NewsCrime Desk

Notorious paedophile priest may have abused over 200 children

Sick: Brendan Smyth
Sick: Brendan Smyth

Concerns were raised about the activities of a notorious paedophile priest before he was ordained, an inquiry has heard.

There was suspicion that Fr Brendan Smyth, who went on to sexually assault hundreds of children, had abused a boy while training in Rome during the late 1940s.

The revelations were made to the Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) inquiry, which is looking at how Smyth - a member of the Norbertine order - was allowed to continue offending for over four decades.

Jospeh Aiken, counsel for the inquiry said: "The Norbertine order believes that knowledge of Brendan Smyth's activities exists prior to his ordination yet he was ordained as a priest in any event.

"A complaint had been made about Smyth when he was a student in Rome in the 1940s. He was accused of abusing a child in the vicinity of the college."

Retired judge Sir Anthony Hart is leading the HIA inquiry, one of the UK's largest inquiries into physical, sexual and emotional harm to children at homes run by the church, state and voluntary organisations.

He was told that the Abbott General - the Norbertine order's most senior figure in Rome - had recommended Smyth not be ordained, but the advice was ignored.

Smyth's direct superiors felt it would be a shame if their first student in Rome failed, and they did not want the Abbott General "interfering" in the business of their particular Abbey, it emerged.

The ordination went ahead in 1951.

Shortly afterwards, a senior priest from the Belgian Abbey which had sponsored Smyth's study in Rome sent him a letter saying he believed the Abbott General's opinion had been right.

"My letter is hard," he wrote. "I hope my fear is exaggerated."

Smyth, who was at the centre of one of the first clerical child sex abuse scandals to rock the Catholic Church, was convicted of 117 indecent assaults on children in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland over the 1960s to the 1990s.

However, the inquiry also heard that the prolific child molester told a doctor in 1994 - the year he was jailed - that the true number of victims could run into the hundreds.

Smyth admitted that he could have sexually abused more than 200 children during his tenure as a religious cleric. 

Mr Aiken added: "In his own words, Brendan Smyth told a treating doctor, 'over the years of religious life it could be that I have sexually abused between 50 and 100 children. That number could even be doubled or perhaps even more'."

It was revealed Smyth had a preference for children aged between 10 and 14 years old because he felt they would not inadvertently speak about the abuse.

He frequented Catholic residential homes and groomed his victims with sweets and trips away.

Despite allegations being previously investigated by church officials, including the former Irish primate, Cardinal Sean Brady, as far back as 1975, it was almost 20 years before he was jailed.

Instead the cleric was moved between parishes, dioceses and even countries where he preyed on victims who were as young as eight.

In a statement, Fr William Fitzgerald, from the Norbertine order who has been assisting the inquiry, said Smyth should never have been ordained into the priesthood.

He said: "I accept that Brendan Smyth was not a fit person to have access to children at any time or under any circumstance.

"I am ashamed by the failure as a community to hear these warnings and act accordingly. The shame of our failings is immense."

Smyth's abuse has already been described by a number of witnesses who have previously given evidence to the inquiry.

This week's module is therefore concentrating on an examination of what opportunities there were to prevent Smyth carrying out the abuse of children and the inquiry panel will consider whether any action, or inaction, amounted to systemic failings.

In one of three statements provided to the inquiry Cardinal Brady said: "Sadly at that time there was a culture within the church of secrecy and silence and it was felt that matters could be dealt with within the church structures.

"There was not a proper understanding of the devastating consequences of child abuse. Many of the bishops believed that psychiatric treatment of the individual perpetrator was an adequate response. The full horror and long-lasting impact of such criminal behaviour has now been grasped."

Cardinal Brady is due to give oral evidence later in the week.

Smyth died from a heart attack in prison in the Republic of Ireland in August 1997.

The inquiry was formally established in January 2013 by the Northern Ireland Executive.