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Priest at the heart of Irish sex abuse scandal served in Fargo, elsewhere in North Dakota

The key figure and most notorious abuser in a children's sex abuse scandal currently rocking the country of Ireland served as a priest in the Catholic Diocese of Fargo from 1979-83.

The Rev. John Smythe, as he was known in North Dakota, also abused altar boys in St. Alphonsus parish in Langdon, N.D., and served briefly in Park River and Ellendale, as well as other parishes.

Smythe, who changed his name when he came to the United States, was the Brendan Smyth who sexually assaulted boys over 30 years in Ireland and the United States and whose abuse and the cover-ups surrounding it was credited with bringing down the Irish government in late 1994.

Smyth died several years ago.

The Herald reported in March 1994 that a Grand Forks man in his mid-20s had recently come forward to the diocese to say Smythe sexually assaulted him for several months in Langdon when he was about 12 in about 1981.

The Rev. Wendelyn Vetter, now Monsignor Vetter, but then the vicar-general of the diocese, told the Herald at the time that the man was receiving counseling paid for by the diocese. No criminal charges were possible that long after the alleged assaults, and no civil suit had been filed at that time, Vetter said. No other victims of Smythe had come forward at that time, Vetter said.

By late 1994, Smythe, or Smyth, was in prison in Ireland for sexually assaulting boys there, and the scandal over it all brought down the country's Labor government.

By late 1994, a half-dozen other victims of Smythe from Langdon, N.D., had come forward, but none wanted counseling or other help, diocesan officials said, according to news reports.

Smythe returned to Ireland in 1982 from the Fargo diocese where had been on loan as a priest, but he returned at least once on holiday, church officials said.

Vetter told the Herald in 1994 that Smythe filled in at several parishes for a weekend or two across the diocese while he was on loan from the Belfast archdiocese.

News reports have linked Smyth also to sexual assaults on children in the Boston archidiocese.

Observers of Smyth's long history of abuse say it appeared he was sent to the United States as part of attempts to avoid scrutiny of his sexual attacks on children.

It appears Smyth altered the spelling of his name and used a different first name to avoid the same scrutiny.

Stephen J. Lee is a reporter at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.