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Why I invited a sex abuser Malachy Finegan to officiate at my wedding

THIS month four years ago I represented a survivor of historic sex abuse by the deceased paedophile priest, Malachy Finegan. He received a then record six figure damages settlement against the Diocese of Dromore. It was the first time I became aware rumours about Finegan were true and more victims came forward.

The photograph here shows Finegan as a co celebrant at my wedding. I was married in a joint Presbyterian – Catholic wedding ceremony. The priest who was supposed to co-celebrate had to withdraw at late notice.

Back then it wasn’t easy to get a priest to co-celebrate a mixed marriage and with time running against me I turned to the priest I knew from my school days at St Colman’s to stand in.

Missing from the photo is the minister, my wife and myself. I can’t display the entire image.

The seismic impact of the case and going on to represent many diocesan survivors facilitates for some introspection.

On November 17, 2014 I returned to the school for a book launch on the history of the MacRory Cup. I represented the school at all levels in football including Dalton, Corn Na Og, Rannafast and MacRory.

Three years later, I was involved in settling that breakthrough High Court case.

Subsequent media exposure shone a spotlight on an entirely different and terrible history, a far remove from the illustrious football history recounted at that MacRory Cup book launch.

That led to droves of ex-pupils reassessing their experiences.

UTV’s Frank Mitchell regrets thanking Finegan for his education and hating the way Finegan fooled him. He referenced all the trophy winning teams he played on and Finegan appearing in the photos.

The image of Finegan congratulating a departing pupil on his school footballing career by patting him on the back is in stark contrast to the appalling history of his abuse on many pupils.

Frank’s recollection underpinned how Finegan used the college’s proud footballing tradition as part of a front for his predatory activities but it was good to see one of the college’s former footballing constituency speak out.

Finegan was not a footballing man. He abused the college’s reputation to his own ends. There is a perverse irony that whenever St Colman’s completed a clean sweep of all Ulster titles in 1976, Finegan may well have been at the apex of his abusive activity. St Colman’s GAA history goes back to 1871 when the founder of the GAA, Michael Cusack was professor of maths and English.

Nationalist families in south Down and south Armagh and beyond wanted to buy into that tradition.

Finegan abused the good name of the school in the same way he abused countless pupils.

My return visit was in August with Archbishop Eamon Martin. He was there to listen to Tony Gribben recount the litany of abuse perpetrated against him as part of his settlement.

Listening to his ordeal took me back to my own time in the college. I remembered being patted on the head by Finegan in my first week and being asked to sit in the passenger seat of his car when going to Dalton Cup matches.

Retracing my footsteps along the corridor to where the president’s office used to be brought back memories of an altogether different unsettling meeting. In my third year I was summoned to go to Finegan’s room during maths class. I hated maths and would have done anything to get out of it but had I known what was about to unfold I would have stayed put.

Finegan’s room was dark and smokey with a dim light on the table. His weapons of mass discipline were on display including leaded straps and canes.

I hadn’t realised it at the time but I was now about to experience “The Talk”. A sanitised explanation suggests it was some sort of weird discussion on ‘The facts of life’. I had heard rumours about it from other pupils. We didn’t know it then but the criminal act of ‘attempted grooming’ was about to take place.

He started his ‘talk’ by enquiring about the latest football results for my team and made a point of knowing which position I was playing in. The small talk about football masked a sense of foreboding. This wasn’t going to be a chat on the school’s chances of winning a cup.

He moved onto studies and I may have told him I was struggling with maths. Every second seemed an eternity as I sensed he was about to ask me something completely different. It was very uncomfortable. Then it came. A question about girls, I can’t remember what it was but it may have been along the lines about whether or not I had been with one.

I could have lied and said that I had been but I hadn’t. I didn’t know what type of answer to give. In that split-second I was trying to process which answer would be ‘right’. Saying yes might have led to some form of reprimand and saying no might have amounted to some form of declaration of ‘innocence’. I chose the innocent route.

