Colm O'Gorman interview: Conspiracy of silence

The offices where Colm O'Gorman works as Ireland's director of Amnesty International look down on O'Connell bridge and the River Liffey, the docklands of Dublin where O'Gorman once prostituted himself to survive.

The quays at the Liffey are the scruffy end of the historic O'Connell street, home of the impressive GPO where the Easter Rising of 1916 heralded a new era in Irish history. This, people said, would be a land of bravery and freedom. It didn't feel that way to O'Gorman, 17 years old and homeless and trying to snatch some sleep in toilets that stank of urine and alcohol. It was 1984 and he watched the St Patrick's Day parade march down O'Connell Street then phoned home just to hear a familiar voice answer before being cut off. Then he went back to selling himself – not for money because he wasn't worth that – but for a bed for the night and a hot shower because his abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest had taught him sex was transactional and secrecy was paramount.

Silence is golden? Sometimes it's just pernicious. Only by "naming truth", as O'Gorman calls it, did he regain self-esteem and make the powerful journey from lurking in the shadows of the Amnesty offices to entering by the front door, achieving family reconciliation and widespread public recognition in Ireland on the way. The Catholic Church paid him 300,000 compensation for his abuse by Father Sean Fortune. But more importantly, for the first time ever, an Irish bishop publicly admitted negligence. The church knew Fortune was abusing children. Even before his ordination, they knew. But they kept quiet.

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In 2002, O'Gorman even sued the Pope. The Vatican, he argued, had failed to protect children by knowingly and systematically harbouring paedophile priests, moving them from parish to parish and failing to inform the civil authorities. The Pope chose to use his earthly status to sidestep the case, claiming diplomatic immunity as head of the Vatican state rather than defending his actions as the moral and spiritual leader of one of the biggest churches on earth.

Ireland has changed in the last 30 years. It is still a country with deeply held spiritual values. But it no longer places church authority over state authority and O'Gorman has played his part in progressing that change. When his local newspaper reported the first case of a priest actually admitting to child sexual abuse, people burned the paper on the streets. "They were so offended by the very idea of it," says O'Gorman. "The institution could not be that because it would be too shattering." They had to be shattered to rebuild.

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O'Gorman has written a memoir of his experiences, Beyond Belief. He is a charismatic man, his words tumbling with the speed and lyrical cadence so typical of the Irish, yet so polished, so wholly formed in thought, that the deeply felt passion of it packs the punch of an evangelical preacher. When he considers people reading every detail of his story he shudders first and then says to himself, yes, you are going to read all of that – and that's the point. He challenges you just by who he is and where he has been.

"When people read about me on the streets being prostituted, I want them to read it and recognise that the next time they walk by someone in a doorway selling themselves, or whatever position they are in, they shouldn't imagine for a moment that they know who that person is. They may well see the circumstances that person is living in but it doesn't say who they are or where they have come from, and it certainly in no way dictates who they will be in the future. So let's not imagine for a moment that we can simply objectify someone as drunk, homeless, prostitute or addict."

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THERE IS ALWAYS a story, a narrative trail of clues. Colm O'Gorman lived on a small farm in rural Ireland and was a sensitive child rather than a boisterous one, fond of animals and delighting in the seasonal rhythms of the land his father worked. He wandered the fields and walked to school and the local shop, he went into neighbours' houses and local farms, but the freedom of this childhood brought unacknowledged danger. As a five-year-old, he was abused by two men who harmed many local children. The memories are shadowy, of hands on his head and a pushing that made him choke, of burning pain and overwhelming fear. "I couldn't speak about it because I couldn't name it, couldn't understand it. It was terrifying."

Although unconnected to the later abuse by Father Sean Fortune, it laid a foundation stone in O'Gorman's psychological makeup. "The belief that on some level all you had to do was push and I was back in that place, where I existed as an object to be used in that way." It was another layer of vulnerability. "If we just talk about this in terms of animal instinct, a predator will watch and single out the vulnerable, the wounded, the young, the weak, the one lacking in defence in some way. Show me a school yard of kids and I'll show you the one. A great teacher will hone in on a child who needs attention. The things we spot for positive reasons can also be spotted for dark reasons."

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His biggest vulnerability was his distant relationship with his father. Later, they would come together in what O'Gorman describes as a glorious way, but back then his father was undemonstrative and often absent. It made O'Gorman emotionally needy, looking to the world for something his father couldn't give. His father's own dad had died aged just 47 leaving a family of seven with a farm to tend. The loss had simply never been discussed.

