Saturday, 28 June 2008
A mysterious and dramatic apology
CARL O’BRIEN Social Affairs Correspondent
The apology that was published in The Irish Times on Thursday
An apology was published in Thursday’s Irish Times in relation to the Pilgrim House Community. What is behind it and why was it made in such a public manner?
EVEN BY THE strange, often bizarre standards of the Pilgrim House Community – a controversial and private religious community – their actions on Thursday were bewildering. A dramatic half-page advertisement with the banner headline, “Public Apology”, leapt out of page seven of The Irish Times.
Signed by four of the directors of the organisation, it apologised for their “dishonesty” to the group’s founder, Helena O’Leary, seven years ago and for not publicly acknowledging this until now. “Each one of us, in different ways, lied about our reasons for being part of Pilgrim House. We said that we shared the spiritual principles on which Pilgrim House was built. This was not true,” it said.
It added that: “Throughout time God has used individuals to guide others and point them to the presence of God. Helena O’Leary is such a person.”
The apology was signed by Bridget Anne Ryan, Conleth J Finnegan, Claudia Carvajal M and Benedict Hogan, all of whom are directors of Pilgrim House. This dramatic public intervention has again focused media attention on a largely private community which has been accused of displaying disturbing and sometimes cult-like characteristics in the past.
The group has been accused of intimidating members who have decided to leave the organisation. Some members were interviewed by gardaí four years ago after disrupting Masses and distributing leaflets as part of what they said was a campaign to highlight incest and sexual abuse.
Today the group, which receives more than €200,000 in funding from the Health Service Executive, provides residential services for five intellectually disabled people near Celbridge, Co Kildare.
To those familiar with the unorthodox ways of Pilgrim House, Thursday’s advert has prompted a flurry of questions rather than answers. What would drive members of a private religious organisation to make the most public and dramatic of apologies? Was it really an apology or was it an attempt to deify the founder of the organisation, Helena O’Leary? Or was it an elaborate tactic to generate discussion and publicity about the community?
The directors of Pilgrim House were unwilling to shed much light on the reasons for the apology when contacted by The Irish Times in recent days, except to say that each member was apologising in a personal capacity.
Benedict Hogan, one of the signatories, said: “The essence of what I’m saying is that this is an apology to do with myself. It’s coming from me, as a deeply personal matter. There was a public dimension to this, which was entirely untrue. This is my personal way of rectifying something. You have to undo your own personal untruths and lies.”
Another signatory, Bridget Anne Ryan, a former editor of the Irish Catholic, also declined to elaborate on the nature of the apology. “All I will say is the apology relates to the fact that the Pilgrim House Community no longer exists,” she said. “It ended seven years ago. What exists now is an organisation which provides residential care for the intellectually disabled. The community life that was there is over.”
The founder of the community, Helena O’Leary – who now lives in Belgium – was unavailable for comment. Her husband, Dr Dermot O’Leary, did confirm that she was aware of the apology, but declined to comment further.
Seven years ago, the organisation made headlines after a community member took her own life at the organisation’s headquarters, then in Inch, Co Wexford.
A coroner’s court hearing in October 2001 concluded that Margaret Foley Smyth hanged herself after a violent row with her separated husband, who was also a member of the community. It turned out that she had left the community, before returning two months before her death.
Later, members of Pilgrim House were involved in handing out leaflets to Mass-goers in Foley Smyth’s home parish in Co Meath – and other parishes – which contained groundless allegations of incest in her family. A Garda investigation followed, but no charges ever resulted.
One of the priests whose Mass was disrupted was Fr Martin Tierney, who was a parish priest at Kill o’ the Grange in Dún Laoghaire at the time. He says he was initially impressed by Pilgrim House’s work and the care the group provided for the intellectually disabled, but later found some of their actions disturbing.
“That occasion in the church was quite a frightening experience,” he says. “I had a number of very uncomfortable meetings with them . . . They strike me as a troubled little group. There was tension within it which came to the surface time after time.”
Mike Garde, of Dialogue Ireland, an organisation which gathers information on new religious movements, became aware of the group in the late 1990s when he was contacted by a number of members who had left the organisation. He says it exhibited signs of “cult-like” behaviour, such as the control exerted over community members and the repeated attempts to contact former members who decided to leave.
“There was one member of the community who wanted to leave – he was a former member of a religious order. He felt he had to be picked up at midnight, because the group was so controlling. Another person who left kept receiving visits at her residence in Dublin before moving to the country.”
None of the directors of Pilgrim House contacted by The Irish Times would comment on whether the public apology was linked to events surrounding the suicide of Foley Smyth. Garde himself suspects the group has largely disintegrated, given that the names of many key members of the group are not listed as signatories to the apology. However, he too is perplexed at the apology.
MEANWHILE, THE very public nature of the advertisement has also raised fresh questions about whether it is appropriate for the group to be caring for intellectually disabled people and to receive State funds for doing so. The group’s actions in bringing intellectually disabled residents along to some of its protests have also raised eyebrows. The Health Service Executive, however, says a review of the service was carried out in October 2005.
A return visit to report on progress made in the interim was carried out in February 2007. The HSE says this report found that residents were receiving a “satisfactory standard of care in a clean and homely environment”. It says that next of kin were all satisfied with the care that their relatives were receiving and they had no concerns or complaints about the standard of care.
Meanwhile, the signatories of the apology are keen to emphasise that their intervention was made in a public capacity and is not related to the running of the service in Kildare. One of the signatories, Conleth J Finnegan, would not comment on the group’s activities except to say that Thursday’s apology was a personal one which he did not want to elaborate on.
“It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a number of years. It is a personal apology, but it’s public for the reason that the damage that was done was very public. I’m pleased this has happened. I wouldn’t like to add anything more than that.”
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