Act of Faith

By Catherine Deveney
Scotsman [Ireland]
July 17, 2005

IN THE watery sunshine of a Dublin late afternoon, Father Steve Gilhooley is directing me by mobile phone to the bar where we are to meet. I turn a corner and there it is, a busy sprawl of tables on the pavement outside, chairs scraping on the stone as people come and go. But which is the Catholic priest?

A man in jeans and a denim shirt smiles, waves. Even sitting, he gives an impression of height, of security-guard solidity. A pint of Guinness sits in front of him. He doesn't look like a priest, even one who is poised to resign. But that would imply that you can tell a priest just by looking, which is a dangerous assumption to make.

A black suit, a collar, an air of piety: the uniform requirements of men of the cloth. But a church collar deserves no automatic respect. We have seen them marched through our courts in recent years, the men who used that uniform to hide the empty kernel of their own hearts beneath, men who abused children. As a parish priest in Currie, Balerno and Ratho, in Midlothian, Gilhooley never liked clerical collars. They told you what a man was, not who he was.

Gilhooley is not fooled by priestly uniform. At his junior seminary in Cumbria, the outwardly pious enforced a regime of physical and sexual abuse. For Gilhooley, now 42, the sexual abuse was less serious than for some other students, but it was there and the repercussions were intense. Several of his contemporaries would later attempt, or actually commit, suicide. For Gilhooley, the issue would erupt volcanically, the molten lava of suppressed childhood memories suddenly cascading into adulthood with devastating consequences. He underwent therapy, was advised to write down his experiences, and the result was the publication in 2001 of a searing memoir called The Pyjama Parade. The title was a reference to the weekly caning of young boys in their pyjamas.

When the book was published, it was against a backdrop of worldwide abuse cases involving the Catholic Church. America. Australia. Ireland. Britain. At first, the Church's reaction was to close ranks, attempting to protect its image at the expense of the victims' feelings. But Steve Gilhooley was an insider, a priest. That, though, didn't prevent vitriolic attacks for daring to bring the Church into disrepute. "One of the reasons I stood up and published was because I was listening to all these poor people saying they had been abused and then been called gold-diggers. One of the reasons I came out was to stand beside these people and say, 'No, they are telling the truth.' And then they went for me too."

There are few so self-righteous as the religiously self-righteous. Or so vicious. While Gilhooley's family and most of his parishioners offered support, there was a vocal section of the Church and its hierarchy that called him a liar and attacked him for disloyalty. Gilhooley believed honesty would cleanse Catholicism of the canker that had poisoned the Church for many years.

But it was he who ended up accused of spreading poison. It didn't help that he was a theological radical, speaking out against enforced celibacy and in favour of women priests. "I woke up every morning to a pile of letters that were screaming at me before I even opened them," he says.

Most were anonymous, but one was signed; he has never forgotten the name. Enough people in Scotland attacked the Church, the letter said, without one of its own priests joining in. Gilhooley was nothing but a reptile. Why didn't he crawl back under the boulder from which he came? "I was getting loads of stuff like that. My car was smashed; my garden was trashed. People were phoning up at three in the morning, calling me scum."

Did the abuse make him feel angry? "Frightened," he says honestly. "Isolated. Alone. I was living in a big house on my own and I was miserable, unhappy and under pressure."

He couldn't continue. Last August he was given permission to take a year out, in Ireland, to consider his future. "I had to decide whether I wanted to go back and fight for the rest of my life, and probably end up in an early grave, or if, now that I've said what I've got to say, it's time to move on. If you are asking me straight out whether I am leaving, I'd say I am 99% certain that I am."

His decision will be announced officially in August by the man who has stood by Gilhooley throughout. "I belonged to the Catholic Church and I hoped the hierarchy would stick up for me and stand beside me, and only one did: Cardinal Keith O'Brien."

When Gilhooley's book was imminent, O'Brien received a letter from the Vatican's Cardinal Dar?o Castrill?n Hoyos. It seemed to Gilhooley that Cardinal Castrill?n Hoyos was only concerned about the image of the Church, not the plight of the victim. "He said, 'Shut him up, what disciplinary action are you taking, get him out of the newspapers' - all that stuff," says Gilhooley.

O'Brien, then an archbishop, wrote back. Castrill?n Hoyos seemed to misunderstand; Father Gilhooley was the victim, not the perpetrator. A few weeks later, Castrill?n Hoyos wrote again. "I am paraphrasing," says Gilhooley, "but basically he said, 'We have every sympathy for Father Steve and the ordeal he has gone through, please pass on our support.' Next paragraph... 'Now, get him out of the papers, stop the publication of his book, and shut him up.' It was awful."

Gilhooley's friendship with Scotland's most senior Catholic clergyman has intrigued many. Why has O'Brien been so steadfastly loyal to the Church's black sheep? Gilhooley hesitates before telling how their friendship began. He was a young priest, being driven home by the Archbishop after a mass. O'Brien told Gilhooley he was often accused of being too churchy, and that he had really tried with his sermon that night. What did Gilhooley think? "I told him I thought his sermon was crap," recalls Gilhooley. "Those were my exact words."