"I say my father's heart froze over and I really believe that. He just couldn't love in an open way. What was extraordinary for me was to find that he still did but wasn't able to show it. One of the things I've come to realise is that we're incredibly alike. We have the same heart and I can't imagine not being able to live from my heart, how painful that would be. So I was there going, love me … and he … I can't speak to him now but I can only imagine that in that moment he saw himself and what he couldn't do. But one of the great stories of resilience is the resilience of my father's capacity to love. When the possibility of it existed to become real, it became absolutely real in the most magnificent way. He blew me away."

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O'Gorman says his mother was a remarkable woman, but his father's withdrawal was a continual disappointment to her. Eventually, his father sold the farm and the family moved to Wexford where he encountered Sean Fortune. By this time, his parents were sleeping in different rooms. Perhaps Fortune picked up on the boy who needed a father. Priests who abused often singled out families with single mothers or absent fathers. Or perhaps, O'Gorman says, Fortune picked up on his homosexual orientation before he himself had even discovered it. Whatever the reasons, Fortune asked his mother if the ex-altar boy could stay with him for the weekend to help with youth club activities. A request from a priest was not turned down.

That first weekend, Fortune made his move. Just as battered wives are often repeated victims, so too are abused children. Fear changes behaviour. It makes people behave in ways others who have not experienced that situation simply cannot comprehend. Victims freeze. They become docile. And the imbalance of power means that saying "no" is fraught with all the child's learned responses about respect and obedience and politeness to adults. Don't be bold, the Irish tell their children. O'Gorman wishes every child could be taught to be bold.

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Fortune used his ace card. The first time he abused O'Gorman he told the distressed boy what had happened was his fault. Perhaps Fortune should speak to his father? For someone who had spent his life craving his father's approval, it was the cruellest blackmail possible. Fortune became increasingly arrogant and O'Gorman increasingly depressed, helpless and physically bloated. When he tried to say no, Fortune simply forced him. During this period O'Gorman's mother was growing interested in yoga and Buddhism. She was chanting at 4am, dressing in orange, and bald men in robes were arriving at the house. For a while this ran alongside mainstream Catholicism but finally she went off to India for two years. Her marriage simply crumbled but was not openly ended. Inevitably, the family disintegrated and at 17, O'Gorman left for Dublin, ending up on the streets.

Eventually, he met someone who didn't just use him but helped him get a job and a place to stay. He worked in restaurants then left for London where he trained as a therapist, ultimately setting up the charity One in Four, for victims of sexual abuse. (The name was a reference to a statistic claiming one in every four children suffers abuse.) Gradually he recognised and acknowledged his own homosexuality, and confided both that, and his experiences of abuse, to his family. By the New Year of 1995, he was already beginning to consider informing the authorities about Fortune but things came to a head when his father broke down at a family New Year party over his son's abuse.

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When O'Gorman heard, he told his father he wanted to pursue a case. The conversations that followed, the coming together and acceptance of one another, shaped the rest of O'Gorman's life. "One of the greatest gifts he gave me was to talk about his feelings about what happened to me as his son. Not in a way that looked for me to say it's OK, and not in a way that was, oh I'm so upset. He apologised. He said, 'I am so sorry this happened to you.' I said, 'It's not your fault.' He said, 'I was your father.' He was taking a really lovely responsibility, a responsibility that was about love, and it was a tremendous thing because I had spent all of my life terrified of what would happen if he found out."

Shortly after O'Gorman first informed the police, his father was diagnosed with cancer. He was determined to live to support his son through the case but sadly died 10 months later. O'Gorman tended his father's body, washing him with the tenderness of a love he had longed for all his life and had experienced for such a short time. He knew his father had been transformed by finally expressing that love. Despite knowing he was dying, he had told one of his sisters he had never been happier in his life.

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The case against Fortune took years to come to court, with police uncovering many other victims. "Becoming a priest in Ireland in the 1970s, 1980s and even the 1990s meant you would be given a parish and you would be the manager of the local school, the chair person, the boss of the teachers," says O'Gorman. "You would run that school and we saw time and again priests taking children out of class to abuse them. The level of access, of control, of authority that existed … and no real scrutiny. If you were found out, you would be told – maybe – don't do that again."

Celibacy is a good hiding place for those with sexual problems they do not care to address. But what happened in the Catholic Church was certainly not unique. It was being replicated in care homes all over the world. "It was a dark aspect of humanity that nobody wanted to see and was therefore like some malignancy gone mad because there was no light shone on it. It was a culture that can exist within any human society or structure where we create a denial of the possibility, where we collect the vulnerable in one place, and where we don't monitor and check who is looking after the vulnerable."

