Scandal for an Irish Parish, It's Just a Priest with a Child

By Brian Lavery
The New York Times
January 22, 2006

DUBLIN, Jan. 21 - The affair had all the makings of a first-class scandal: in a quiet corner of rural Ireland, a 73-year-old Roman Catholic priest admitted to fathering a child last year with a local schoolteacher. Smelling a good story, television crews rolled into the village of Woodford, 30 miles southeast of Galway, and tabloid newspapers gleefully denounced "Father Romeo."

On radio call-in shows and television current affairs programs, the affair has kick-started a national debate about the celibacy requirement for Catholic clergy. Local residents, however, refused to get worked up about it. The priest, the Rev. Maurice Dillane, has remained in hiding, and his parishioners have closed ranks in his defense.

"People are just letting it go," said Declan Walsh, the only one of six pub owners in Woodford to entertain a reporter's questions on the topic. "People are understanding. It's 2006. Everybody twists the rules a bit on their way through life."

The local bishop, John Kirby, met with Father Dillane, who is recovering from back surgery but is still working as a priest, and with the 31-year-old mother of their baby son. In a terse statement, the bishop asked for "time and space" to deal with the "private matter."

Justin O'Byrne, the lay chairman of the Woodford pastoral council, praised Bishop Kirby, for his delicate handling of the matter. "At the end of the day, they're two consenting adults," he said. "A child has been born, and that's something to be celebrated, not scorned."

The seeming lack of outrage is a reflection of how much Ireland has changed since 1992. In that year, the charismatic and powerful bishop of Galway, Eamonn Casey, was discovered to have fathered a son 17 years before with a divorced American woman and to have used church funds to pay for the boy's education.

The revelations ended Father Casey's career as a bishop and shook the faith of thousands of Irish Catholics. And the incident was just the beginning of what was to be a decade of scandals, most notably a wave of sex abuse cases, that effectively ended the church's central role in Irish society.

Supporters of Father Dillane point out that he - unlike Father Casey, who renounced his family, remained a priest and is living out of the country - plans to stay with his new family.

[On Saturday, the current Galway bishop, Martin Drennan, announced that after having spent the years on missions from England to Ecuador, Father Casey would soon resettle in the county, The Associated Press reported.]

Father Dillane, known as "Mossy," served in Texas for 20 years, at a church in San Antonio, before returning to Ireland in the 1990's.

He is known for holding progressive attitudes, exemplified by his refusal to read out the names of donors to a church collection during a Mass for Lent, because doing so would embarrass those who could not afford to contribute. When another priest began to do so in his place, Father Dillane reportedly unplugged the microphone.

Although Father Dillane's case is unlikely to bring a change in the church's central teachings - Pope Benedict XVI has adamantly reaffirmed that the celibacy requirement was not negotiable - it is still an open question whether he will be able to keep both his family and his status as a priest.

A spokesman for the Catholic Church's central press office in Ireland, the Rev. Martin Long, has insisted that Father Dillane's case will remain a local matter.

The case has, however, added to a debate that has been a long-running one in Ireland.

"The clergy themselves need to raise and debate this issue," said Laura Hogan, a lecturer at the Irish School of Ecumenics in Dublin. "The laity don't know how those who actually live with it feel about it."

The practice of celibacy for clergy was introduced in the 12th century to prevent families from inheriting church property. But it took longer to establish among the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland than elsewhere, Ms. Hogan said.

And it is not a new development for churchmen to have children, according to Sean Freyne, professor emeritus of theology at Trinity College, Dublin.

He pointed out that one common Irish surname, McTaggart, is derived from a Gaelic phrase meaning "son of the priest."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.