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Years after he told Ireland his story of abuse on live TV, ex-politician says Pope must do more for survivors.
A former politician who rose to prominence a decade ago after revealing on national television that he was abused in a Catholic-run school in Ireland has said that Pope Francis has a lot to answer for when he arrives in Dublin this weekend.
Victims of clerical abuse around the world are watching closely as the Pope visits Ireland this weekend, in the wake of a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing decades of sexual abuses by priests and cover-ups by bishops.
“I will never forgive the church for what they’ve done to me. I won’t,” Michael O’Brien, an 85-year-old former mayor from Clonmel, County Tipperary, told CNN on Tuesday. He added that the Pope’s letter acknowledging the church’s failure to act over abuse in the wake of the Pennsylvania report was not enough.
“This apology is no good. There must be action. Young boys and young girls will still be abused by priests,” O’Brien said. “We’re fed up with all this. We want closure. We want it to stop.”
Videos of his appearance on RTÉ’s Questions and Answers show in 2009 — in which O’Brien described, in graphic detail, the abuse he faced as a child at a Catholic-run industrial school — have gone viral on social media ahead of the Pope’s visit this week.
Despite having been in politics for much of his adult life up to that point, it was the first time O’Brien, who was in the live audience for the show, had spoken about the abuse publicly.
He also lambasted the then-Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey — a member of his own political party — who was on the program to answer questions following the release of the 2009 Ryan Report, which found there had been endemic abuse and neglect in Catholic-run institutions in Ireland between the 1930s and the 1970s.
“I got raped of a Saturday, got a merciful beating after it and he then came along the following morning and put Holy Communion in my mouth. You don’t know what happened there,” O’Brien told Dempsey.
O’Brien railed against the government, telling Dempsey he didn’t have “the foggiest” understanding of the pain felt by victims of abuse, which was clear from how O’Brien said he and others had been treated by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse.
He then recalled attempting to take his own life after five days of questioning by the commission. Turning to his wife, who was sitting next to him in the studio audience, he said: “That woman will tell you how many times I jump out of bed at night with the sweat pumping out of me because I see these fellows at the end of the bed with their fingers pulling me into the room to rape me.”
O’Brien also turned to a politician from another party — Leo Varadkar, who is now Ireland’s Prime Minister — and said: “Can I speak to you and ask your leader to stop making a political football out of this. You hurt us when you do that. You tear the shreds from inside our body. For God’s sake, try and give us some peace, try and give us some peace, and not continue hurting us.”
O’Brien’s emotional recounting of his abuse echoed the shock Ireland was feeling at the time, according to The Irish Times’ religious affairs correspondent Patsy McGarry, who said that even in 2009, speaking out about abuse was still rare.
“Michael O’Brien is a man who was in local politics, a member of one of our major political parties and participated in public life without ever speaking about his abuse,” McGarry told CNN. “I can understand why he wouldn’t want to talk about it publicly, because nobody spoke about it publicly then.”
Now, nine years after the report was released, O’Brien says not much has changed.
“As far as I’m concerned, very little has been done since the 2009 report,” O’Brien told CNN in a phone conversation Tuesday.
While Ireland has pledged €1.5 billion to survivors through a financial redress scheme, O’Brien said that compensation is not enough — abuse must be eradicated and he called on the Pope to take action.
As a former politician O’Brien said he understood that Pope Francis was coming to Ireland as a head of state, and respected it, but demanded change.
“He must talk to us and tell us what he’s going to do about the rape of children that’s been done by priests of the Catholic Church today. He must stop it and tell me why did you allow it to happen at all,” O’Brien said. “Why should people who commit such a heinous crime to be allowed to go free?”
“I don’t see anything at the end of the tunnel. Until I hear something else from the Pope, I won’t believe it,” he added.
The Vatican confirmed on Tuesday that the Pope will meet privately with abuse survivors during his visit to Ireland, after the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, had drawn ire earlier this month for saying that “time was very tight” for the Pope to meet survivors on his two-day visit.
O’Brien said he rang the Archbishop to ask him who was representing survivors of institutional abuse when the Pope visits, but said he still hadn’t received an answer.
“They don’t want to use the word ‘institutional’ abuse because it was the biggest scandal that ever happened to the Catholic Church in Ireland. They’re hoping it will die away by not mentioning the words,” O’Brien said.
For his part, O’Brien said he was surprised by the reaction that the country had to his appearance on RTÉ in 2009, and recalled coming home to a group of 15 journalists outside his front gate in Clonmel. He was unaware that the video had been recirculating in recent months on Facebook, which he is not on, but said he was heartened by the support.