Northern Ireland news

Brendan Smyth 'may have abused hundreds' of children

Brendan Smyth leaves Limavady Courthouse after extradition proceedings to the Republic were upheld in 1997
Lesley-Anne McKeown, Press Association

A notorious paedophile priest told a doctor he had sexually abused hundreds of children, an inquiry has heard. Fr Brendan Smyth made the admission in February 1994 - the year he was jailed for his crimes.

He said: "Over the years of religious life it could be that I have sexually abused between 50 and 100 children. That number could even be doubled or perhaps even more."

The long-running Historical Abuse Inquiry (HIA) is holding a focused module into how Smyth, a member of the Norbertine Order, was allowed to continue offending for more than four decades.

Joseph Aiken, counsel for the inquiry said it was the first time the serial child molester's comments had been made public.

Mr Aiken said: "The story that's about to unfold over the coming days is steeped in deep and prolonged human suffering of the abused.

"The inquiry will have to consider whether it is also a story of a litany of missed opportunities to properly deal with Smyth by a significant number of individuals who were themselves in positions of considerable trust, power and influence not only over him, his victims and their families."

Retired judge Sir Anthony Hart is leading the HIA inquiry, one of the UK's largest inquiries into physical, sexual and emotional harm to children at homes run by the church, state and voluntary organisations.

Smyth, who was at the centre of one of the first clerical child sex abuse scandals to rock the Catholic Church, was convicted of 117 indecent assaults in Northern Ireland and the Republic over the 1960s to the 1990s. He frequented Catholic residential homes and groomed children with sweets and trips away.

He died from a heart attack in prison in the Republic of Ireland in August 1997.

Despite allegations being previously investigated by church officials, including the former Irish primate, Cardinal Sean Brady, as far back as 1975, it was almost 20 years before he was jailed. Instead the cleric was moved between parishes, dioceses and even countries where he preyed on victims who were as young as eight.

Concerns were raised about Smyth before he was ordained, the inquiry was also told.

There was suspicion that he had abused a boy while training in Rome during the late 1940s.

Mr Aiken said: "The Norbertine order believes that knowledge of Brendan Smyth's activities exists prior to his ordination yet he was ordained as a priest in any event.

"A complaint had been made about Smyth when he was a student in Rome in the 1940s. He was accused of abusing a child in the vicinity of the college."

Sir Anthony was told that the Abbott General - the Norbertine order's most senior figure in Rome - had recommended Smyth not be ordained, but the advice was ignored.

Smyth's direct superiors felt it would be a shame if their first student in Rome failed, and they did not want the Abbott General "interfering" in the business of their particular Abbey, it emerged.

The ordination went ahead in 1951.

Shortly afterwards, a senior priest from the Belgian Abbey which had sponsored Smyth's study in Rome sent him a letter saying he believed the Abbott General's opinion had been right.

"My letter is hard," he wrote. "I hope my fear is exaggerated."

In a statement to the inquiry yesterday, Fr William Fitzgerald, from the Norbertine order, said Smyth should never have been ordained into the priesthood.

He said: "I accept that Brendan Smyth was not a fit person to have access to children at any time or under any circumstance. I am ashamed by the failure as a community to hear these warnings and act accordingly.

"The shame of our failings is immense."

The HIA inquiry is being heard at Banbridge Courthouse, Co Down.

Smyth's abuse has already been described by a number of witnesses who have previously given evidence to the inquiry.

This week's module will therefore concentrate on an examination of what opportunities there were to prevent Smyth carrying out the abuse of children and the inquiry panel will consider whether any action, or inaction, amounted to systemic failings. The module is expected to last for a week.

In one of three statements provided to the inquiry Cardinal Brady said: "Sadly at that time there was a culture within the church of secrecy and silence and it was felt that matters could be dealt with within the church structures.

"There was not a proper understanding of the devastating consequences of child abuse. Many of the bishops believed that psychiatric treatment of the individual perpetrator was an adequate response. The full horror and long-lasting impact of such criminal behaviour has now been grasped."

Cardinal Brady is due to give oral evidence later in the week.

The inquiry was formally established in January 2013 by the Northern Ireland Executive.

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