Fortune, Sean (1953–99), catholic priest and paedophile, was born in Gorey, Co. Wexford, on 20 December 1953. He was educated in Gorey at the Loreto Convent and the Christian Brothers' School, and then became a member of the Christian Brothers' juniorate in Dún Laoghaire (1969–73). In 1971 he considered joining the Holy Ghost Fathers and spent a term at Blackrock College, but was considered temperamentally unsuited for missionary work. After taking his leaving certificate in 1973 he entered the Christian Brothers' novitiate at St Helen's, but left a month later to enter St Peter's seminary, Wexford, to study for the priesthood. It appears that by this time he was already an active paedophile; he later claimed that he had been sexually abused by unnamed persons from the age of eight. Given his general mendacity, it is not clear how much reliance should be placed on this statement.
At St Peter's, Fortune was seen as both brilliant and unbalanced, acquiring the nickname ‘Flapper’; 6 feet 2 inches tall, he had an overbearing physical presence. The seminary, which shared its buildings with a secondary school, was in crisis as a result of declining numbers, the abandonment of traditional seminary discipline in the aftermath of the second Vatican Council, and the presence among the staff of sexual offenders whose offences had been made known to the bishop but had not been notified to the civil authorities. Mistakenly regarding the sexual molestation of children as a lapse in personal morality by the offenders to be addressed as a penitential matter, rather than as a serious crime involving lasting damage to the victims and an extreme risk of recurrence, Bishop Donal Herlihy of Ferns allowed offenders whose crimes were known to him to return to the school after brief transfers elsewhere, in the mistaken belief that they would not assault other children. While a seminarian, Fortune carried out sexual assaults (including rape) on other seminarians and on members of a Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland (CBSI) troop which he had formed at the school. In 1979, either before or after his ordination (it is not clear which), a report on Fortune's activities was given to Bishop Herlihy. A surviving adviser claims Fortune's sexual offences were not known to the seminary authorities, and that, although regarded as extremely eccentric, he was ordained in the belief that his abounding energy would compensate for other pastoral deficiencies.
Fortune was ordained to the priesthood on 27 May 1979 and spent a year at Holy Rosary Church, Belfast (1979–80), also visiting Nazareth House orphanage, and soon acquired a reputation as unruly and unmanageable. He was barred from working with the CBSI (a member of his scout troop – some of whose members were recruited from the orphanage – later claimed Fortune had sexually assaulted him and others) and was finally removed from the Down and Connor diocese by Bishop William Philbin (qv) after complaints that he had propositioned schoolboys were added to accusations of financial irregularity and political recklessness. Fortune then took a course at the Institute of Religious Education, Mount Oliver, Dundalk (during which he is alleged to have abused a fourteen-year-old participant in a youth retreat).
Despite unfavourable reports from a psychologist specialising in priests with problems (to whom Fortune had been referred by Bishop Herlihy), in May 1982 Fortune was appointed curate in Poulfur in the parish of Templetown, on the Hook peninsula, near Fethard-on-Sea, Co. Wexford. Herlihy acted in the belief that, having accepted Fortune for ordination, he was obliged to accommodate him within the diocese; he allegedly believed that the parish priest would be able to control him (though, under the ‘half-parish’ system, parish priest and curate lived in different areas of the parish), and that the remoteness of the Hook peninsula and the tightly knit nature of the community limited the extent to which he would be able to step out of line without being brought to account. Instead, Fortune exploited the strong local culture of respect for and deference the priesthood to manipulate his parishioners for his own sexual and financial gratification.
In Poulfur, Fortune rapidly established a high profile (increased by his own contributions to local newspapers). He claimed to have established thirty organisations in the parish, including an unaffiliated scout troop. Local organisations which he could not control, such as the GAA club and Macra na Feirme branches, were vilified and accused of various misdeeds, while a dispute over control of the parish hall led to factional divisions within the community mirroring those which developed during the Fethard-on-Sea boycott of 1957. (Sean Cloney (qv) was one of his leading opponents.) He obtained state funds for local employment schemes, leading the new bishop of Ferns, Brendan Comiskey, to praise him publicly as ‘the Monsignor Horan of the South-East’; Fortune got participants on these schemes to pay him a percentage of their wages for ‘administrative costs’. He used his scout troop to groom boys for abuse, asking prurient questions, showing pornographic films, holding late-night parties and events under his supervision, and manipulating his victims through feelings of guilt and complicity (sometimes involving cash payments). At least two of his victims subsequently committed suicide.
At the same time, Fortune cultivated a reputation for sanctity and built up a body of adherents (some of whom travelled to his mass, while local opponents increasingly travelled elsewhere). He held high-profile blessings and other devotional ceremonies, for which he extracted simoniacal payments, showing particular skill at extorting money from the elderly; he spent extravagantly, and liked to remark that he had gained a stone in weight for every year he spent in Poulfur. His morbid obesity accentuated his aura of physical dominance. He celebrated widely publicised ‘healing masses’ which attracted people from across Ireland. He also liked to pronounce curses on opponents – including those who preferred to have their babies baptised by the parish priest, to Fortune's financial loss; sometimes he predicted their children would be born deformed or suffer misfortune. On his departure in October 1987 he left numerous unpaid bills.
