Smyth, Brendan (1927–97), catholic priest and paedophile, was born John Gerard Smyth in Nansen Street, off the Falls Road, west Belfast, on 6 June 1927. He was educated at Barracks Street CBS, Belfast. In 1945 he joined the Norbertine (Premonstratensian) Order of Augustinian canons based at Kilnacrott Abbey, near Ballyjamesduff, Co. Cavan, taking Brendan as his name in religion. Between 1947 and 1951 he studied theology at the Gregorian University, Rome; he returned to Cavan after his ordination in 1951. It is suspected that his child-molesting activities had already begun by the time of his return from Italy.
Over the following decades Smyth organised catechism classes for children at the abbey, established a choir, trained altar boys, and oversaw various other devotional and recreational activities. He used these activities to abuse unknown numbers of children. He also paid frequent visits to his native west Belfast, where he was well known; he ingratiated himself with childhood friends and acted as a ‘friendly uncle’ to their young children, presenting them with sweets and toys while taking advantage of their parents’ trust in him as a priest and an old acquaintance to use them for his own sexual gratification. Despite taking a vow of poverty, he owned a car, intended for pastoral purposes but used to facilitate abuse by taking children on trips; he also enjoyed unexplained financial resources, possibly acquired through friends’ donations and mass offerings, which were used in attempts to buy off troublesome victims.
In 1957–9 Smyth served in the diocese of Galloway, Scotland, and in the early 1960s in the diocese of Menevia in Wales. From 1965 to 1968 he was a parish priest in East Greenwich in the diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, where he took a particular interest in ‘children's recreation’, but was sent back to Ireland by the bishop of Providence after he was found to have abused children in the diocese. It seems that some members of the Norbertine community were aware in general terms of his misconduct, but that only at this point was serious action taken.
In 1968 Smyth was subjected to aversion therapy at Purdysburn Hospital, Belfast. He received further treatment in 1973 in Dublin, and the following year he was institutionalised for a period at a specialised church institution in Stroud, Gloucestershire. None of this had any lasting effect, nor does there ever appear to have been a suggestion that Smyth should be handed over to the civil authorities or confined within the abbey. (Abbot Kevin Smith – no relation – who assumed office in 1969 and resigned in 1994 after Smyth's conviction, stated that Smyth was an adult and his movements could not be controlled; some observers claimed that the dour, determined Smyth was able to overawe the abbot.) It has been claimed that at some point Smyth's authorisation to hear confessions was withdrawn, but this does not seem to have been maintained.
Smyth's superiors resorted to moving him from place to place frequently in the belief that this would prevent him from building up the prolonged relationship of trust needed to secure victims; in fact this made it easier for him to secure new victims in places where he was unknown, while his status as an order priest semi-detached from diocesan structures made it easier for various authorities to avoid taking responsibility for his actions. In the early and mid-1970s he abused children at the Nazareth House orphanage on the Ormeau Road, and complaints were made about his abuse of girls at a Belfast school.
In 1981–3 Smyth served in the diocese of Fargo, North Dakota, where he carried out further acts of abuse. (The diocese was subsequently sued by victims who protested that, after the first complaints were received, Smyth was transferred to another parish in the diocese and did not return to Ireland until the end of the two-year term for which he had been seconded). In February 1990 a woman who had been abused as a child by Smyth (her parents had only discovered this in 1989) mentioned her experiences to a social worker, who referred her to the police. An investigation beginning in March 1990 uncovered further victims and led to Smyth, who was then serving as a supply chaplain to the Irish army, being questioned on 8 March 1991. After making admissions about the offences on which he was questioned he was released on bail and returned to Cavan. He failed to appear for his initial hearing in April and for the following three years refused to present himself to the police. At this time he remained based in Kilnacrott, but served as chaplain to hospitals in Cork and Tralee (with access to the children's wards) on several occasions; he paid regular visits to west Belfast, where the paramilitary conflict hindered the ability of the police to apprehend him. Some of the offences for which he was subsequently convicted in the republic were committed in this period. In April 1993 extradition warrants were sent to the gardai and passed on to the attorney general's office in Dublin; they were still awaiting implementation when Smyth voluntarily returned to Northern Ireland at the beginning of 1994 after pressure was brought to bear on him by the ecclesiastical authorities.
