Spiritan scandal

— ‘Why was Fr Arthur Carragher moved to Canada, where he was free to abuse my 10-year-old brother?’

Fr Arthur Carragher was transferred to Canada after allegations of abuse were made against him in Dublin. While there, he abused 10-year-old altar boy Jeff Fischer

The Spiritans transferred the abusing priest abroad, after complaints were made about him in Dublin school

By Maeve Sheehan

Pete Fischer was standing in a queue at the supermarket when the call came that turned everything he knew, or thought he knew, about his older brother Jeff on its head.

It was August 2018. The Pope’s visit to Ireland was making international headlines. An Irish man was interviewed on Canadian television about the sexual abuse he’d suffered as a child in Dublin at the hands of a priest called Fr Arthur Carragher, who was later shunted off to Canada.

Jeff Fischer was watching at home in London, Ontario, when a photograph of Carragher flashed on screen and brought suppressed memories flooding back. The first person he told was his brother.

“Jeff always called me, just ‘hey what’s going on?’ We were very close,” remembers Pete. “I said: ‘Hey, what’s going on.’ He said: ‘Do you remember Fr Carragher?’

“I said I remembered the name but… and we kept chit chatting. Then I could hear him start to cry a bit and he said: ‘He abused me.’

“I said: ‘What are you talking about?’”

But Jeff kept crying.

“He’s never been an emotional guy at all. And so I drove down there,” he said.

Jeff Fischer was in his mid-50s when he acknowledged for the first time that he had been sexually abused when he was 10 years old.

His abuser, Fr Arthur Carragher, had been dispatched to his hometown of Guelph, Ontario, from St Mary’s College in Rathmines, Dublin, after a parent complained about his behaviour.

​Jeff died of cancer four years later, on October 15, 2022, just weeks before the broadcast of the RTÉ radio documentary Blackrock Boys, in which two brothers disclosed for the first time the sexual abuse at the prestigious private school, before the Spiritans’ public apology and the Government’s promise to hold an inquiry.

But his brother, Pete, a police officer in Ontario, has stepped forward to ensure his brother’s voice is heard. He wants the religious order’s decision to move his brother’s abuser overseas — unleashing him on an unsuspecting parish with such devastating consequences — to be investigated as part of any future inquiry.

“Did they give him a glowing reference, because they knew he was trouble and just to get rid of him? I don’t know… What a way to run things and what a massive path of destruction they left behind them,” he said. “The biggest emotion I feel over all of this is anger.”

The Spiritans — previously known as the Holy Ghost fathers — have recorded allegations of sexual abuse from almost 400 victims over four decades; 90 of those complaints relate to Blackrock College alone.

The complaints are against 78 Spiritan priests, yet only three have been convicted of child abuse.

The Spiritans declined to state how many complaints they have received about Carragher.

He was born in Cullyhanna in Co Armagh in 1922, he was assigned to Nigeria on becoming a priest, then returned to teach at St Mary’s College in Rathmines. He was transferred to Canada in 1971 after a mother’s complaint to the St Mary’s principal that Carragher had abused her two boys.

Carragher was posted to St Joseph’s Parish in Guelph, a city in south-western Ontario and hometown of the Fischer family.

“We were a very devout Catholic family, everything revolved around the church,” said Pete.

“Growing up, it was Catholic school, church on Sunday and many other things. My Dad would help count the collection after Sunday mass. My mom was part of what they call the CWL, they make lunches for funerals and things like that, so she was very, very involved.”

All the Fischer boys served as altar boys at different times. But 10-year-old Jeff was the only one to serve with Fr Arthur Carragher. Years later, he told his brother what Carragher did to him.

“He would always pick Jeff to do funerals. And he would pay him $2 — and back in 1973 when you’re 10 years old, that’s a huge amount of money.

” He would get Jeff to do extra stuff for the funerals and that was when it would happen. It was when everyone was gone.

“At a funeral, they do the thing at the cemetery or whatever, and the church is empty fairly quickly afterwards, it’s not like people hang about. He would lock Jeff in this bathroom, probably go around lock the doors of the church, and then come back and abuse him.”

