Almost 20 people have now come forward to claim John McElholm -- former school principal and former chairman of Fermanagh GAA -- abused them when they were pupils at St. Paul’s Primary School in Irvinestown over 40 years ago.

The so-called pillar of the community who died in 1995 was lauded as a “God-like figure” but it is now alleged he abused his position as principal by preying on innocent girls and sexually abusing them in his office in what has been described as “Irvinestown’s open secret”.

Tony (not his real name) has claimed he “suffered at the hands of his monster” whom he said “preyed on the young and the vulnerable”.

“I attended St. Pauls in the early 70s and my first recollection of being abused was in P4 when I left going for a pee too late one day and had to do it behind an old disused toilet block in the lower playground.

“Some other kid reported me to the headmaster and I was subsequently taken by him to his office beside the front entrance of the school,” he said.

He says McElholm closed the blinds, scolded him and then sexually abused him.

“After a lot of shouting at me he made me take my trousers and pants down and proceeded to fondle my penis. This was the start of at least half a dozen times when similar abuse occurred,” explained Tony, now 57.

He said reflecting on those experiences is “very difficult and painful” and remarked on the psychological effects the alleged abuse has had on his life over many years.

“After a lot of soul-searching and the re-opening of a lot of doors that I had closed to block memories from the past I am speaking out in the hope that this type of behaviour can be eradicated for future generations of children

“Unlocking those memories has been like trying to get out of a deep pit or hole with slippery sides and then someone throws you a rope or ladder and there is daylight,” he said.

Jennette (not her real name) claims McElholm – who didn’t have children of his own – used Mass as an excuse to sexually abuse her again and again and again.

“Every Monday morning he would come into the classroom and he’d say ‘who was at Mass?’ and we’d all put up our hand. I’d put up my hand and he’d still call me into the office as a way to tell me off for not going to Mass, even though I had been there the day before.

“Each time he would say to me ‘you weren’t at Mass you ragamuffin you’ and I’d start to cry’ and then he’d abuse me. I used to always say ‘please sir, I was at Mass – Father [names the priest] said Mass – you can ring him, you ask him, ring him, he said Mass’.

And all he would say was ‘you’re a ragamuffin, a ragamuffin’ and then every time his hand would go along the outside of my breast, then the outside of my clothes and then down to my private parts. I was in P4 at the time,” she said.

Jenette claims on other occasions McElholm would scold her in the corridor, accusing her of running, even if she was walking. A trick, she says, to get her into his office so he could abuse her.

“If you happened to be walking up the corridor or on your own he’d say you are running in the corridor and then he’d say ‘get into the office’ and it would be a repeat of everything again.

“When I got older I used to run away from school on a Monday just to get away from him. But on Tuesday it would be worse, he’d be after me for missing school and there I’d be called into his office again to be abused. In fact any time he met you in a corridor he would abuse you.”

She said she always thought “I was the only one he did it to” until several alleged victims came forward to share their stories through this newspaper.

“I’ve a sense of relief that I wasn’t the only one. I feel horrible to know that every other child was going through the same. It was a horrible, horrible experience.

“He was a monster of a man and we children were failed,” said 58-year-old.

Another alleged victim said she took to alcohol when she got much older in a bid to “ease the pain of what happened” when she was a pupil at St. Paul’s Primary School.

Laura (not her real name) claims McElholm abused her and her sibling over many years.

“He started rubbing my shoulders, then he moved my hands down my blouse and down into my pants. I was always on my own and I stood like a dummy looking at the floor every time.

“I didn’t even know he had abused my sibling as well until it came out one night. It has been buried for years. To think that it was an open secret makes me feel terrible,” she said, with sadness in her voice.

“You would think you would be safe in school and someone needs to be held accountable.”

Barbara (not her real name) remembers being called to McElholm’s office where she claims he abused her before sending her back to class.

“I had to write in his office and you’d be sitting at the desk and the hands would come down, eventually it got worse. Even before you sat down his hands would be everywhere.

Eventually I went home and told my parents but they didn’t believe me. Then one day I flipped and kicked him, and was never called back to his office,” she said.

Barbara has claimed that she and her siblings were abused by McElholm, something that none of them had realised until recent months.

“We never spoke about it. I am devasted and have been upset about it since this all came out.

“I didn’t realise it would cause what it has caused. I didn’t expect this to happen at 55 years of age,” she said, fighting back tears.