In June 1994 Smyth pleaded guilty to eight charges of child abuse and was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment, then in September 1995 he was given a three-year concurrent sentence for eight more charges. He served his sentence in Magilligan prison, where he was subjected to some harassment by other prisoners, though the extent of this is unclear. In general he adapted well to prison, finding that its structured existence resembled religious life. While Smyth shared with Sean Fortune (qv) the ability to compartmentalise his crimes from his self-image as a man of God, their personalities were noticeably different. Fortune – a flamboyant self-publicist whose attainment of ordination may have been partly the result of declining seminary discipline after Vatican II – based his appeal on being self-consciously modern and innovative; Smyth, trained in the Rome of Pius XII, lurked unobtrusively within inherited ecclesiastical structures and exhibited a self-conscious attachment to traditional forms of devotion. Throughout the investigations he showed little remorse beyond pro forma statements; when confronted with details of particular offences he would admit guilt, but never volunteered information unknown to police.
While Smyth began his imprisonment, the handling of his extradition warrant became an issue in the dissensions of the Fianna Fáil–Labour coalition government in Dublin. The sheer length of time over which he had carried out his crimes, and the grotesque images created by his habit of staring straight at the cameras of press photographers, drew widespread attention. His face became an abiding image of the clerical sexual abuse scandal; in William Trevor's story ‘Of the cloth’ (in The hill bachelors, 2000) the ubiquity of the grinning face of ‘the jolly Norbertine man of God’ bears witness to the dissipation of the self-image of post-independence catholic Ireland as ‘a golden age of faith’. Smyth's case was further publicised by the UTV programme ‘Suffer little children’ (broadcast 6 October 1994), which detailed the experiences of his victims and the procrastination of church and state in bringing him to justice. Labour ministers, opposed to Albert Reynolds's desire to appoint the then attorney general, Harry Whelehan, as president of the high court, demanded an explanation about the delay in extraditing Smyth. In November 1994 they found the offered explanation (attributing the delay to pressure of work in the attorney general's office, concern about whether Smyth could get a fair trial on offences dating back twenty or thirty years, and the fact that this was the first such case handled under the 1987 Extradition Act) unsatisfactory, and walked out of the government after Reynolds proceeded with the appointment.
Reynolds subsequently agreed both to reforms in the attorney general's office and to an apology for the handling of the case in order to placate the Labour Party and, after being informed that the Smyth case was not unprecedented, denounced the former attorney general for allegedly misinforming him. The government nevertheless fell after Labour came to believe Fianna Fáil ministers had known about the alleged precedent (whose relevance was subsequently called into question), and a ‘rainbow coalition’ of Fine Gael, Labour, and the Democratic Left took office in December 1994. A subsequent official inquiry found no evidence that the delay in extraditing Smyth was due to anything other than administrative bottlenecks in the attorney general's office. Reynolds later stated that he believed Whelehan, who resigned his judicial position, had acted in good faith and had been wrongly accused.
In 1996 Smyth's ecclesiastical superiors finally deprived him of the right to say mass and confer the sacraments. On completion of his sentence in March 1997 he was returned to the republic, where he was detained by the authorities and pleaded guilty to 74 offences against twenty boys and girls between 1958 and 1993. In a victim impact procedure, several victims confronted Smyth across the courtroom, describing how they had lost their religious faith and endured broken marriages, drug abuse, and suicide attempts. One expressed a wish to kill Smyth, another that the priest would rot in hell.
Smyth was sentenced to twelve years’ imprisonment in July 1997, and died following a heart attack in the Curragh prison on 22 August 1997. At the time of his death proceedings were under way for his formal laicisation, but he was buried at Kilnacrott by arrangement with his family. The burial took place at night to avoid attention, and the grave was covered in concrete to prevent vandalism. In 2005 one of Smyth's victims secured the removal of his priestly title from his gravestone.
While Smyth was not the first Irish priest to be successfully prosecuted for sexual abuse, the sheer length of his career, the number of his victims, and the criminal negligence displayed by his superiors raised public consciousness of the issue sharply and inaugurated a long series of devastating revelations about past and present clerical mistreatment of children. He came to symbolise a wider sense of exploitation, hypocrisy, and betrayal which went beyond post-1960s liberal critiques of Irish catholicism to produce an angrier and more visceral anti-clericalism.