One of Northern Ireland's chart-topping singing priests has been slammed over comments he has made about sex abuse victims. Sex attack survivor Roisin Fry says she's seething over a statement made by Cushendun-based Fr Martin O'Hagan — one of The Priests trio who recently signed a £1.4m record deal with Sony BMG.
The group’s debut album The Priests went straight to number one in the Irish charts last week beating new releases from Leona Lewis, Beyonce and Celine Dion and they are expected to challenge Guns N’ Roses for the UK number one slot this weekend.
The trio of Northern Ireland priests have been described as “Father Ted meets Westlife”.
Fr O'Hagan is on record as saying at a Catholic church tribunal that "nowadays there is a tendency to exaggerate" the effect of sexual abuse on the lives of victims.
He made the comments at the tribunal in Belfast where Roisin's bid to have her first marriage annulled was rejected by a panel headed by Fr Martin's brother Eugene, who is also a member of the popular singing trio.
Roisin says she regards Fr Martin O'Hagan's comment as "offensive and disturbing".
“I believe it is a very sweeping statement to say there is a tendency to exaggerate the effect of abuse on victims’ lives and I was really shocked to read it in the judgment on my case,” she said.
Her story was highlighted in Sunday Life two weeks ago and in the powerful BBC NI documentary Rape Crisis.
The Belfast-born woman told how she was abused by Lenadoon-based priest Fr Frank Stewart when she only eight or nine-years-old.
She fought a seven-year battle with the church to have her failed 17-year marriage annulled — claiming that a breakdown she suffered in her thirties was the result of Stewart's indecent assaults 20 years before.
Roisin was granted an annulment at a appeal tribunal in Dublin earlier this year and in August she fulfilled her dream to marry her long-time love Paul Fry in church ceremony.
Now it has emerged that two members of The Priests singing group were involved in the first tribunal case in Belfast in December 2003.
Fr Eugene O'Hagan was the presiding judge assisted by two other priests while his brother Martin was appointed to defend the bond of marriage.
The Belfast tribunal said it did not doubt that Roisin's claims of abuse by Stewart — who died in 1977 — were true.
It also accepted her claims that the abuse was "undoubtedly of sufficient proportion to prompt significant trauma for (Roisin) two years before the marriage ended".
But the judges said they could not say with moral certainty that the abuse resulted in her being unable to properly give her consent to her marriage in 1980.
Roisin says she didn't meet either of the O'Hagan brothers. The tribunal was held in private and her evidence was based on more than seven hours of interviews with another priest.
It was only when she got a copy of the Dublin appeal court’s judgment earlier this year that she read what Fr Martin O'Hagan had said and she was shocked by one particular comment.
The Dublin appeal tribunal said the Belfast tribunal had found it impossible to make the link between Roisin’s later recollection of the effects of abuse and her alleged grave lack of discretionary judgment and/or incapacity to assume the essential obligations of marriage in 1980 when she was 21.
The appeal tribunal judges said that in doing so, the Belfast tribunal reflected the views of the defender of the bond (Fr Martin O’Hagan) who had stated said: “While one should not underestimate the effect of sexual abuse, nowadays there is undoubtedly a tendency to exaggerate its effect on the lives of individuals.”
The appeal judges said “there was some merit” in the comments made by the judges and defender “but only insofar as they echo scientific findings” and they went on to criticise the Belfast tribunal for failing to seek an expert opinion from a psychologist.
The appeal judges explained: “The experts do not consider the data such that an automatic conclusion of major psychological trauma can be drawn immediately in every case of sexual abuse in childhood. Rather, each case ought to be considered on its own merits, in the light of the information obtained.
They added that they were of the view that judges in the Belfast tribunal “failed to make such an evaluation, and failed to seek the assistance of an expert in the field of psychology”.
Sunday Life tried to contact Fr Martin O’Hagan this weekend, but was unable to do so.
Roisin Fry, meanwhile, says she has been touched by the kind responses from members to the telling of her story in Sunday Life and the BBC film Rape Crisis. In the film, Roisin, who now lives in Londonderry, told how Stewart preyed on her and other kids in west Belfast. And she revealed how volunteers from Belfast’s Rape Crisis Centre helped save her life after she plunged into the depths despair in adulthood.