In Rome, John Magee stood at the right hand of three Popes, but his career went no further after his surprise appointment as bishop of a small diocese in Ireland.
Seldom has a bishop generated so much expectation as John Magee - and seldom has a bishop fallen so far short of the mark.
Secretary to three popes, a Vatican high-flier in the 1960s, Magee returned from Rome to his native Ireland as bishop of the Cork diocese of Cloyne in 1987.
The appointment was seen as a stepping stone, and Vatican-watchers predicted that the native of the diocese of Dromore would eventually return to his home province to succeed Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich as head of the Catholic Church in Ireland.
However, Magee never progressed any further than Cobh - and last week, he resigned 18 months early.
The son of a farmer, John Magee was born on September 24,1936, and was educated at St Colman’s College in Newry. He entered St Patrick’s Missionary Society - the Kiltegan Fathers - at the age of 18.After studying philosophy at University College Cork, he was sent to Rome to study theology, and was ordained a priest there on St Patrick’s Day in 1962.
He served as a missionary in Nigeria for almost six years before returning to Rome and being appointed a private secretary to Pope Paul VI. On Pope Paul’s death in 1978,Magee was appointed secretary to the short-lived Pope John Paul I and, subsequently, to Pope John Paul II.
In 1982, he was named papal Master of Ceremonies, and he performed that role for five years until he was named as the Pope’s surprise choice as Bishop of Cloyne, a diocese comprising just 46 parishes. He was consecrated bishop by the Pope in St Peter’s, Rome, on the 25th anniversary of his priestly ordination.
As a member of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Magee took a prominent role in liturgical innovation in Ireland, appointing Ireland’s first female ‘‘faith developer’’.
His controversial plans to reorder the interior of the Pugin-designed Cobh Cathedral attracted vociferous local opposition and, following a public inquiry, An Bord Pleanála directed Cobh Town Council in 2006 to refuse the Bishop’s planning application.
During Magee’s last ad limina visit to Rome four months later, the Pope grilled him about his proposals for the cathedral.
Who’s Who in Ireland in 2006 described the low-profile bishop as ‘‘remote’’, and his airbrushing out of the Vatican record seemed to be borne out by the memoirs of Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, private secretary to Pope John Paul II for 40 years, who failed to mention Magee at all.
Two years ago, the French clerical review Golias reported that Magee was being considered as a possible head of the Congregation for Divine Worship, suggesting that Magee’s support for the Latin Mass had been noted by Pope Benedict.
But that was an improbable prospect, as Magee was one of only four Irish bishops who had refused to implement Pope John Paul’s requests for the use of the old Latin Mass.
In December 2008, Magee was at the centre of a controversy over his handling of clerical sex abuse cases in his diocese. At midnight Mass that Christmas, Magee took full responsibility, following criticism in a report on sexual abuse in Cloyne.
‘‘We made errors, not intentionally, and I want to assure you that such errors will not be made again in this diocese," he told the congregation. ‘‘In the future, we will have a clerical environment which is as safe as it possibly can be for the children of this diocese." The following month, the government decided to ask the Commission of Investigation into the Dublin Archdiocese to extend its examination of child protection policies and practice to Cloyne.
This paper revealed at the time that gardaí had failed to inform childcare authorities about a complaint of sexual abuse for more than two years after Magee told a senior garda about the matter. Sources close to Magee said that the bishop firmly believed at all times that the diocese was complying with the guidelines.
However, following calls for Magee’s resignation, he announced a year ago that Pope Benedict had appointed Archbishop Dermot Clifford of Cashel to run the diocese. Magee remained Bishop of Cloyne, but concentrated on co-operating with the inquiries of the commission of investigation.
Clifford will continue to govern the diocese until a new bishop is chosen by Pope Benedict.
Magee has also been suffering from poor health. He is a diabetic, and had cancelled his schedule of confirmations over several years. The bishop would have been required to offer his resignation on his 75th birthday in September next year. But he offered to resign on March 9, and the Vatican announced last Wednesday that the resignation had been accepted.
In a message on the diocesan website, Magee said: ‘‘As I depart, I want to offer once again my sincere apologies to any person who has been abused by any priest of the Diocese of Cloyne during my time as bishop, or at any time.
To those whom I have failed in any way, or through any omission of mine have made suffer, I beg forgiveness and pardon.
‘‘I also sincerely hope that the work and the findings of the Commission of Investigation will be of some help towards healing for those who have been abused."
Magee’s spokesman, Fr Jim Killeen, said the bishop did not intend to give any interviews at this time.
Following the Vatican announcement, Clifford thanked Magee for his cooperation since last March, and asked for continued prayers in the diocese for all those who had suffered abuse.
Cardinal Seán Brady, the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, acknowledged Magee’s ‘‘long and varied ministry’’.
‘‘However, foremost in my thoughts in these days are those who have suffered abuse by clergy," said Brady, " and those who feel angry and let down by the often inadequate response of leaders in the Church."
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