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HE WAS charming, mad, overweight, manipulative and an evil serial sex abuser.

The alarming but distressing story of how Fr Sean Fortune abused his position of authority to prey on his young victims has now been revealed in a new book.

As well as the sexual abuse, the story of Fortune also lifts the lid on the power figures in the Catholic Church were able to yield in different parishes.

And it also shows the difficulty faced by victims making complaints against priests being taken seriously.

Fortune killed himself in March 1999, after battling for four years against being hauled before a court to answer for his child abuse crimes.

When he washed down tablets with a bottle of whisky, twisted Fortune knew he had lost the battle to stay out of jail The priest's early professional life in the Fethard-on-Sea in Co Wexford reveals his manipulative, power mad and dangerously charming and energetic personality.

But it's clear that he split the parish down the middle, between those who felt he could do no wrong and those deeply suspicious of him.

Then, of course, there were the young boys he horribly abused, scared and alone after being forced to swear on the bible they would tell no-one of what he had done to them.

There was mounting evidence within the first year of his posting to Fethard - in June 1981 - that he was involved in widespread abuse.

Paul Molloy was one of the key witnesses against Fortune, who abused him for years from the age of 11. He was one of many.

He recalls the first assault occurred during confession.

As in other cases, attacks happened after Paul was talked into joining Fortune's pet clubs which meant in the basement of the priest's house.

Paul received regular invitates to stay back and the abuse got progressively worse.

"There were two different Fr Fortunes: the priest who would go up to the altar and give terrific sermons about the evils of drink, sex and sin.

"And then there was the other one who would talk to young boys about homosexuality and sex, interview them one by one and then abuse them," Paul told the author of a definitive new book on Fortune published yesterday, entitled A Message From Heaven.

It took three years before the young boy was able to break free of the clutches of the man who lived in his nightmares.

He confronted Fortune and told him that he would make a complaint to Gardai.

But the priest retaliated by saying it would be Paul's word against his and that it had been consenting sex.

"How could I consent. I was only a boy," said Paul.

In 1988, after Fortune had left the parish, Paul confided in the new curate in the parish.

And he gave a detailed statement to senior clergy in Dublin - but nothing seem to be have done, says the book's author Alison O'Connor.

It also emerged that the new priest was counselling six boys who had been abused by Fr Fortune.

Church authorities also knew - from psychiatrists' reports - that Fortune had a "serious problem" with his sexuality.

But it was not until 1995 when a handful of young men reported the complaints to Gardai, that a full investigation was launched.

In the climate following the convictions of serial pervert priest, Fr Brendan Smyth, it was much easier for people to come forward and have complaints against priests taken seriously.

One of those was Colm O'Gorman, who decided to act after his sister told him that she had been disturbed by the way Fortune was hanging around young boys.

The Garda investigation revealed the disturbing pattern of abuse. They also heard of two suicides and one attempted, which though there was no complete proof, it seemed likely there was a connection.

But the people of Fethard have numerous stories to tell about the young, energetic curate who landed in the Wexford seaside village in the early 1980s.

"From the start we knew something was wrong. He had ways of finding out about people, recognising weakness and family things that people preferred to keep quiet," said one parishioner.

"His policy was to divide and conquer and he was the most incredible bully."

Sean Cloney - the man at the centre of the 1950s Love Divided scandal - was more blunt.

"He was the greatest liar I ever met, a horrible man. He had all the vices except sloth."

In 1984 a full run down of Fortune's activities - except the sexual abuse which at the time was only hinted at - was delivered to the Bishop of Ferns, Brendan Comiskey.

It claimed Fortune violated every rule in the book, from confidentiality to defamation, to authoritarian actions to abuse of state funds.

The letter was not acknowledged.

A year later, the Bishop met Fortune and described him as the Monsignor Horan of the south-east in recognition of his work in securing state funding for a number of employment schemes.

But it later emerged that that Fortune was creaming off between pounds 5 and pounds 10 from those working on the schemes.

When he left, there were unpaid bills with all records burnt and every fixture and fitting stripped from the priest's house.

According to the book, Fortune came penniless but left the parish with all the appearances of a man who had made a lot of money.

The scams continued but the biggest was his desperate attempts - mostly medically-based - to stop his trial taking place.

Fortune's victims still remember with horror the sex assaults which happened to them in Belfast and Wexford.

As one of the Wexford victims recalls in the book: "One minute he was in crutches, in a wheelchair, unable to stand.

"The next thing he was working out how he could wriggle out of the whole thing.

"I needed him to face that. It just didn't seem right to let him walk away from it.

"All I ever wanted from that court case was to be able to say what happened and to have a reaction from the justice system and from society.

"I wanted to say that it happened."

As well as facing 20 child sex abuse charges brought by the Gardai, Fortune was also under investigation in Northern Ireland.

The 45-year-old was a curate at the Holy Rosary Parish on Belfast's Ormeau Road in the late 1970s.

His name came to the attention of the RUC during its inquiry into the activities of the most notorious of pervert priests, Fr Brendan Smyth, who preyed on boys and girls in the Ormeau area.

But after allegations to the Catholic Church in Belfast were made against Fortune, he was quietly "shipped out" .

He was moved back to his hometown of Wexford and the reason for his sudden departure was kept a secret from puzzled parishoners.

Fortune had helped set up the local Rosario Youth Club to help take schoolkids off the street.

Said one parishoner: "Without him, the youth club would probably have never got off the ground.

"But there were a lot of rumours going around at the time from the boys at the club who said he has touched some of them up while away at camps in Newcastle, Co Down.

"One boy woke up to find him spraying his genitals with shaving foam. It was not long after the rumours started that he was moved away.''

A Message From Heaven - The Life and Crimes of Fr Sean Fortune by Alison O'Connor, was published yesterday by Brandon Books, priced pounds 9.99.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2000 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Breslin, John
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Sep 24, 2000
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