A church in holy disorder
The Catholic establishment in Ireland seems unable to cope with wave after wave of scandals
By David McKittrick
October 3, 1995
Until his death in 1993 Father Michael Cleary was one of Ireland's most high-profile priests. A natural communicator, he made hundreds of radio and television broadcasts expounding the Irish hierarchy's conservative viewpoint. His was one of the principal voices setting out and defending the church's line on issues such as divorce, contraception, abortion and priestly celibacy. In 1979, he acted as warm-up man when Pope John Paul II visited Galway; he was, it seemed, a conservative priest perfectly in tune with the views of a conservative pontiff.
That was how Fr Cleary was remembered until a few months ago. He has been viewed in a different light since the Sunday World, a Dublin tabloid, ran a spread emblazoned "My secret life as a priest's wife for 27 years".
The priest who urged his flock to follow the orthodox line turned out to have an unorthodox private life. His housekeeper, Phyllis Hamilton, recounted in detail how, as a 17-year-old girl from a broken home, Fr Cleary had heard her confession. She described how he later told her he was in love with her and how they privately exchanged marriage vows, the priest explaining that this was enough to make them husband and wife.
According to Miss Hamilton: "When we exchanged the vows I was delighted. I never felt so special in all my life. I wanted to tell the whole world, but Michael warned me that this was to be our secret and that no one could know." She said she bore Fr Cleary two children. Clerical sources at first fiercely attacked her credibility, but fell silent when a leading psychiatrist confirmed her account.
The disclosure that Fr Cleary had years ago carried out his own private review of celibacy and concluded that it was not for him generated many complaints of hypocrisy. But by the standards of today, with the church lurching from one annus horribilis to the next, it is a comparatively minor affair. The leader of the Catholic church in Ireland, Dr Cahal Daly, spoke at the weekend of "wave after wave of scandal, crashing and breaking against the Church"; he also had discussions about these scandals with the Secretary of the Vatican's Congregation of Bishops, Archbishop Jorge Mejia, who was visiting Ireland.
The scale of child sexual abuse by clerics is such that Fr Cleary's trespasses pale almost into insignificance. The revelations of this abuse have had a devastating effect on trust between the laity and their priests and bishops. The newspapers are littered with cases of priests being charged with, or convicted of, the abuse of young girls and boys.
In June, a Belfast priest, Fr Daniel Curran, was jailed for seven years after admitting a series of sex offences against boys. A paedophile alcoholic, he had taken boys to an isolated cottage, plied them with alcohol and abused them. One boy told police: "I never told anyone about it because I thought it would be a sin if I did."
A team of detectives from the Royal Ulster Constabulary is conducting an ever-widening investigation into alleged abuse by priests. It is likely to go on for months if not years. Two priests appeared in court last week, and more are on the way. A priest warned recently: "We are only at the tip of the iceberg. Be prepared for at least five years of even more sickening revelations."
The church received its first severe shock in the recent series of scandals in 1992, when the popular Bishop of Galway, Dr Eamonn Casey, was found to have a teenage son whose education he had surreptitiously financed from diocesan funds. The church was just recovering from that trauma when it emerged last year that a northern priest, Fr Brendan Smyth, had been systematically abusing children for years. He was jailed, but the church suffered enormous damage when a television programme revealed that some senior figures had known for decades that he was a paedophile.
It turns out that the standard drill when complaints were made, about Fr Smyth and others, was to transfer the accused priest out of the way and hush things up. The accusation against the church is that it was more concerned to cover up than to clean up, more concerned with protecting its own image than with protecting the innocent.
Church figures have promised new openness and accountability, but there are signs that as an institution it is still in the business of keeping these things hushed up. In one of the latest episodes, the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Desmond Connell, admitted that he had lent a former priest pounds 27,500 from church funds to settle a sex-abuse damages action by a former altar boy. When questioned about this in a radio interview two years ago, the archbishop declared: "I have compensated nobody. The funds of the diocese are not in any way used to make settlements in cases of that kind." Yesterday he apologised for anything he said that might have misled.
Meanwhile, a high-level spat has gone on for some months between Cardinal Cahal Daly and another bishop, Dr Brendan Comiskey of Ferns, who said the issue of celibacy should be reviewed. Their disagreement resulted in a public controversy of a kind not seen between bishops for a century. At the weekend it took a new turn when it was admitted that a three-month sabbatical Bishop Comiskey was taking in the United States was not study leave, as had originally been announced, but to allow treatment for alcohol dependency. The Irish newspapers have since discovered that the bishop took three holidays in a year at one of the most exclusive hotels in Bangkok, and they are wondering why.
The church's problems have been compounded by the fact that it has not provided a convincing rebuttal of the charge that it allowed the innocent to suffer for the sake of maintaining its own dignified facade. It stands accused of at worst connivance and at best gross negligence, but its responses so far have been unconvincing. A recent opinion poll showed that only 25 per cent of the country retains total or a great deal of confidence in church leaders.
A common belief among outsiders is that these scandals have suddenly undermined the previously serene and unshaken faith of the Irish faithful. This is a misconception. For three decades the priests and bishops have watched as an increasingly independent laity has paid less and less attention to their teaching. In the Republic, this loss of credibility has been masked by the fact that the island still has a high quotient of clerics, and that, though Mass attendance is down, it has the highest proportion of regular churchgoers in the western world. Although large numbers still go to Mass, it is clear that they do not regard all they hear from the pulpit as, to coin a phrase, gospel: a great many have become a la carte Catholics, listening with interest to their priests and then making up their own minds.
In the past few years, for example, the country has eased the previously complete prohibition on abortion. The Dail lifted the 132-year-old ban on homosexual acts, without a debate or a vote, and set the age of homosexual content at 17. Divorce looks certain to be introduced shortly. A third of northern Catholics have regularly supported Sinn Fein, in spite of almost weekly anathemas against the republicans.
The practice of individual confession is fast dying. Vocations for the priesthood and other orders plummeted from 1,300 in 1965 to 200 in 1992. Many priests have dropped out, often to marry, and there are morale problems among those who remain. Large numbers of Catholics think celibacy is outmoded and that women should be allowed into the priesthood. In other words, much of the laity is out of tune with the bishops.
The key moment in this process probably came in 1968, when the Humanae Vitae encyclical reaffirmed the prohibition on contraception. Thousands of Catholics, in Ireland as elsewhere, concluded that the Pope had just got it plain wrong: they went on using contraceptives, and in doing so church authority was crucially weakened.
This rejection of church teaching had a domino effect, causing many of its other instructions to be questioned. Ireland's conspicuously young population was further influenced by education, television and travel. The old deference steadily evaporated.
Today "Holy Ireland", in the old sense, looks not so holy any more. There has been much modernisation and liberalisation, and to some extent a growth of secular culture. Yet, as the church attendance figures suggest, it is too simplistic to say that southern Ireland is becoming inexorably more secular. It seems closer to the truth to say that Catholics are becoming more selective, more sceptical, more reliant on individual conscience and personal choice.
All this meant that, when the current wave of scandals hit, the church was in poor shape to cope with it, having already lost so many important arguments. The old authoritarianism does not work any more; the problem for the hierarchy is that it has not yet found a workable new approach to replace it.