests own the church and run it. We need a community based ecclesiology where the value of the church which is not just based on the value of priest. This is not an excuse for wrongdoing

  12. Magna 14.33. When most normal human beings were out shopping, having lunch, sharing time together, shopping - being with others - you, yet again, seem to have nothing more meaningful to do, or have any other means of feeling "wanted" or "useful" than blog here! Like all other empty days in your life, you find solace in blogging and are even "happier" when you vent your inner frustrations, hatreds and nastiness.. You are indeed a pitiable person.

    1. As darling Oscar once said, 19:02: 'There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.'😆

    2. Yes Magna, but nothing as awful as to be talked about for all the wrong reasons - in your case, your obsessive vanity and inability to be normal. Always OTT in a juvenile, immature way which is a trait of an emotional and spiritual imbalance in your mind. Take a good look at yourself Mags.

    3. Take a good look at myself, 01:12? But wouldn't that be indicative of 'obsessive vanity'?😆

  13. Hi Pat, any update on the Little Brothers of the Oratory? I was hoping to go up North for my Christmas shopping and I would like to join them for prayer if that is possible??

  14. Magna's comments here are very funny, treating us to his sartorial advice then telling us how to 'realign' (what with - Mecca? The Hubble telescope?) self-destructive behaviour. What eloquence and wisdom. I really hope the Irish bishops are reading these pearls of wisdom... For as good a laugh as they've given me.