Matters escalated when he probed with, “Tell me Master Winters, have you produced seed yet?” I hesitated with, “No Father, but it’s on the way.” That seemed to flummox him.

It knocked him off kilter a bit. I remember staring back intently trying to be tough but failing. My heart was pounding with tension. I can’t recall how the ‘meeting’ finished. All I know is that nothing physical happened and I left confused, stressed and anxious. Had I passed some sort of test? What sort of answers was I supposed to give? Ought I to have admitted to all sorts of ‘sins’ as if I had been to confession?

Not long afterwards the hair on the back of my head fell out with alopecia. Later college football team photos show that it grew back abundantly but for about six months it was gone. I developed a debilitating eczema disease as well. I blamed exam stress but now think it’s ‘the talk’ that caused it.

At the time when it happened I thought I was one of a few subjected to Finegan’s bespoke ‘Catholic sex education’ discussion. After leaving, I learned that many more had a similar experience.

Finegan’s ‘talks’ were all about working out your vulnerabilities. For years I used to joke about the encounter as did some contemporaries. What was previously dismissed as a bit of banter had morphed into something more sinister.

It was a default black humour processing mechanism but is no longer a laughing matter. Finegan was operating his own industrial grooming system. For three decades he operated with impunity. It remains a scandal today that no-one in authority was able to step forward and say they knew what was happening or acknowledge having any suspicions.

Finegan’s ‘talks’ meted out to so many students made the process somehow normalised. Anyone looking at it today will see it for what it was, the start of a calculated grooming process but back then you didn’t see that especially with his integration of deeply personal issues with conversation about studies, homelife and football.

I was that little bit older and because of the strong football dimension I may have had a bit of confidence in pushing back on him. I wonder how my 11-year-old self might have coped with the same scenario. We now know many young boys left Finegan’s room with much more devastating consequences.

Physical violence was part of his modus operandi.

Recently I consulted a survivor who described how he was strapped more vigorously than other boys. Finegan told him he had to be seen to mete out extra physical punishment to defray any suspicion that he was ‘special’ to him.

Finegan was sexually abusing the boy but by punishing him harder in front of the class he deflected away any hint of the acts of sexual deviancy he was committing on him.

In addition to the more traditional forms of corporal punishment, he often used his fists. He followed up violence with a perverse excess affection designed to disorientate a pupil. Finegan’s favourite refrain was to ask, “Do you love me?”, his avuncular charm masking his predatory instincts.

Listening to survivors’ various accounts on this approach resonated with my own experience in first year. Finegan taught me Latin. I remember when he brought me to the front of the class and repeatedly slapped me for getting my citation wrong. I had one word out of place. The punishment didn’t fit the crime.

The experience was typical for so many of us.

I was sent off playing in a MacRory Cup semi-final against our biggest rivals, Abbey CBS. The absence of my workmanlike contribution in the second half wasn’t going to make an awful difference to my team but the Abbey player dismissed with me was one of their best.

The incident changed the dynamic of the game. In what was a default tactical change the departure of the college’s least skilful player and the Abbey’s key free taker turned the match. We went on to win the MacRory Cup that year.

The following Monday I was called to the president’s office for an urgent meeting. I thought I was to be commended for my part in the strategic master class. Instead I faced discipline for bringing the school’s good name into disrepute. I look back now on the twisted irony having Finegan lecture me about discipline on a Gaelic football pitch when he punched children in the face.

His abuse extended beyond such violence to include breach of the confessional seal, making life miserable for those who stood up to him right through to threats to expel or fail exams if you rebuffed his advances. He went undetected for an incredible 40 odd years.

A starting point on why is the Troubles. There was a deep distrust of the RUC within the nationalist community college hinterlands of south Armagh and south Down.