Jeff told his brother Pete — again, years after the fact — that he had disclosed the abuse to their mother at the time. A devout Catholic, she was so shocked at the suggestion a priest could do this, that she slapped him and accused him of lying.

He told Pete how, after the abuse, he’d have to return to his altar boy duties so “frazzled” that he once left an incense burner still hot with coals on the counter and went back to school.

“Fr Carragher came flying over and just lost his mind. He got Jeff to come to the office, said: ‘You almost burned down the church, how dare you!’ Even though he’d just abused him,” Pete said, incredulous.

The story stuck with Pete. Thinking back to when he had been an altar boy, he had always wondered what caused that burn mark on the counter.

By then, Carragher had moved on to another parish in Canada. He returned to Ireland in 1989 where he was a curate in the archdiocese of Armagh under Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich.

According to his write up in the Spiritan handbook, Carragher “made the decision to retire to Toronto” in 1995. Did Carragher and his superiors know what was coming?

By 2001 gardaí were on his tail. Two brothers accused him of abusing them at their Dublin home in the 1960s. Carragher was charged with seven counts of abuse in 2001.

The priest refused to co-operate with the investigation on health grounds, and he could not be extradited because there was no extradition treaty between both countries then.

When the Sunday World tracked Carragher down to a retirement home in Toronto, Carragher confessed his guilt: “Yes, they are all true. I know the charges are serious, but I’m not able to go back. I’m not well, I’m just not well,” he said.

Carragher remained at large in Canada, effectively a fugitive who refused to account for his crimes against children but still an associate pastor.

In 2007, Mark-Vincent Healy reported to gardaí that he had been sexually abused by Fr Arthur Carragher and Fr Henry Moloney when he was a pupil at St Mary’s College in Rathmines, in Dublin in 1969.

He succeeded in having Moloney prosecuted. But he was told his complaint against Carragher would be considered “malicious” and was led to believe that his was the only complaint.

Fr Arthur Carragher died a free man in Toronto on January 10, 2011.

Mark-Vincent Healy went public and successfully campaigned for a national audit of clerical abuse, which saw the Spiritans amongst the first religious orders to submit to that audit. And he kept investigating Arthur Carragher, tracking his movements from parish to parish, country to country, entrusted with accounts of his abuse from other victims, eventually confirming that Carragher abused 12 children.

In 2018, he secured a letter from the Spiritans, acknowledging that yes, Carragher, a “notorious offender of children”, had sexually abused him as a child.

Mark-Vincent Healy was the Irishman who told Carragher’s story on Canadian television in August 2018 — convinced he had abused there too — and who ultimately stirred the long-repressed memories of abuse in Jeff Fischer.

​Pete finished up the shopping that Saturday in August 2018, and drove to his brother’s home. He scrolled the news on Arthur Carragher and showed one story to his brother.

“He just shook from head to toe. I’d never seen anything like that. Trembling and crying, I just held on to him,” he said. “His reaction, still to this day, is something that’s embedded in my mind.”

Jeff had led a successful life — he married and had four adored daughters. A keen sportsman, he founded a business and brand management company, representing elite athletes such as Olympic gold medallist Damian Warner.

He suffered trauma and tried to block it out, said Pete. “He was 59 when he passed, and was in his mid-50s when the lightbulb went on about what had happened to him,” he said.

Realising what had happened to him helped Jeff make sense of other things in his life, such as the lifelong claustrophobia he suffered.

Jeff received an apology for his abuse from the local diocese and his counselling costs — nothing else.

He came to Dublin to meet Mark-Vincent Healy. And he bravely told his own story in 2019, to encourage others to come forward. Two men did.

He would have welcomed the Government’s planned inquiry into abuse in religious schools and would no doubt have engaged with it, according to Pete.

He regards what happened to Jeff as a “betrayal” that warrants further investigation, even if he is no longer here to see it through.

“He would be really happy with this inquiry. Jeff’s biggest thing was the accountability. He didn’t care how much time had passed, or where these priests were, whether they were dead or alive. It’s the accountability.

“He was infuriated with how the Catholic Church handled the whole sex abuse thing — not just his part of it, but in general.

“The way they dealt with it — tried to not comment on it, or quietly brush it aside, in the hope that it goes away — that bothered him.”​

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