Skip to main content

Survivor: Irish priest committed abuse, destroyed family

From Drew Griffin, CNN Special Investigations Unit
Click to play
Priest's victim relives horror
  • Rhode Island woman says priest from Ireland abused herself, sister and mother
  • The priest, who died in prison in '97, is at center of scandal in Catholic Church
  • Smyth served in U.S. and European parishes before being convicted of child abuse
  • Rhode Island woman suing Diocese of Providence

Brookfield, Connecticut (CNN) -- Ireland, one of the world's most Catholic countries, has been reeling from the revelation that Catholic leaders there covered up child abuse, including sexual abuse, by priests for decades.

But not all of the victims were Irish.

The Emerald Isle exported many priests over the years. And that's how one of Ireland's most prolific, known child abusers ended up in Rhode Island in the late 1960s.

Helen McGonigle was 6 when, she says, the Rev. Brendan Smyth fondled, raped and sodomized her.

She says she remembers him, dressed in white priest's robes, at the back sliding glass door of her bedroom.

"All I wanted to do was to escape, to fly away. There were little cubbies in my room -- a twin bed with a headboard that had little cubbies," she remembers. "I just wanted to be tiny enough to hide in those little cubbies so he couldn't see me."

McGonigle, now a 48-year-old lawyer in Connecticut, says Smyth abused her, her sister and even her mother over a period of two years.

Video: Pope on scandal in Ireland
Video: Catholic abuse scandal

She believes the abuse drove her mother mad and drove her sister to suicide.

"My mom's breakdown was caused by this. There's no question," she said.

Her mother was found hysterical, half-naked, on her front lawn, screaming, "The pope owes me," McGonigle remembered.

She was acting "like she was a rape trauma victim," the lawyer said.

"I believe Smyth attacked her. I believe that's what caused her breakdown," she said.

"You have to understand my mom was also a devout Catholic. Her brother was a seminarian. So for the same person to be on the front lawn saying, 'The pope owes me,' she was really mad," McGonigle said.

Brendan Smyth was ultimately convicted of dozens of counts of child abuse in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. He died in prison in 1997.

But his victims on two continents, like Helen McGonigle, are living reminders of the crimes of this pedophile priest at the center of a sex scandal in the Irish Catholic church.

By the time he reached Helen McGonigle and her family, this Irish priest had already abused dozens.

Records dating back to the 1950s show Smyth was moved from parish to parish: Ireland to Scotland to Wales to Northern Ireland to Rhode Island, back to Ireland, then to East Greenwich, Rhode Island, and Langdon, North Dakota -- each time under a cloud of suspicion, or worse, after a family came forward to report the priest was an abuser.

Helen McGonigle says Smyth tended to abuse children in the same family.

"That seems to be a common pattern," she said.

But McGonigle was never able to get her sister to tell her about abuse by Smyth.

"She couldn't handle it. ... I think she was asked by my mother not to say anything," she said. "I mean, this is something that she probably swore to my mom that she would never bring up."

Helen's sister, Kathleen, took her own life in 2005.

McGonigle is now suing the Catholic Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island. The church is already paying for her therapy.

She says six others from her parish have come forward to say they, too, were abused by Smyth, including one of her childhood friends, a neighbor.

What she wants most of all from the church, she says, is an apology for destroying her family -- and an acknowledgment that the church knowingly placed a pedophile into her parish. So far, she says, she has received neither.

The Diocese of Providence has refused to comment, citing two pending lawsuits involving abuse allegations against Smyth.

Smyth's superior in Ireland admitted that the diocese where the priest was sent in the United States was not told of his history of abuse.

Smyth was finally arrested in 1994. He was sent to an Irish prison, where he died of a heart attack.