by Gordon Nary
Gordon: When you received your vocation, with whom did you first discuss it, and what was their advice?
Father Patrick: I told my parents that I wanted to be a priest when I was about six years old. When I was at Mass, I was fascinated by the priest on the Altar and all that he did, by the colour of his vestments, the sacred vessels.
Very simple little things drew me. For example, as soon as I went into Church, I knew what colour of vestments the priest would wear because the chalice was sitting in the centre of the Altar veiled in that colour.
Through these small details, the Lord began to draw me to Himself. More importantly, I became aware of His presence and I began to speak with Him. The sense of being called to give my life to Him in the priesthood became stronger as I grew up.
Gordon: Where did you attend seminary and what was the most interesting course that you took, and why was it so interesting?
Father Patrick: I entered seminary in September 1981, aged 18. For the first few years I attended St Peter’s College, Wexford.
That was not a happy time. I was very homesick and there was the problem of sexual abuse that I will discuss shortly.
It was evident to the authorities that I was unhappy. They did not know the reason of course and they assumed that I needed “time out”.
They thought that I was doubting my vocation. I could not tell them the reason for my distress. I was not questioning my call to be a priest. I was being targeted by a then young priest in my home diocese of Down and Connor for sexual assaults. This, for me, was a time of terrible darkness and suffering.
After my year out, when I was allowed to return to my studies, I was sent to Ireland’s National Seminary, St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Co Kildare. It was there that I completed my studies and I was very happy in Maynooth. I was ordained a priest on June 25th, 1989.
My most interesting course of study would be postgraduate work 2004 – 2006, when I undertook the Licentiate in Sacred Theology (STL) at the Milltown Institute in Dublin.
My thesis was on the clerical sexual abuse scandals and how, as ministers, we might reach out to victims, considering the model of Christ the Good Shepherd.
Gordon: What was you first assignment and what did you learn there?
Father Patrick: My first parish assignment was Nativity, Poleglass, a large series of housing estates on the outskirts of West Belfast.
It was a truly wonderful experience. There were many challenges of course. There were a lot of social problems. Nevertheless, I loved the parishioners and I have the fondest memories of my first four and a half years as a priest.
I learned many things that could not be found in a textbook or seminary class. I encountered amazing people, many of whom were wounded by life’s sorrows and tragedies – this was still during the years of violence that beset our communities in the North of Ireland.
Gordon: What is your current parish and approximately how many parishioner do your have?
Father Patrick: I am Parish Priest of Corpus Christi Parish, Ballymurphy, West Belfast. There are around 6,120 parishioners.
Gordon: What impact has the Covid-19 pandemic had upon your parish?
Father Patrick: Like everywhere, the pandemic has meant that we were not able to worship together and, for months and months, in 2020 and 2021, I was celebrating daily and Sunday Masses, alone in an empty Church.
Thankfully, we had a webcam installed in 2019 which was a great blessing, for many of our parishioners and others beyond, who were able to worship online.
Most painful were the funerals that could take place with only 25 family members present and, when things were at their worst, no Requiem Mass at all – just prayers outside the family home and at the cemetery or crematorium.
It was also very difficult to experience weddings and baptisms being cancelled and or postponed. Many have not yet returned to physical attendance at Church.
Gordon: Please share with our readers some information on your anti-abortion advocacy.
Father Patrick: I have been active in the pro life apostolate since I was ordained.
How we treat our most vulnerable brothers and sisters is an indication of what sort of world, what sort of society, we have created.
There are none so vulnerable as children in their mothers’ wombs. What does our world do to millions of them? It slaughters them. It attempts to even deny their humanity, so that their most basic right – the right to life itself – can be taken away by someone’s “choice”.
The abortion industry thrives on lies and on the sheer denial of reality with barbarous consequences for millions of boys and girls. Politicians and governments foster these falsehoods, that people have “the right to choose” abortion, that it is “compassionate healthcare” for women. We hear such slogans as “my body, my choice”. Behind all of this is the reality of the destruction, the dismemberment, of a human child.
Science itself is clear that, from the moment of conception, a unique human being is in existence. No one confers the right to life on that girl or boy. She and he innately has that right – as Christians we know this is given by God.
What society does, what some individuals do, is they deny, suppress, steal, that child’s most basic human right.
