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As a child, I was relentlessly abused by a Catholic priest. As an adult, it almost killed me twice | Rape and sexual assault

As a child, I was relentlessly abused by a Catholic priest. As an adult, it almost killed me twice | Rape and sexual assault
As a child, I was relentlessly abused by a Catholic priest. As an adult, it almost killed me twice | Rape and sexual assault

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It was November 1970 and Northern Ireland was sliding into the Troubles, but for Gerard Gorman, a new pupil at St Colman’s College, the horror of that era began when Fr Malachy Finegan summoned him into a room, closed the door and told him to sit on a sofa.

Gorman was 11 years old and small for his age, with big blue eyes. Two months earlier, he had started as a boarder at the Catholic boys’ school in Newry, County Armagh. Staff tended to be aloof or intimidating, except Finegan, the religious education teacher, who was solicitous and avuncular.

More than half a century later, Gorman can still picture the scene on that autumn day. He had been with other boys, running to the dormitory, when Finegan beckoned him from a doorway into his sitting room. It overlooked playing fields and had a TV and a bag of sweets on a table.

The priest sat beside the boy. He was a big man with huge ears that had earned him the nickname Floppy. There was a bit of chitchat, then he leaned in. “His whole face was sort of wrapping around me and just blotting out everything else,” Gorman recalls. “I had shorts on and he put his hands on to my penis.”

Gorman did not move or cry out. He did not understand what was happening, but registered Finegan’s big red face, his breath and a smell of cigarettes. “I just froze, I was just so scared.”

Gorman stared at the floor, at Finegan’s big black shoes. He could hear voices from the corridor, but instead of hoping for rescue, he feared discovery. “I was afraid that someone would open the door and I would be blamed for what he was doing. What would they say? How would I ever live this down? It was: ‘Please don’t come in.’”

And so it began: a harrowing cycle of molestation and rape in which a predatory paedophile hunted a child who blamed himself for assaults he could not comprehend or explain; a depraved game of cat-and-mouse where the mouse had nowhere to run. Sometimes Finegan summoned Gorman to his room, other times he cornered him elsewhere.

“I never felt safe because Finegan just went about the school as if he was untouchable,” says Gorman. “The abuse was relentless. Even the days that nothing happened I would hear voices and think it was him coming round the corner. I just felt in his clutches all the time that I was in that place.”

And yet Gorman survived – at terrible cost to himself and his family – and in time became the mouse that roared. He exposed Finegan and, after a long battle, compelled the Catholic church to acknowledge the abuse, etching a notable victory in the grim history of clerical abuse scandals on the island of Ireland.

Gorman almost died twice during this odyssey, but clung on, damaged, alive and eventually ready to tell his story. Now a 65-year-old grandfather, he lives near his daughter – he also has two sons – in a County Down village, his cottage adorned with family photos and art. His childhood was stolen, but he has found a measure of peace and learned to forgive his younger self, the terrified, lonely, silent boy. “I used to hate him,” says Gorman. “I hated him for not speaking out.”


Gorman was born in 1958 in Newcastle, a coastal County Down town at the foot of the Mourne mountains. His mother, Marie, was a loving, gentle presence. His father, Patrick, a prosperous fishmonger, was prone to violent rages. Once, he scalded his son with an iron, blistering a knee, but it was usually Marie who bore the brunt.

The young Gorman sought refuge in a tunnel of hedges and pines at the bottom of the garden. “When there were arguments, it was just a wee place to go and hide, to get out of the house and away from the noise. I’d hold a football, just to have something to hold. I felt safe, in a strange way.” It was the first sanctuary in a life scarred by abuse and trauma.

Gorman started boarding at St Colman’s in September 1970 at the insistence of his father, who considered it a badge of middle-class status. It was only 20 miles from Newcastle, but, to Gorman, it was a distant, alien world.

The only authority figure to show any warmth at the outset was Finegan. He was empathic, even playful. “Come here till I see those eyes,” he told the new pupil.

After that first assault, the abuse became routine – groping, masturbation, rape. Gorman would instinctively stare at the floor, and the dull blackness of Finegan’s shoes.

Once, the priest appeared to be in a rush and was exceptionally rough, Gorman recalls. “The skin on my penis actually broke, it was really sore and stingy.” Another time, he was cornered in a gym storeroom. “He pushed my pants down and grabbed me from behind.” After being raped, Gorman felt moisture and thought he was bleeding. The priest used a folded Irish tricolour to wipe them both. “I’ve often thought of him using that to clean himself.”

More than the physical pain, Gorman feared discovery. “You think you’re the only one that this is happening to and you don’t want anybody getting any inkling.”

Afterwards, in the corridors, Finegan would greet his victim with a cheery smile as if nothing had happened. Gorman felt most vulnerable on Saturdays and over Christmas, when the day boys were absent. Dread about the next assault, and fear of exposure, squeezed his chest like a vice.

He found refuge in a dark, musty storeroom concealed behind a classroom blackboard. He would sit for hours, sometimes closing his eyes, listening to muffled sounds from around the school. “I was there in the quiet, wishing I was home with my siblings and mum.”