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When abuse was uncovered, institutions – whether state or church-run – displayed similar instincts: protect the institution not the child. But people expect more of a church, especially a church so publicly vocal on matters of sexual morality. O'Gorman is no longer a Catholic. For many years he refused to go near churches. Yet he separates church failings from any concept of God.

"I don't see the church as a manifestation of God on earth at all, actually, though it has the potential to be that. I have no difficulty in believing in the concept of life after death, no difficulty believing in a higher power, but I kind of feel if I was meant to know I'd know. I am interested in living this life with as much dignity, as much glory and love as I possibly can, and by glory I mean glory in love not personal glory. I love life, this energy we are all part of, and I want to focus on that, not on wearing out my knees and feeling bad about myself and feeling like I'm making great sacrifices rather than living the life that might mirror some of the things Christ spoke about, or Buddha, or Mohammed or whoever you might choose."

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The case against Fortune proceeded slowly and at one point, he even fled abroad. In March 2000, the trial was finally due to begin properly. But shortly before, O'Gorman received a call from a journalist. Sean Fortune was dead. He had committed suicide with whisky and prescription drugs and was found in bed in full clerical garb with a set of rosary beads entwined in his hands.

In the years since, O'Gorman's life has moved on. He has been with his partner, Paul, for 10 years now. He is legal guardian of two children, aged 12 and 10, after their mother, a close friend, died. He clearly loves having a family of his own. But he never got to confront Fortune. What if Fortune could walk through the door now?

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O'Gorman pauses, unwilling to answer glibly. There have been two answers over the years, both equally true. "A part of me would gleefully tear chunks of flesh off him and throw it at the wall. I can still access that but it's not really real any more.

"When he died I was devastated and one of the reasons was that there was no redemption in that for him. I don't mean that in a religious sense. I really hoped that at some point he was going to have to face himself and who knows what would have happened then? Part of the fibre of who I am is to say, come on, let's meet, see where we get. If he was in prison and rang me and said he was out next week, could we talk, I'd go yeah, sure."

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There is no fear. No bitterness. Only a strange compassion for his abuser and an unbroken belief, despite everything, in what people are capable of being. Perhaps the most remarkable thing O'Gorman says is when he explains why an apology from Fortune would be unimportant. "Because actually, I don't think it's possible to face a truth like that and be human and not be sorry. I just don't believe that's possible."

Apologies from the Vatican, on the other hand, are very important. The world would change, argues O'Gorman. What it means to be a child in the world would be transformed. "I would love to believe that the Vatican got it. That they got it," he repeats with feeling.

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THE GREAT SIN in the Catholic Church is scandalising the faithful. But it has missed the obvious. The faithful are not as scandalised by the depravity of sick individual clerics as they are by the institutionalised corruption of a church that seeks its own self-protection by concealment and cover-up. An institution that is willing to sacrifice the innocent child for the guilty cleric. An institution that, instead of protecting children from known paedophiles, took out insurance to cover law suits against them. An institution, in other words, that protected its wealth and its image and not its innocents. That has been the true scandal of the Catholic Church.

The current Pope, Benedict XVI, claimed media coverage of abuse scandals was prompted by "a desire to discredit the church". But how, says O'Gorman, can the Pope preach Christ's gospel and fail to implement a mandatory child protection scheme across the Catholic world? "With a stroke of a pen the Pope could do more to advance child protection than any other human being. And he hasn't. The Catholic Church is the largest educator and provider of social welfare for children on the planet. And it has no mandatory child protection practice across its institutions. It has coerced, covered up, colluded, denied and facilitated the rape and physical and emotional abuse of children across the world."

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In his job as head of Amnesty, O'Gorman speaks out for the abused, the victimised and the dispossessed. He speaks of difficult truths, even when they offend those who don't want to hear them. Yet he retains an extraordinary idealism.

"Cynicism is just a cop out, a way of saying that's not possible. Well do you know what, you sit on your arse and feel powerless. You're not, but when you're ready to join the rest of us, that's grand. We should be idealistic and we should demand from ourselves the best that we can be – and we should be open to naming the worst of who we can be in the knowledge that in that moment, we will discover more about the best."

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The sun is hitting the Dublin streets after the interview. Down past Trinity College to Grafton Street and a small crowd has gathered. A pavement artist chalking pictures, bright and bold, and writing a message above. Thanks to those who support him. Their donations help him survive. He does not look up whenever money tinkles into his paper cup but a quiet thank you floats up from a head that remains bent and semi-concealed. He looks thin. I can hear the echo of O'Gorman's earlier words. I do not know him. Not where he comes from, nor where he's going.

• Beyond Belief, by Colm O'Gorman (12.99, Hodder & Stoughton) is published on 18 May.