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.
According to McGonigle’s childhood neighbor who she located after 36 years, in 1968 her mother caught “Smyth sodomizing a little boy behind the stone wall and she shouted, ‘What are you doing to that little boy.’
“Smyth charged at her and yelled, ‘Get back in the house this is church business,’” McGonigle said.
In 1969 McGonigle’s mother was found hysterical on the front lawn of their family home half naked, screaming, "The Pope owes me!" Her brother was called home from school to address the situation (her dad was out of state on business).
“My brother, now deceased, based upon his personal observations and being 15 or 16 believed my mom was raped and it was by Smyth,” said McGonigle.
By June 1970 her mother was having a meltdown. She spent one month in June of 1970 at Butler Hospital in Rhode Island.
“Gerry witnessed the deterioration of my mother and that was very difficult for him. So much responsibility was on his shoulders as an early age to protect our family while my dad was traveling,” she said.
“Smyth knew when my dad was away because the car was gone from the driveway and my mom did not drive. When this all surfaced for our family in 2005, my brother had a great deal of difficulty coping with it.”
Ironically, said McGonigle, her grandmother seemed to have a sense of what went on in the clergy. In letters, McGonigle later discovered, hand written by her grandmother to her Uncle Gerry, she warned him of “those seminarians and priests that will try to get into your bed.”
Although she doesn’t have any proof, McGonigle said she is “highly suspicious” that it was her grandmother and her mother that reported Smyth as a sexual abuser in 1968.
“This I suspect through circumstances and do not have hard proof,” she said.
The abuse stopped when the family moved from Rhode Island in 1973 but the scars were left for life.
McGONIGLE got on with her life. She put her abuse behind her and did her best to lead a normal life.
It wasn’t until her sister’s death five years ago that she began to delve into their pasts. She began to question why her sister suffered from depression in the first place.
After a little investigating she too discovered and remembered that Kathleen was a victim of Smyth’s lurid acts.
After burying her sister McGonigle took time to deal with her own issues. In November the Irish government’s Murphy Report was released, resulting in a press conference in Boston in December.
“At the last moment I decided to blow up my photo from first grade and the one of Smyth from 1994. Both of those photos resonate with people and they wound up on the front page of the Metro section of the Boston Globe,” said McGonigle deciding it was time to go public with her story and let other victims know they weren’t alone.
“I was inspired by a very kind man name Paul Kellen in the Boston area who with my permission has been carrying my poster around to rallies all over the place. Paul even took my picture to see the Pope during his last visit to New York and Washington, D.C., and Paul is often outside the Holy Cross Cathedral in Boston with my picture.”
Not wanting to let Smyth ruin any more of her life, McGonigle reported the sexual abuse inflicted on her to the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island in 2006. They told her she wasn’t the first to report Smyth.
“I was informed that I was the sixth to come forward, yet newspaper accounts that I located indicated there were no problems whatsoever in our parish,” she said.
McGonigle attended a meeting where she said the Vicar General, Paul Theroux, of the Providence Diocesan, offered her $25,000 compensation, or she could “privately arbitrate with a cap of $50,000 (meaning there would be no public record and everything would once again be kept secret).”
McGonigle became infuriated with the financial offer.
McGonigle said the diocesan victim outreach coordinator, Michael Hansen, told her to “just send us all your bills."
“I refused their hush money,” said McGonigle.
The Diocese of Providence has paid for therapy and medical expenses McGonigle has incurred as a result of the abuse by Smyth.
McGonigle, who still has a case pending against the Diocese of Providence, realizes that it’s too late for Smyth to be brought to justice, but she longs for the Catholic Church to recognize the abuse he inflicted on the children of her parish while he served his time there.
“I would like bystanders and victims alike to come forward with information -- not just about Brendan Smyth -- in any case where they suspect child sexual abuse or child abuse is occurring,” she said.
“I also would like to see living pedophiles and those who have been complicit in their crimes prosecuted, and that includes clerics. It's mind boggling that just because a pedophile wears a roman collar he escapes criminal prosecution.
“The double standard has to stop and people must report to civil authorities, the police and child protection, not the church. The Catholic Church will only cover it up.”
McGonigle encounters clergy abuse even through her work. She is currently litigating a case of sexual abuse in the clergy for a deceased client, allowing her insight into the working of the church.
“I am having a first hand glimpse of the strategies and tactics used by the Catholic Church,” said McGonigle.
McGonigle does not attend Mass anymore. “I cannot attend church, and in my situation it would be against doctor's orders. Due to the stress brought about by the sexual abuse inflicted by Father Brendan Smyth, I had a grand mal seizure at age eight at Palm Sunday mass at Our Lady of Mercy,” remembers McGonigle.
“Once this all surfaced for me, and I had not had a grand mal seizure since I was eight, after some 39 years, I had another grand mal. The altar, white robes and smell of paraffin from the candles is all too triggering for me. Even the letters on the crucifix over Jesus -- "INRI" to me as a child registered as In Rhode Island -- that is a place of suffering,” she said.
McGonigle has her own personal relationship with God.
Smyth was convicted on 91 counts of child molestation – 17 in Northern Ireland and 74 in the summer
McGonigle isn’t included in this number. And undoubtedly, there are more just like her.
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