People didn’t complain about abuse to police. To have done so may have brought you more trouble. The difficulties created by the conflict in the 1970s and 1980s in many ways empowered the primacy of the Catholic Church within a de facto nationalist statelet. Inside these undrawn boundaries the president of a leading grammar school was always going to wield enormous power.

Factor in then the allegation that Finegan might have been afforded some sort of protected status by the security forces and you have an added layer of insulation.

Former pupils recount such incidents as Finegan arriving on the football pitch with RUC officers or a British Army helicopter landing in school grounds as part of an arrest operation against suspect republican students or the discipline meted out to an entire class because they refused to give up the identity of a class mate who scribbled pro IRA slogans on the blackboard.

Such allegations hardened whenever we challenged the PSNI to dismiss the allegation. They failed and instead invoked the policy of “Neither Confirm Nor Deny”.

Finegan was a snob and regularly courted the friendship of some of the more affluent families of pupils. He enjoyed golf and used the sport as a front to entice unwitting first years to accompany him as his caddy. He liked driving big fancy cars.

A very young 10-year-old Sean Faloon also liked cars. Finegan planned his abuse of him by offering him £2 to wash his car.

Parents and family were also a no-go area for complaint. Such was the primacy of a priest’s status in the community, you really were up against it if you thought your parents might take your word over that of a priest. There is Catholic guilt and then there is Irish Catholic guilt which embraced a systemic subservience to church and school. Finegan’s crimes were subsumed within that allegiance which helped suppress narratives for decades.

Another feature was the strong faith practised by parents of pupils and wider family circle: it was a big deal to go to St. Colman’s. The school had a long tradition of supplying vocations to the priesthood.

When I passed the 11-plus a great uncle quipped that I was “going to be a clergyman”. The notion transferred into an “understanding” that I was to be a possible candidate for the priesthood. As a 12-year-old I wrote some essays that betray an insane indoctrination exemplified by lines such as, “There are some who do not go to Mass. I know some of them myself”.

I dutifully wrote this to please the priest who taught me religion. A few months ago I met the survivor whose case led to Finegan’s exposure as a paedophile. He recounted how that same now deceased priest walked into a classroom to find Finegan committing a sex act on him.

My vocation lasted about six weeks and ended after Finegan left me underwhelmed with his sales pitch for the priesthood telling me that it was a great life, with a nice car and you got a woman to cook and clean and look after you. That was it.

In St Colman’s the ethic of team loyalty meant everything.

An opponent’s hit on one of your players was a hit on the entire team and everyone responded accordingly. You didn’t even have to particularly like a teammate. He was wearing the same jersey as you. You were expected to uphold the tradition.

Some former pupils have found difficulties wrestling with split allegiances: on the one hand following the lead of Frank Mitchell in calling out Finegan and on the other hand displaying a residual loyalty to the school. I’ve spoken with many who had Finegan at their wedding, baptise their children, attend at their parents’ home for dinner or other social occasions. For many it has been an awkward path to navigate.

Since the real story about Finegan emerged I naively thought that anyone who played college football may have been somehow insulated from him. In the last few months I have taken instructions from two former MacRory Cup players who recounted abuse. Playing football and discussing it during those talks didn’t necessarily exempt you. He could basically try to touch any child he wanted but he himself remained untouchable in the eyes of the law.

Documents made available in the litigation explain why Finegan was never investigated, and sent to jail. They disclose a close relationship with Bishop Francis Brooks. They were friends from their time training for the priesthood. Francis Brooks was also a former college president and well aware of Finegan’s proclivities.

That might explain why he temporarily shifted him out of the school in 1971/72, another was an example of the disreputable practice of transferring suspect paedophile priests into different parishes or locations. It was a precursor of the decision he took more than 20 years later when, instead of reporting him to police, he sent Finegan to Stroud Therapy Centre in Gloucestershire to be ‘cured’.

The salutary lessons of the notorious Brendan Smyth case ought to have alerted the church to the fact that sending paedophile priests to Stroud doesn’t really work. 

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