Complaints about Fortune's activities were made to both Herlihy and Comiskey; Fortune was sent to a psychiatrist in February 1985, and in 1986 a young man informed Comiskey directly that Fortune had assaulted him. Comiskey felt himself to be restricted in his handling of the case by the canonical rights of a priest facing disciplinary action from his superior (this could have included a lengthy appeal process going all the way to Rome and a requirement for concrete evidence when many abuse victims were reluctant to give formal testimony); nonetheless subsequent investigators felt that he could have done more to restrict Fortune's activities and place him under supervision. There was also a widespread perception that Comiskey was overawed and psychologically intimidated by Fortune.
In 1987 Fortune was sent to London to take a media studies course at the University of London and to undergo assessment by psychiatrists. He continued to undertake pastoral duties at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Acton; he also taught at further education institutions in London and acted as a hospital chaplain. While he did attend some counselling sessions, he refused to undertake residential treatment; he behaved extravagantly, running up significant debts. Meanwhile, formal accusations of sexual abuse were made to his successor in Fethard; these were passed on to the Ferns diocesan authorities, who expressed concern but failed to take concrete action.
In April 1988 Fortune returned to Ireland and attached himself to a church in Bray. He underwent further psychological assessment in Dublin and London, the effectiveness of which was limited by his own dishonesty – one doctor described him as a ‘pathological liar’ – and by the failure of the diocese to brief the psychologists on the extent of the allegations against him. In March 1989 he was appointed curate in the ‘half-parish’ of Ballymurn within the parish of Crossabeg; this reflected Comiskey's belief that he was under an obligation to do his best for a fellow priest and that the parish priest (who was not notified of the sexual allegations against Fortune) could supervise and restrain the curate.
In Ballymurn, Fortune once again set about founding organisations, charging money for blessings and church improvements, and organising healing services. As curate, he became chairman of the board of management of Ballymurn national school; within eighteen months he had quarrelled with parents over the appointment of a teacher, leading to a boycott. He was also chaplain to Bridgetown vocational school, but resigned in 1991 after complaints about his use of explicit sexual language and prurient questions during religion classes. He is alleged to have raped several young men during this period.
Fortune served for a time as director of the National Institute of Community Broadcasting and helped to prepare religious programming for South East Radio. In 1991 he founded the Institute of Journalism and Theatre, which hired facilities for classes in UCD, Montrose, and the Milltown Institute (using the reputation of these institutions to give the impression of official backing); he also taught adult education media studies courses in some Dublin schools. Fortune capitalised on his reputation as a church media expert, and was able to get some well-known media personalities to give talks under the aegis of his institute. Although some of his courses (those which were externally validated) were effective, it is generally felt that he charged excessive fees (mostly retained by him), that those courses which were not externally validated were seriously sub-standard, and that his marking was careless, with strong personalities receiving high marks while those less likely to protest were marked down.
Fortune's downfall began in February 1995, when one of his victims, Colm O'Gorman (later founder of the One in Four support group for victims of sexual abuse), made a formal complaint about him to the gardaí; more victims came forward during the investigation. Fortune was questioned in connection with sixty-six charges of indecent assault and buggery relating to eight boys. Reports of the investigation began to appear in newspapers. In March 1995 Fortune was placed on administrative leave by the diocese; he moved to New Ross, where he ran an unofficial ‘house of prayer’. He undertook lengthy legal proceedings aimed at having the charges dropped on the grounds that he could not get a fair trial due to the length of time which had elapsed. These were unsuccessful, however; criminal proceedings began on 2 March 1999 in Wexford circuit court, and Fortune was briefly detained in Mountjoy prison while his mental fitness to plead was assessed. On 13 March 1999, after being released on bail, he killed himself by taking an overdose of drugs mixed with alcohol.
In March 2002 the BBC screened a documentary, ‘Suing the pope’, in which O'Gorman and three other victims spoke about what Fortune had done to them and their efforts to obtain redress from church authorities, including a civil lawsuit against Fortune's estate, the bishop of Ferns, and the papal nuncio. This led to widespread publicity; more victims came forward, Bishop Comiskey resigned, and the government announced the appointment of a commission to investigate the Ferns diocese's handling of child abuse allegations against its priests. The report, which appeared in October 2005, presented a damning picture of the handling of accusations against twenty-one priests between 1960 and 2000.
The fact that such a compulsive liar, sexual predator, and con man as Sean Fortune could obtain ordination and function as a priest for so long despite numerous and frequent complaints, together with the failure of church authorities (and to a lesser extent civil authorities) to prevent his crimes, and a sense that the church authorities were more concerned to limit their own liability than to assist his victims or prevent his crimes, made him one of the central symbols of the crisis of Irish catholicism at the end of the second millennium.