Gorman with his brother Damian. Photograph: Paul Faith/The Guardian

Visits to this private realm calmed Gorman so that, upon emerging, he could continue silently enduring dozens of assaults over the course of six months. Feigning normality was the only survival strategy he could think of.

At home for summer holidays in 1971, he refused to return to St Colman’s. This meant defying his father, an unheard of event in the Gorman family. Patrick Gorman’s fury was volcanic, but Gorman held his ground: he was not going back. His mother negotiated a compromise – he would go to a convent school that took male pupils and had sufficient status for his class-conscious father.

The relief was immense. No more Finegan. And Gorman’s secret was safe – nobody knew. But dark memories and emotions churned and throbbed. Anything could set them off: cigarette smoke, a black shoe, a hint of varnish, a compliment about his eyes, and suddenly the big red face would loom in and wrap around him.

Gorman began to rebel. Instead of his uniform, he sported garish glam rock gear. He played truant, took his dad’s car for illicit drives, broke windows, sprayed graffiti and phoned in bomb scares in the guise of anti-British activism. Recklessness, he would later reflect, became a sanctuary, as if pushing things to the limit could erase what had happened.

Gorman was shy around girls and worried about sex, but in 1977 became engaged to Deirdre. Children soon followed, but so did the memory of Finegan. If triggered during the day – by an overflowing ashtray, say – Gorman would flail during his sleep that night. During sex with his wife, he would sometimes glimpse his tormentor’s face and scream. “Deirdre would cry and ask what was wrong. I hated that question, because I didn’t want to explain.”

Gorman, a painter and decorator, resorted to a time-honoured refuge. “Alcohol was a crutch. Out with mates, I’d think: ‘I’ve missed out on so much and this is fun.’ You’re just enjoying the craic. But it became very dangerous.”

He would roll home drunk, wake the kids with blazing rows, feel remorse, do it again. The death of his mother to cancer and a younger brother, Brendan, to alcohol, stoked loneliness and grief.

In 2003 or 2004, Gorman was visiting their graves when he noticed a recently erected Celtic cross headstone – the grave of Finegan, who, after rising to become president of St Colman’s, had died in 2002, respected and revered.

Gorman stopped visiting the cemetery. “All I was thinking about was that monster. It was a bit like that Carrie film,” he says, referring to the Stephen King horror. “It was as if he was coming out – ‘I’ve got you again’.”

It was a low point, but worse followed. Gorman drifted further from his family, leaving them bewildered and distraught. Then, in 2011, came a breakthrough. A GP worried about Gorman’s mental health referred him to the Downshire hospital in Downpatrick. There, he connected with a psychiatrist – she reminded him of his mother – and out it tumbled, the secret hidden for 30 years. “I was abused as a child at boarding school,” he told her.

Photograph: Paul Faith/The Guardian

Gorman also told his wife. “Thank God,” she said, the tormenting riddle finally solved. But trauma once again ambushed Gorman. Sharing his story, excavating memories, left him overwhelmed. “Everything in my head just exploded. I thought: ‘I don’t want to be here any more.’”

He tried to kill himself. He survived, but his family was absolutely devastated. “It was a very low point, but it was also a turning point,” he reflects. His family’s support, and counselling, began to turn the tide. “Finegan has taken enough, don’t let him take any more,” said a counsellor – and it hit like an epiphany.

Recovery was not linear, and certain sights and smells remained triggers, but Gorman tried to repair relationships – and to fight for accountability. It was too late to prosecute Finegan, but he took a civil case against the Catholic church, which settled with Gorman in 2017 after five years of foot-dragging. It acknowledged harm and agreed to remove the priest’s headstone.

Finegan, however, was not named publicly. In 2018, Gorman did so in a BBC Spotlight documentary, but in silhouette and under an assumed name. It emerged that Finegan was believed to have abused at least a dozen other boys.

In 2022, Gorman felt ready to reveal his identity and told his story in a memoir, So Young: The Taking of My Life By the Catholic Church, co-written with his brother Damian, a poet and playwright. It includes searing victim-impact statements from his family. Finegan’s abuse destroyed Gorman’s capacity to be a loving parent, wrote one of his children. Deirdre wrote: “He took the light out of my husband’s eyes and left them empty and dead. He stole my marriage and the man that I love and left my children with the shell of a person he was for many years.”

Gorman struggles with that legacy. “I feel guilty to this day – I’ll never be able to undo my actions. But I certainly try.” Two years ago, he had heart surgery, but the wound refused to heal – a consequence of trauma, he believes. “The body keeps the score.” He almost died, yet again survived, impelled by a desire to make amends.

He wears bracelets made by some of his eight grandchildren and has tattoos with their names. When he plays with them, he feels in the moment, and their innocence reminds him of the frightened little boy he once was and no longer hates. “I’m going to concentrate on enjoying whatever life I have left,” he says. “It’s time I found peace.”

So Young: The Taking of My Life By the Catholic Church, by Gerard Gorman with Damian Gorman, is available now.

In the UK, the NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111 and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331. In the US, call or text the Childhelp abuse hotline on 800-422-4453. In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or Bravehearts on 1800 272 831. Adult survivors can contact Blue Knot Foundation

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