It is never morally permissible to deliberately kill a child in the womb. It is always evil. Catholics and their fellow Christians must always oppose the sin and crime of abortion.
This does not mean that we condemn those who choose this evil. We should seek for them healing, God’s forgiveness and mercy. The Lord will always forgive when we repent.
We are called by God to create a world where every child is welcomed as His gift and where even so-called “unplanned” pregnancies are met with every support, so that children can be born, so that the child can fulfil his and her mission in life.
No child is an “accident”. Each child has a mission, is created for a unique purpose. Abortion is the deliberate destruction of that child’s potential. It is the greatest evil of our time and faithful Catholics must stand strongly against it.
This is why it is very distressing to witness public figures, who claim to be “Catholic”, who stridently advocate for abortion, being permitted to receive Holy Communion.
This is an appalling sacrilege and an abuse and mockery of the Catholic Faith. It is unprecedented in Church history that certain prelates allow this and seek to justify it.
Gordon: As someone who has been sexually abused, how did that abuse impact on your decision to be a priest?
Father Patrick: It did not really impact on that decision at all. My sense of being called to the priesthood was never, in any way, overshadowed by having suffered sexual abuse.
If anything, my faith in God and sense of being called to serve Him, gave me comfort and hope. I was able to survive because I loved God and believed in Him.
I was sexually abused by a babysitter when I was four to five years old. There were numerous incidents of this in my family home.
I have vivid memories of the abuse and I can still see myself, as a little boy to whom this was happening, the shock, bewilderment and confusion I experienced. I did not understand what this perpetrator was doing. I had no language to articulate what was happening.
It marked me profoundly and I grew up anxious, depressed, fearful and with a sensation of being always lonely – even though I lived in a loving family. The only comfort and safety was in the Church and being close to God.
This security too was affected later when, as a young adult seminarian, I was sexually abused repeatedly, by a then young priest of the diocese of Down and Connor, James Donaghy. These attacks, there were probably about ten serious incidents, were perpetrated from 1983 to 1986.
James Donaghy would target me when I was home from seminary. These assaults were much worse than the abuse in childhood and they compounded those earlier psychological and emotional injuries.
I felt helpless, deeply ashamed, shamed, and terrified. So deep was my shame and horror that I could tell no one. This was the reason for my being very unhappy and unsettled during my early formation in seminary.
There was no one to whom I could turn. To survive, I had to desperately pretend that it wasn’t happening. The impact for me was years of depression, anxiety, self-harm, an eating disorder, sleeplessness, night terrors, panic attacks and nervous breakdowns.
Later I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I have had the condition since childhood.
After years of suffering, I, along with two other victims of James Donaghy, made him accountable for his actions. Separately, we made complaints to the police and on December 14th, 2011, he was found guilty, in a court of law in Belfast, of his crimes against us.
On February 10th, 2012, he was sentenced to ten years in prison. In July 2013, he pleaded guilty to the sexual abuse of a seven-year-old boy and was given two further years to run concurrently with his 10-year sentence. In February 2015, Pope Francis dismissed James Donaghy from the clerical state.
Some people will question how I persevered towards the priesthood after suffering at the hands of James Donaghy? My simple answer is that before I encountered him, I knew, in childhood and youth, many good priests who were exactly what a priest should be.
So, I knew that James Donaghy was not a good priest. Since my childhood, I had been inspired by faithful priests and I wanted to serve God similarly. James Donaghy’s actions were unable to destroy that desire in me.
Gordon: Please share with our readers a prayer for all who have been sexually abused
Father Patrick: You, Lord Jesus, who in your passion were stripped and degraded, who were shamed and exposed on Calvary, you know the trauma of those who are wounded by sexual abuse.
Draw close to you those who have suffered these ordeals, from the evil actions of others, even from those in your Church.
From the wounds inflicted upon you, in your trauma, comes our healing. From the Cross, you reached down to find us in the deepest and darkest places of pain and distress. You are the Light that shines eternally that the darkness cannot overcome.
Help and strengthen those of your sisters and brothers, who were hurt by sexual abuse in childhood and young adulthood – and all victims of sexual violence and harassment – to discover and rediscover hope, the beauty and dignity of who they are in the sight of your Father.
Send your Holy Spirit, the Comforter and Solace of injured souls, to help and to heal them. Amen.
Gordon: Thank you for a powerful and exceptional interview.