There was silence in the car. "Then he burst out laughing. He roared with laughter, to the extent the car began to shake, and from that moment on he always trusted that if he asked me something I would tell the truth. We got on like a house on fire. He was so good and kind to me. If I have any regrets, one has to be if I hurt him by leaving."

Gilhooley's honesty became infamous. He gave a sermon once about El Salvador. He had a friend working out there, and on his church wall he had a picture of some Jesuit priests who had been murdered along with their housekeeper and her child. They had all been dragged outside and gunmen had cracked their skulls open, mashing their brains with rifle butts. "What the gunmen were saying was, 'Here are your intellectuals. If you are going to become aware, if you are going to fight oppression, this is what will happen to you.'"

Gilhooley spoke passionately in the pulpit. "I said to them, '70,000 people have been butchered and none of you gave a shit.'" Silence. A priest had sworn in the pulpit. "And the reason I know none of you gave a shit," he continued, "was because none of you fell off your seat when I said '70,000 had been butchered', but nearly all of you fell off your seats when I said 'shit'."

Reading the mundane weekly notices after this sermon felt inappropriate. There would be a raffle for a fluffy bunny, a coffee morning for Guides and Brownies. Afterwards, he found an old 84-year-old man in tears in the pews. Gilhooley could see his shoulders shaking. He was worried that he had upset the old man, and went to him. "Father Steve," the man said, "I have been coming to mass for many years and I have waited to hear a Catholic priest speak as you spoke today."

"I was emotional about it," says Gilhooley, "that a man of so many years and so much experience said that. I'll never forget that moment."

Not everyone had agreed. As the last hymn of the mass had begun, Gilhooley processing to the back of the church, a man in the front pew could contain himself no longer. He came running up the aisle, shouting. The organist got such a fright that she stopped playing. The entire congregation looked on silently. "That wasn't a sermon. It was a party political broadcast," the man roared. "And I will never be back in this church as long as there is someone like you in it."

Gilhooley watched quietly as he stormed to the exit. Then, as the man opened the door, the priest shouted, "Excuse me." The man turned back. "I take it," said Gilhooley, "you won't be going to the coffee morning for the Brownies?"

STEVE GILHOOLEY'S father visited him in Ireland a few months ago. Afterwards, Gilhooley drove him to the airport. As his father got out, he pressed a 12-page typewritten letter into his hands. Gilhooley cried when he read it. "It was from the day he first held me in his arms. He remembered one occasion where he saw a kid being extremely unkind to me - I didn't know my dad had seen it. When I got home he'd questioned me and I'd refused to tell, even though I was devastated by it. My dad said, 'That has been the hallmark of your life.'"

"I know I'm your dad, and I love you," his father wrote, "but I think it's a tragedy for the parish, and for the Church in Scotland generally, that a voice like yours has been silenced."

"He still wants me to come back," says Gilhooley. His mother feels differently. She's a woman of great faith, he says, but she sees little inspiration in the Church. It is understandable that a mother should want another life for her son. When he first told her about the abuse, she sat up all night, unable to sleep. The next day, he visited her. "She was crying and gave me a big hug and said she was so sorry, that she had no clue that it had happened. And she just said, 'I love you.'"

Gilhooley had left the seminary after his Highers and had taken the first job that came his way, as a technician in the blood transfusion service. But he was unhappy. "When you are abused at that age, a lot of your emotions and thought processes are shut off. As I grew into adulthood, I didn't have the ability to relate to people as a person would normally. And I was in total denial of having been abused."

So why return to a senior seminary as an adult? Perhaps, he says, it was an escape. And perhaps he thought he had something to say. It sounds almost like battered-wife syndrome. "Where you go back to the husband who abused you?" he says. Yes, or you continually choose other people who abuse you too. "Could well be," he agrees. "The issue is so complex that every time I feel I answer a question about myself, another one appears."

As a young man, and later a young priest, he drank heavily. "I was using alcohol like a painkiller, an anaesthetic, not realising I was doing it."

Even at college, his contemporaries had recognised his wild, unconventional side. Some disapproved and tried to stop his ordination just days before. But one who remembers him fondly recalls speaking to him quietly in a corridor one night. "I said to him, 'Steve, you haven't a snowball's chance in hell of becoming a priest. Think about leaving.'" He didn't want Gilhooley to become battered by the institution.

"I remember that night," says Gilhooley immediately, when I mention it. "I remember that so well. I was absolutely devastated by it. I wanted to be a priest. He thought I would never get through the system, but I did knuckle down and get on with it and was given a chance."

Inevitably, when a priest leaves, people suspect scandal. The day he left for Ireland, he was standing with his car packed, tearfully saying his goodbyes. A reporter from a tabloid arrived, saying the paper had evidence that he was involved in a relationship with a woman. Gilhooley didn't even threaten court action. "I just said, 'I can categorically deny it.' It actually irritated me. I said, 'Do you ever think that priests might actually have some integrity, and leave the priesthood very upset, devastated that the things they love and believe in are going down the Swanee? You can say what you want, but there's nothing like that involved. There's no scandal.'"

