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Terenure College sex abuse: ‘They knew ... There was graffiti about it on the toilet doors’

School says it was a ‘grave failure’ that it didn’t prevent abuse by former teacher John McClean

Since he went public in February of this year about being sexually abused as a student in Terenure College, Dublin, by teacher and rugby coach John McClean, Paul Kennedy has been contacted by “hundreds” of former pupils who wanted to talk about sexual and physical abuse in the school.

“I am getting that feeling of, oh, my God. I am getting that feeling that everything was hidden in plain sight,” he says.

McClean, who has been jailed for abusing multiple students at the south Dublin school from the 1970s through to the 1990s, was widely known to have a “penchant” for young boys.

“The Carmelites [the order that runs the school] are still pleading innocence and saying, if we had known we would have done something. Please don’t patronise me. They knew… I feel it is so transparent and it makes me so angry,” says Kennedy.


“There was graffiti about it on the toilet doors. McClean will want to lick your mickey. The priests made sure it was removed pretty quickly. Don’t tell me they didn’t read it.”

Boys who were thrown out of the class would be afraid of being spotted on the corridor by McClean, he says. Students who were afraid of being interfered with would mitch from school and hide in Bushy Park. McClean’s reputation was such that even students in other schools knew to stay away from him, Kennedy says.

During a rugby match with a team from St Mary’s, a boy from the Rathmines school went over on his ankle and hurt himself, he says. When McClean went running on to the pitch clutching his bag, the student from St Mary’s “jumped up and said ‘f**k off you, I know what you are like’, and he hobbled over to the side line. The girls on the side line broke up laughing. Everyone knew.”

Kennedy, who finished school in 1980, says the family of a boy who suffered a very serious sexual assault by McClean made a complaint in 1979, yet McClean continued to work at the school up to the early 1990s. “There must have been hundreds of guys abused after that complaint was made.”

Despite his unhappy time at the school, Kennedy says he attended a reunion in the mid-1990s that was also attended by McClean. At one stage the former students were seated in the school gym when the lights went out due to a power shortage. “We were in the darkness, maybe 250-300 men, all from different years, all the way up to 60 years of age. Some wag said, ‘Oh Father, get your hand off my knee.’ And then, what followed was one of the most deeply dark things; everyone started to chant, paedophile, paedophile, paedophile, and banging their feet on the floor and slapping the tables. After about 15 seconds the lights came up and it just dissipated.”

The people who are contacting him suffered varying levels of abuse, Kennedys says, but the thing he has learned is that the same type of assault can have hugely differing impacts on victims. There is no such thing as “minor” abuse.

These days he likes to swim out in the sea and lie on his back far out from the shore. “I feel safe. We all had that incredible thing [happen to us], of feeling unsafe at school.”

Damien Hetherington is another former student who went public about being abused by McClean earlier this year. “For me, the dogs in the street were barking about it. And it wasn’t just McClean.”

There was a notorious abuser in the now closed primary school called Fr Aidan O’Donovan, says Hetherington. O’Donovan, who has since died, “would be waiting for you in the toilets in the morning. I’m talking about the junior school, eight, nine-year-old kids.” Everyone knew to be afraid of O’Donovan.

Hetherington was sexually abused by McClean in the classroom with the other pupils in the room. He was 12 years of age. McClean wrapped a cloak around them to hide what he was doing.

He also suffered physical abuse from other teachers. He became so frightened of the school that he simply stopped going there and spent a lot of his teenage years in the 1970s walking around town, waiting for it to be time to go home.

“My mother would drop me at the front door [of the school] and I’d be straight out the back door and across to Bushy Park, and sit there for the day.

“I was gone for a month [once], mitching, before my parents found out. [A priest] wrote to my parents asking if I was coming back. That’s how much it scared me and terrified me to go in those gates. I went in one morning [slightly late] and there was another fellow there [a lay teacher], and he was in a very bad humour, and he whacked me across the face and I whacked him back and walked away and I never went back to the school. I was never let back.”

Like Kennedy, Hetherington has since found out that what he suffered happened to many others.

“You think it is only you and then you find out afterwards that there was a lot more involved.”

