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Saturday 19 October 2019

Back from the brink of hell...

Amnesty International Ireland's director Colm O'Gorman tells Garreth Murphy his story of childhood abuse and survival

Sexually abused at the age of five. Raped repeatedly by an older boy at the age of 10. Two-and-a-half years of sustained extreme sexual abuse at the hands of priest Sean Fortune, starting at the age of 14.

Homeless and living from day-to-day on the streets of Dublin at the age of 17, reduced to having anonymous sex with men in return for a place to sleep and a hot shower. Most would have crumbled under the weight of such overwhelming abuse, but Colm O'Gorman is a survivor.

How else could you explain how he has forged a successful life and career for himself? The director of Amnesty International Ireland, a former senator and the founder of the One in Four organisation, is, by any standards, a success.

Hidden

But he has a story to tell and it is as horrifying as any you can imagine.

"I didn't want to hide or be anonymous because I was concerned at the messages that it was sending to other people in similar circumstances," he says of his decision to break his silence, one of the first and most vocal to do so.

"I made a decision early on about that. I felt that I had a responsibility," he says, sitting in a bar in Dublin Airport.

The 43-year-old O'Gorman is about to get on a flight to London to do a week of publicity for his new memoir, Beyond Belief.

Heartbreaking, yet strangely uplifting despite the horrendous accounts of abuse, O'Gorman's story is extraordinary, and one that certainly lives up to its title.

O'Gorman writes nostalgically of his childhood in Adamstown in Wexford in the early 1970s; of working with his father in the fields; of his five siblings and his mother.

However, there is a darkness, which is never far from the surface -- the abuse which he suffered throughout his formative years.

It started with sexual abuse from two local men at an early age.

While he doesn't remember much about it, he was later raped by a teenage boy.

"I'm shocked at the memory of how I'd become so accustomed to abuse, to the act of rape, that when this teenage boy did it to me I just accepted it as normal. And the tragic truth is, it was normal for me," he writes.

Things were to get much worse. After moving to Wexford Town, O'Gorman was 14 when he first met Sean Fortune. The priest, then in his late 20s, took an interest in O'Gorman, visiting him at his parents' house and asking him about masturbation.

Coerced

A week later, the abuse started when Fortune took him away for a weekend to his house to "see his work and help him". This was to continue until O'Gorman was over 16 years of age. The one time that he tried to escape the weekly abuse, Fortune coerced O'Gorman's mother into making him go with the priest.

"That time, when he got me outside, he looked at me and didn't say anything. He knew he had won. Up until then, the abuse was like being in a really cold, dark pool and I had been hanging on to the side of it. Something had been pawing at me. I was just waiting for it to stop so I could try and get out of the pool and escape. The moment that Fortune looked at me in the car, I just let go of the side. I had to let go, drown and hope that I would somehow get through this."

When O'Gorman turned 17, Fortune tired of him. After the priest asked his victim to help him find someone else to have sex with, O'Gorman decided it was time to leave Wexford.

His parents, drifting apart for years, had finally split and his family were moving away. O'Gorman decided to try his luck in Dublin.

Leaving home with no money in his pocket, Dublin's streets were hardly paved with gold and he found himself homeless, unable to find a job or a home.

Desperate

Things were so desperate that he was reduced to having sex for a place to sleep.

"I was in a really bad state. In order to have a bed to sleep in at night, I allowed myself to be picked up by men and used for sex. I didn't even have enough dignity or self respect or sense of my own value to insist that I get paid for that."

Extraordinarily composed when talking about the abuse, O'Gorman's resilience is remarkable, as is the fact that he was able to carve a life out for himself. But O'Gorman, a trained therapist, says that the human condition is designed to heal.

"The reality is that if you create the right environment, healing and health are not just likely, they are inevitable. I spent many years of my life afraid to look inside. I was never going to find a way to health as I could never even acknowledge that I had a wound.

"But at key moments, at the darkest moments, I was lucky. I would meet someone who would say hello or even just give me a look and it would save me. Someone who did not see me as an object and did not want to use or abuse me."

Passionate

Openly gay and raising two children in Wexford with his partner, O'Gorman is passionate, exact and articulate. His language is precise, with words weighed up before released, leaving no room for misinterpretation. Over the course of our interview, the only question he balks at is revealing anything to do with his family. Even when he speaks of the death of Sean Fortune, who killed himself in 1999 before he could face criminal charges, O'Gorman refuses to cede to fury.

"When I heard that he killed himself, I broke down and started to sob. I was devastated that we would not get our day in court.

"I was always very open that Sean Fortune, if he had to face the truth of what he had done, could maybe do whatever he needed to reclaim himself, to rediscover his own humanity. When he died that possibility ended and that was a terrible tragedy."

One of the first to draw attention to institutional abuse in the church, O'Gorman settled a High Court action against the Diocese of Ferns for €300,000 in 2003.

He also set up the One in Four organisation to help sexual abuse victims. When asked if he thinks he has made a difference, he hesitates.

"Yeah, I probably have. I know I have made a difference in my own life and in the lives of some others. But I would not have made any difference if others hadn't gone before me and people hadn't listened.

"I came along at a point when I was able to stand where they had stood and because of what they had done. Together we made an extraordinary difference."

Beyond Belief by Colm O'Gorman is available now (Hodder & Stoughton, €11.99)

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