NewsCrime Desk

Moyross priest says gangsters face 'eternal justice'

Fr Tony O’Riordan
Fr Tony O’Riordan

The Jesuit priest who warned drug dealers they will pay for their sins in hell wants to see the gangs stripped of their extorted cash in a CAB-style crackdown.

His hard-hitting sermon, delivered last Sunday week from an altar carved out of a 5,000-year-old bog tree in the newly-built Moyross Church, seems more like the fire and brimstone of a bible belt preacher than the homily of a modern-day Irish cleric.

Taking a cue from Pope Francis, who has come down hard on the Italian mafia, Fr Tony O’Riordan sent a clear message to the Limerick gangs wreaking fear among parishioners.

Last Monday, just a day after the sermon, O’Riordan received a call from a desperate father in fear of his life over a drug debt.

"He was close to suicide because he had no way of paying the debt. There are children involved. He had been attacked, not in a very serious way, but enough to show this will get worse. There were threats made against the family," says Tony.

In his sermon he told dealers that if they continued to be "agents of Satan" they might escape justice in this life, but they would face "eternal justice".

"We only use that kind of language for the most extreme evils that we need to tackle in society," says the priest.

Fear prevents people in Moyross from "ratting" on the dealers who dole out intimidation and physical beatings.

"These are pretty ruthless people. Most people are concerned for their own safety but the real pinch is how it will affect their loved ones," says Fr Tony.

"They could run away, but they know then that their families will pay. It starts with the windows being done in, property gets burned, cars get burned, threats that their houses will be burned.

"People can get badly beaten. There is no debt forgiveness in this game. People go to extreme measures to get the money."

He believes taking the cash and assets off the drug gangs is the only way to break their iron grip on the community.

"Follow the money. The key is to disrupt the proceeds.

"The Criminal Assets Bureau goes after millions, but if you used their approach to go after hundreds of thousands and you combine it with revenue and social welfare you break the wealth."

It's no surprise to learn the priest is cut from the same Jesuit cloth as Fr Peter McVerry, having worked with the well-known campaigner in Ballymun before moving into Moyross in 2010.

In the estate, which stands in the shadow of Thomond Park, the killing has stopped, but the drug gangs are still virtually untouchable.

While it is rare, children as young as eight are known to be smoking weed, while 'penny boys' are groomed into crime in early teenage years.

"They can get sucked in very young. They can be associated with the criminal family. Actually running jobs, they can be aged 10 and up," says Tony.

Arriving six years ago as the tide was turning on the murders which had turned the estate into a no-go ghetto, Tony says the regeneration project has failed to live up to its promise.

"Regeneration has been shambolic. The only major success is the extra policing," says the priest.

In Moyross, the numbers don't add up, as 500 houses were demolished, but Fr Tony says just 36 housing units have been built.

"In Ballymun, they built houses and then they demolished. Here it's backwards."

Single houses which resisted being part of the regeneration stand in the middle of acres of green fields, where 500 houses were demolished around them.

"A friend of mine from England thought it was like Birmingham after World War II - just bombed out sections," remarks Tony.

"The plan is to…well, we're not sure what the plan is."

As the popular priest walks around the estate, a car full of young teenagers speeds past, beeping and roaring: "We love you Father Tony."

One unexpected upside of the demolition is the new grass on the acres of former housing estates, which feeds dozens of well-kept horses and Shetland ponies.

Money was poured into bulldozing much of the notorious estate, but Tony says the services desperately needed to get the remaining residents out of the poverty trap and into education and jobs are gapingly absent.

"The concentration of the levels of poverty and exclusion are probably worse," he says.

Next door to the church is the Corpus Christi School, which along with a soothing therapy room and a boat building shed, all help to provide a safe haven during school hours.

Especially so for the 14 or 15 of its young pupils who are currently homeless and living from day to day in different hotels or refuges around the city.

The young, dynamic headmaster, Tiernan O’Neill, along with Fr Tony, pull out all the stops to get them to school and get them home in the evening, with little or no help from any State agency.

Fr Tony organised a fundraiser for a bus which now starts its first run in the city at 7.30am, picking up kids from hotels. Food vouchers and parcels are often sent home with the kids at night.

"We had situations prior to Tony organising the bus where kids walked in from their hotel three or four miles in the winter time," says Tiernan.

Heartbreakingly, the kids have started asking teachers where they are going to sleep on any given night. Both the headmaster and the priest have become de facto housing officers in the fight to help the families find a bed.

"To be fair to Tony, he's like a walking version of at this stage," says the headmaster.

While the school has a fantastic relationship with the local social workers, the frustration with State agencies is clear as they stand in the therapy room in the Corpus Christi school.

"We have no problem going above and beyond, but you wonder where are the agencies who are receiving State funding to roll out services like this and support families," says Tiernan.

Fr Tony O’Riordan  with Tiernan O'Neill

While homeless kids worry about where they will end up that night, an estate run by housing agency Respond, behind the school walls, has seven boarded-up houses.

Respond said it was refused funding to refurbish the boarded up houses in Ballygrennan Close but has now applied for money from the Department of Housing,  adding they will become available as soon they secure funding.

Fr Tony believes the homeless and drug issues are linked.

"With an unstable childhood in many, many cases, the trauma leads to addiction. People take drugs mostly to dull pain," says the priest.

The tipping point which triggered the regeneration of Moyross came 10 years ago when Gavin (5) and Millie Murray (7) were turned into fireballs when their mother's car was petrol bombed.

"The challenges are as intense as they were when those two children’s car was set alight," says Fr Tony.