Helen McGonigle, 48, was just six years old when Father Brendan Smyth, a notorious sex offender from Co. Cavan, first abused her.
McGonigle, now a successful attorney in Connecticut, says Smyth destroyed her family. She blames Smyth for the death of her sister and brother and the demise of her beautiful mother.
After years of suppressing the memories of the horrendous abuse, McGonigle is now dealing with her past and hoping other victims will do the same.
McGonigle, whose maternal grandparents were from Co. Kerry, was living with her family in East Greenwich, Rhode Island when her childhood was ripped apart at the seams.
Like any good Catholic family of their time, the church and clergy were to be highly respected. Helen was taught to obey church teachings and respect church leaders . . . including the new parish priest, Smyth.
The McGonigles were members of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church and she went to school where Smyth worked.
Helen wasn’t the only sister to encounter Smyth’s evil ways. The Cavan priest also sexually abused her older sister Kathleen.
In the past few years, both Kathleen, 48, and her brother Gerard, 53, died of drug overdoses. McGonigle claims it was the abuse Kathleen suffered at the hands of Smyth that made her dependent on antidepressants.
Gerard, she told the Irish Voice, suffered from depression because he felt guilty he was unable to help his family during these terrible years.
It was finally her sister’s tragic death in 2005 that lead McGonigle to face her worst nightmares, nightmares from the past she thought she would never need to resurrect.
“It was because I observed my sister rapidly deteriorating and fearful for her life that I began my investigation into the past about our childhood in Rhode Island,” said McGonigle during a lengthy interview with the Irish Voice.
While her sister was ailing, McGonigle’s father said accusingly, "It was that priest from Rhode Island that gave your sister alcohol that started her problems.”
Not only did this statement shock and frighten McGonigle, it got her thinking back into her past. Was Smyth really responsible for his sister’s problems?
“People who do not walk in these shoes cannot comprehend how it (abuse) impacts adults and can be life threatening as in the case of my family,” said McGonigle.
Smyth, who died in jail in 1997 from a heart attack at the age of 70, was first introduced to the McGonigles in 1967 by Helen’s grandmother, who was residing with the family in Rhode Island and had struck up a friendship with the new parish priest. They shared a common love for the Irish language.
“They were able to converse in Gaelic, something foreign to us in the U.S.,” recalls McGonigle.
Smyth was invited into the McGonigle home to give it his blessing. He gifted them with a crucifix from his Norbertine Abbey, Holy Trinity in Co. Cavan.
He was an instant hit with the family. However, it didn’t take Smyth long to expose his dark side.
In 1968, McGonigle said Smyth was caught molesting children in her parish and sent to Purdysburn Mental Hospital in Northern Ireland for treatment.
After his time was served in Ireland, Smyth was allowed to return to Rhode Island, said McGonigle.
“It was during that visit in the summer of 1967 that Smyth learned of the bizarre death -- supposedly blood poisoning from stepping on a bobby pin -- of my uncle Gerry Gerard O'Connor in 1947 while he was a seminarian at St. Mary's Baltimore,” explains McGonigle. He would later use this to get to Helen.
Exploiting the family’s tragedy and witnessing how distressed her grandmother and mother were over the loss of Gerry, Smyth, when reintroduced to McGonigle after he returned from Northern Ireland in her first grade year said, "You can call me Gerry like your uncle and your brother.”
This was the start of the abuse, which lasted four years.
McGonigle, now divorced with one child, said from the start Smyth appeared jovial and playful. He told the family to call him Father Gerry. He was everyone’s friend.
“He had a clever way of making things better for kids at our very grim school. Some of the older nuns were especially mean and cranky,” McGonigle recalled.
“Smyth would breeze into a classroom and come up with ideas like having an ice cream cart at the basketball games and then selling the extra ice creams to us kids during the school day as a special treat.”
During the abuse, McGonigle knew nothing but fear. Smyth told her she would "end up like the body in the woods" if she ever told a soul about what he was doing to her.
“I took that as a real death threat and was terrified and confused and very young,” she says.
McGonigle also witnessed Smyth molesting her sister. They had a bedroom with a door directly to the outside that he could enter.
Smyth’s evil antics didn’t stop at the McGonigle sisters either. Their mother also spent time in a mental institution.