Colm O'Gorman

The campaigner against institutional abuse prepares for his Amnesty International lecture

It is safe to say that Colm O’Gorman’s Amnesty International lecture at the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's is going to take a little more moral fortitude than those on poetry or memoirs. After 12 years campaigning against the institutional abuse of the vulnerable, O’Gorman is not a man inclined to pull his punches.

'Twenty seven percent of Irish children will experience abuse,' he says. 'Research turns up similar statistics around the world. Can we as a society afford to lose the full vitality of twenty seven percent of our population? I don’t think we can.'

O’Gorman is perhaps best known for speaking out against the abuses of the

Catholic Church. He testified against his own abuser, Friar Seán Fortune and in 2003 won a case against the Catholic Diocese of Fern for their negligence. He has campaigned tirelessly to institute inquiries into abuse and founded the One in Four charity to support men and women who suffered sexual violence.

‘The response from these institutions is always the same,’ O’Gorman explains. ‘First they try to deny that anything happened, then they minimize it and say it wasn’t really so bad and finally they control the investigation.’

It is these institutional cover-ups and society’s reactions to them that O’Gorman wants to focus on. He believes that in the past society has too often turned a blind eye. O’Gorman, surprisingly, says he can understand why people did to sweep the truth under the carpet, but that we can’t afford to do it anymore.

‘If we can’t look honestly at our past failures then we are doomed to repeat them,’ O’Gorman says. ‘We have to look at our failures and then become a better society.’

There is a request from CNN on O’Gorman’s desk as he talks, wanting a response from him to the latest Papal announcement. It is exactly the sort of thing that O’Gorman is talking about. He says that the Pope doesn’t need to apologize for things that individual priests did – but that the Catholic Church as an institutional entity does need to admit and apologise for previous cover ups.

‘The Church says that it didn’t act quickly enough, but that’s not true. They acted quickly enough, only it was to protect their own interests.’

For O’Gorman it is essential that the Catholic Church stops trying to pretend that the abuses carried out under its aegis are a new thing – citing the fact that the first mention of paedophilia in the Church is during the Council of Elvira in the 1st Century AD – and acknowledge the conspiratorial cover-up that it perpetrated for decades.

While the Catholic Church continues to deny what happened, O’Gorman thinks that many who have survived abuse will continue to suffer, dealing with a trauma that people won’t acknowledge is real. For them, he says, ‘the past is not the past’.

Unfortunately O’Gorman isn’t sure if the institution of the Church is ready to face that responsibility. Or that some people, whose blind faith in the institution would be threatened, would be able to accept it if they did.

There has been some progress, though. He believes there is broad support for his work in society now, and an awareness of what can happen in an institution that is permitted to function with no state-sanctioned checks or measures. ‘I don’t get death threats anymore,' he says. 'It's a work in progress.'

Colm O'Gorman will present his lecture on October 21 in the Elmwood Hall. O'Gorman's book Beyond Belief is out now.