Sexual abuse in Carmelite College Moate: ‘We knew something wasn’t right’

Former pupils allege regular sexual abuse by priest and decorated GAA coach Fr Michael Cremin

As a football coach, Fr Michael Cremin brought glory to the small Co Westmeath town of Moate, guiding the Carmelite College school team to three All-Ireland GAA titles in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Originally from Co Cork, the priest taught maths in the boys boarding school and coached the football team, as well as later becoming principal.

Now amid ongoing revelations of past abuse in schools, multiple former Moate students who spoke to The Irish Times allege suffering or witnessing sexual abuse by Fr Cremin, who died in 2019.

One Carmelite College boarding student in the late 1970s alleged he was sexually abused by Fr Cremin in the priest’s room when he was about 14 years old.

READ MORE

The former student said at the time the priest was the bursar of the school and pupils had to collect spending money from him in his room. “We’d go up with two or three students, he’d always find a way to send others off,” he said.

The fee-paying school, run by the Carmelite religious order, closed in 1996.

In other alleged incidents the man claimed he was sexually assaulted during classes, where the priest would sit beside students and grope them. “Everybody else put the head down so they’d avoid the attention. I still haven’t forgotten it,” he said.

“I didn’t wash for a while as a form of defence. I made myself sick every Monday and Friday to avoid going to his class,” the man said. “I told my parents at the time. They wouldn’t believe me,” he said.

Fr Cremin led the Carmelite team to three All-Ireland school football titles in 1976, 1980 and 1981, as well as six Leinster titles during the same period.

He also managed the Westmeath GAA minor football team in the early 1960s and coached the senior football team in the early 1980s. He was honoured with the GAA’s president’s award in 2009 for his contribution to football.

This coaching success gave the priest significant status in the school and the local community, past pupils said.

A day pupil who attended the school in the late 1970s alleged he was also sexually abused by Fr Cremin when he was about 13 years old.

The alleged abuse took place when the former student found himself alone in a room with the priest. “It stayed with me all my life. You doubt yourself – why did you let it happen?” he said.

The alleged incident ended when the man pushed the priest away. “I was glad I stood up to him but I never played football again,” he said. “I didn’t tell anybody. They had the power,” he said.

In recent years the man reported the alleged abuse to Tusla, the child and family agency, and An Garda Síochána.

In an April 28th, 2020 letter, a social worker wrote to the man stating as Fr Cremin was dead they had no role in the matter.

The man also made a complaint to the Garda, who investigated the matter and sent a file to the Director of Public Prosecutions, but as the accused was deceased, no action could be taken.

The former student reported witnessing the priest allegedly sexually abusing classmates during lessons, something echoed by several other past pupils.

“He was abusing them in front of us. This was regular, happening for years,” the man said. “This was going on in front of everybody. If he was doing this openly, what was he doing in the dorms?” he asked.

He would put his hand down the back of their trousers. It was striking and weird. It just became part of every day

—  Past pupil

Another former student, who was in the Carmelite College during the early 1980s, alleged Fr Cremin attempted to sexually assault him when he was 16 years old.

The man also claimed the incident occurred when he went to the priest’s room to collect money. “He tried to pin me down on the bed and he put his hand down by my groin,” the man said. Following a struggle, the past pupil said he managed to break free and flee the room.

Several of the alleged victims decades later still recall the same walk up a flight of stairs to the priest’s room, near the kitchens, to collect their pocket money.

Another student who was taught by Fr Cremin in the early 1980s claimed he witnessed the priest “molest people” during classes.

“He would slip into the desk beside a pupil. He’d put his arms around them, kiss them on the cheek, tell them he loved them, run his hands up their shirt. He would put his hand down the back of their trousers. It was striking and weird. It just became part of every day,” he said.

The past pupil said Fr Cremin was well regarded in Moate as he “brought some glory to the town” through his GAA coaching success. He was “a bit of a celebrity in the school” for the same reason, he said.

James Flanagan, a former barrister who was in the school from the late 1970s, said he recalled witnessing Fr Cremin grope a student openly in the corridor.

“This kid was up against the radiator and Fr Cremin was leaning up against him, feeling up inside his jumper,” he said. The priest’s inappropriate touching of students was a “known thing” in the school, he said.

Another former student confirmed he also witnessed inappropriate behaviour from the priest, which included him kissing or touching pupils during class, under the guise of joking around.

A number of past pupils stated the priest would commonly grope students during maths classes in the school’s study hall.

Several recalled a common modus operandi, where the priest would squeeze into a desk beside a student or lean over it, while touching the pupil.

There were other students who recalled witnessing severe physical abuse by the priest.

John Sheehan, a University College Cork lecturer in archaeology who attended Moate in the early 1970s, said he would “never forget” a beating Fr Cremin gave to a classmate with a sweeping brush.

“It was brutal and went on for a long time. In those days corporal punishment was allowed but this was really over the top,” he said.

It is understood allegations of sexual abuse by Fr Cremin have been reported to the Carmelite order following his death.

Another former pupil alleged he was sexually abused by a different priest in the school when he was in second year.

“He started kissing my cheek and my neck. I literally froze, I didn’t move an inch. He proceeded to stroke me in my private parts,” the man said. In the school there seemed to be an awareness among students of untoward behaviour by some priests, he said.

In 2007 one alleged victim started the process of taking a legal case against the Carmelites, court records show. It is understood the civil case related to alleged abuse in Moate. The complainant later discontinued the case, due to the costs involved in pursuing it, according to one legal source.

Another former student, who had been a day pupil in the early 1990s, said “a lot” of students suffered serious physical abuse in the school.

“I saw one guy having his head smashed off a desk in the study hall. I can still hear the sound. It was brutal,” he said.

The man recalled whispers among pupils of sexual abuse. “Even as kids, at 16, 17, we knew something wasn’t right,” he said. “We didn’t tell our parents,” he said.

In a statement, the GAA said it had received no reports of abuse allegations or child protection concerns about Fr Cremin related to his coaching.

The Carmelite order, who also run Terenure College in Dublin, said 41 allegations of child sexual abuse had been reported against 12 priests who had worked in its schools.

It is important for victims and survivors to hear that we are deeply sorry for what happened to them

—  Fr Michael Troy, the Carmelite provincial

When questioned about Fr Cremin, the Carmelite provincial Fr Michael Troy said the order could not comment publicly “on deceased or living individuals who are the subject of allegations of abuse”.

Fr Troy encouraged anyone abused in its schools or other settings to come forward to the order: “We have supported those who have already done so in getting access to counselling and therapeutic services and, in so far as possible, any civil actions that may arise are settled by the order in as fair and expedient a manner as we can,” he said.

“Each person who comes forward to us is listened to and supported to the best of our ability. It is not and will never be sufficient to undo the hurt and damage caused by abuse but hopefully victims and survivors feel assisted in their journey of healing,” he said.

“Our repeated words of sincere apology can often seem repetitive but it is important for victims and survivors to hear that we are deeply sorry for what happened to them,” he said.

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is acting Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times