Asked how he can reconcile his claim that the “dogs in the street knew” with his surprise at how many students suffered abuse during their time in the school, Hetherington says the explanation is in the way that boys chose to deal with being abused.

“The way I square it is, fellas used to talk all right, they would make the odd remark, they would say, this fella is this, that, or the other. But at the same time, they wouldn’t say it was done to them.”

McClean “wasn’t called doc for nothing. He was called doc because he would be in the changing rooms after the rugby games and anyone who got injured he would be massaging them. That’s how he got the nickname.”

It is hard to prove an assertion that it was widely known among the staff that children were being abused, Hetherington admits. “But I feel, absolutely, that they did. They are covering their arses because of [all the] litigation. No one got an apology. They came out with some menial statement but they have never acknowledged, to my mind, that it was going on and what should have been done about it… I would like them to acknowledge it. But they are not going to… and they had to know. They had to know.”

Another former pupil of Terenure College, who doesn’t want to be named, says he was sexually abused by O’Donovan in junior school and McClean in the senior school, and also suffered physical abuse from other teachers.

The abuse by O’Donovan happened in front of the class. “I was seven or eight years of age, still in short trousers. He brought me up to the front and put his hands up the legs of my shorts. In front of the whole class. I pissed all over him, soiled myself, and he didn’t do it again.”

In the senior school he played rugby and one day, after he had injured his ankle, was asked by McClean to go into the physio room, a small room off the changing rooms.

I’ve been to hell and back, depression, anxiety, lost jobs. Lost relationships. I got suicidal; I got close, but not there

—  Former pupil

“He stripped me down to my underwear and started to massage my leg. I took offence to it. I was 11 or 12. I swiped his hand away, he swore at me, and I swore back at him, and he kicked me out. It was my ankle that was sore, not my groin.”

Because he had fought off McClean’s advances, this man says, he was dropped from the rugby team. The man left school in the early 1980s and used to go to school reunions, where former schoolmates would regularly recall an incident where he was very badly beaten before the whole class by a former teacher, a priest.

The result of the sexual and physical assaults he suffered was that he was afraid in school, and tried to stay away from the toilets. “It just knocks the sh*t out of your confidence. I’ve been to hell and back, depression, anxiety, lost jobs. Lost relationships. I got suicidal; I got close, but not there.”

What does he think of the suggestion that the school didn’t know? “Bullsh*t. Absolute bullsh*t. They knew about it. They absolutely knew about it. Of course they did. One hundred per cent. Because it was talked about, in school.”

This man too mentions how the family of a named student complained in 1979 about McClean, and that McClean had the nickname he had because of his known interest in touching the boys. He believes boys from his year died by suicide because of the abuse they suffered in Terenure College.

After McClean admitted to abusing him, Terenure College offered counselling services, but he declined. He doesn’t think the response of the college or the order is sincere. “They are just going through the motions and trying to reduce the [legal] settlements and maintain face in the community. They have no interest in the welfare of anybody apart from themselves.”

It was, he said, “common knowledge that McClean was not to be trusted. It was talked about.”

In 2021 McClean was jailed for eight years for sexually abusing a number of pupils. In February he was sentenced to a further four years for abusing a different 22 former students. It was as part of this second case that Kennedy and Hetherington went public about what had happened to them.

Terenure College was asked by The Irish Times if it wanted to respond to former students who felt strongly that the school should acknowledge that it knew at the time that McClean and others were abusing students. In its response, the school referred to the statement issued by the Carmelites in February in which the order said: “John McClean was a serial abuser who wreaked havoc on the lives of the students that he abused in Terenure College. It was a grave failure that he was not stopped, and for this, we are truly sorry.”

The school said it acknowledged that public apologies and statements alone did not offer an adequate response to the harm caused by the abuse of a child. It said the Carmelite order was also offering support and counselling for the victims and survivors of child abuse, as well as meetings with the order’s Provincial.

Court records show the school and the order are facing a significant number of High Court damages cases arising from abuse by McClean. An additional six have been lodged since the start of this year, and it is known that quite a few more are being prepared.