DUBLIN, Ireland -- It is said the Irish speak well of the dead. But as word spread that the Rev. Brendan Smyth had died, it was hard to find voices of sympathy for the priest who was Ireland's most notorious pedophile.
In 1994, Smyth's crimes, and the responses to them by the Irish government and the Roman Catholic Church, toppled the government and seriously weakened the position of the church in Europe's most Catholic country.
Smyth, 70, collapsed from an apparent heart attack and died Friday night in the exercise yard of the Curragh Prison, west of Dublin, where he had been sent to serve 12 years.
That sentence, for his abuse of 20 children in the Irish Republic over 35 years, was imposed last month after Smyth had served three years in Northern Ireland for abusing dozens of children there.
It was the reluctance of then-Prime Minister Albert Reynolds to turn Smyth over to police in Northern Ireland, then the dishonest explanation Reynolds' administration gave its coalition partner about the delay, that led to the collapse of the government.
But it was the church hierarchy's response to the scandal that has had the most lasting impact in Ireland, where until a generation ago the Catholic Church was recognized in the constitution as having a "special position" in society.
After a television documentary revealed that Smyth had been abusing children since the 1950s and that his superiors had covered up for him, public opinion turned squarely against the church.
There is no way to know the number of Smyth's victims, but police believe it is in the hundreds.
Police in Northern Ireland first learned about Smyth in 1990. In 1991, they arrested him, but after he was released on bail to await trial, he headed to the Irish Republic. Two years later, police filed an extradition warrant.
But in the Irish Republic, extraditing anyone to British-controlled Northern Ireland is a politically and emotionally charged proposition.
Reynolds and his aides sat on the extradition request, telling their coalition partners that it was unprecedented and needed extensive study. When Labor leader Dick Spring learned he had been lied to, he and his party quit, toppling the government.
The church's refusal to pay compensation to a dozen of Smyth's victims who have filed claims continues to generate negative publicity. Church lawyers say it is not a simple matter. But Ted Lavery, a lawyer who represents six victims, said Smyth's death gives the church the opportunity to provide some closure.
During his three years at Magilligan Prison in Northern Ireland, several inmates took turns beating Smyth. The beatings were widely reported and enjoyed vicariously by an Irish public that believes Smyth got off easy.
While many people expressed something approaching relief that Smyth had died, there was one voice of compassion. Smyth's order, the Norbertine Community, issued a statement offering condolences to his family and victims.
"The Lord Himself will be Father Brendan's judge in His justice and in His mercy," the Norbertines said. "May the same Lord continue with His strengthening grace to support through their lives those who have suffered at Father Smyth's hands."
Pub Date: 8/24/97