But was he living the life of a priest? "Yes," he says unhesitatingly. Because of his stance against enforced celibacy, however, people gossiped if he was seen with female friends. Once, he got an anonymous letter accusing him of being in an Edinburgh restaurant with a woman. It turned out to have been his brother, out with his wife. But Gilhooley doesn't rule out a relationship in the future. And he won't be seeking the Church's permission. "I won't be requiring laicisation from the Catholic Church. It doesn't have that hold over me. I believe in Jesus Christ and I believe in his compassion. I believe that I made mistakes, but I also believe that I always tried to do the right thing and that I erred on the side of people rather than the law. I tried to help the most unfortunate." He smiles ruefully. "If you think about it, the most unfortunate were probably the bloody Pharisees, who were in charge."

He makes no secret of his disdain for the new Pope Benedict, with his calls for a smaller, "purer" Church. "Makes me think of Nazism," says Gilhooley, who wants to reach out to as many as possible. And how can that happen with a pope who has called for prayers to be memorised in Latin? "I'm not going to say that I'm leaving the priesthood because a guy that I find objectionable has been made pope - it's not that simple. But it helped."

He watched news coverage of the conclave with friends. They couldn't have cared less. Let's go for a pint, they said. But Gilhooley was fired up. "You haven't left at all," one friend observed.

Travelling to Dublin, I had expected to find a man with a sense of liberation, of new-found freedom. But I don't. You can put a collar on, or you can take it off, but it doesn't change what is in your heart. And Gilhooley has the heart of a priest still. "I love the Catholic Church. I know what it could be. This has not really been a liberation. My biggest emotion has been sadness." It is what he transmits. Not a new sadness, sharp as a paper cut, but an old sadness that he has learned to co-exist with, that has settled round him under a thin veneer of dust.

He hasn't been to church for a year. It is too difficult, too problematical. "I've been to mass on a hillside somewhere," he says, "looking into the sun. And being with fantastic people." But not in a church building.

"I'm still a spiritual, certainly a biblical, person. And there's a great thing in scripture where Jesus said, 'The day is coming when people will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. Not on the mountainside, and not in the temple. They will worship in spirit and in truth.'"

There are those who would rather hide the truth. Those whose priorities have become so skewed that they would protect abusive priests before they would protect those who fight for justice and transparency. "These are the people who are really in control in the Church," says Gilhooley. "Well, let them get on with it. Let them bury it in the ground, and then we'll all start something else."

Perhaps he will miss the notoriety. His will simply be another voice shouting from the outside now. Well, he says, he didn't achieve much from the inside. Is he simply running away? "Possibly. I'm certainly removing myself from a lot of pain and from bad health, and from things that were very unpleasant in my life. But I'm leaving behind things that were very good in my life too. Currie, Balerno and Ratho parish is the place I have been the longest in my life. I consider it home, and I've just left home. It was a huge wrench."

He can't run away from the practicalities of the secular life. "There's the safety angle," he admits. "You're a parish priest, you have your own house, a car, and all of that has gone. Financially, I have no assets, no job. What does the future hold for me? There's a lot of worry about that, but I certainly couldn't go on the way I was. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and think, 'Jeez, what have I done?' But that's part of my nature. I used to do that in Currie sometimes too."

Perhaps the door to his old life is still open, just a crack? "The door is firmly closed," he says sombrely. He has been writing a new book, following on from The Pyjama Parade. "This one won't be so kind."

So what does he want from his new life? "I want a sense of peace that I've never had. Internal peace that doesn't depend where I'm living... It's in here," he says, striking his heart.

And were the priest years a waste? He shakes his head. "Loads of people won't agree with this," he says, smiling. "But given what happened to me as a kid, the way I lived my life as a priest, maybe I've done what I was meant to do. Maybe it's time to move on. Maybe that was it."

GILHOOLEY and I are walking fast through the centre of Dublin, trying to make it to his last bus. But in the end I can't walk for laughing. If he hadn't been a priest he would have been Billy Connolly, a priest friend of his tells me. It's the cruel grain of truth, sharp as a shard of glass, that makes what he says both funny and sad.

"I was offered a job in a pig farm today," Gilhooley says. "Pretty bloody biblical, if you ask me." We weave our way through crowds and traffic. "And he got so hungry, he ate of the husks the pigs refused to eat..." he proclaims devoutly, in a parody of the parable of the prodigal son. "And then, he walked the 500 miles home. Hungry. Weary. And when he reached the place he called home, they said unto him, 'Go away.'" Laughter simply fuels his performance. "The door slammed shut and the notice on the door said 'We Have Moved'."

His bus will take several hours. He is living in the middle of rural Ireland. When the dust settles, will he come home? "Nah," he says. "I'm staying here." He likes it here.

There will be no reconciliation for the prodigal son in Scotland. "I would still be a priest if I felt part of it," says Gilhooley. "But there's no place for me in the Church. I wish there was, but there isn't."