Tuesday, March 14, 2017

IRL : Fall from grace of the human face of Church hierarchy

Each new revelation in the succession of scandals to envelope the Catholic Church cast the transgressions of Bishop Casey in an ever more benighn light.

THE rain was bucketing down for much of the morning, but nobody really minded, least of all the man who was up there on the stage in front of a crowd heading for 300,000.

The occasion was Pope John Paul’s appearance at Ballybrit Racecourse in Galway, as part of his Irish visit. It was September 29, 1979, and Eamonn Casey was in his element.

He had been selected as the man to be the warm-up act for Pope John Paul II.  

The pope was at the height of his popularity, but so too was the Kerryman who could credibly claim to be a link between the hierarchy and a young flock that was straying in droves from the fold.

Casey was the human face of the Irish hierarchy of the day, somebody who took his pastoral duty seriously, but came across as personable and down-to-earth, capable of enjoying life beyond his calling.

Thirteen years later, we were to find out exactly how human he was. 

In 1992, Annie Murphy brought her story to the Irish Times, which sat on it for six months before telling the world that the charismatic bishop had fathered a son.

It is difficult to explain to anybody under 40 the eruption that ensued. 

By the early 90s, the Catholic Church’s supreme power was well on the wane, but it still occupied an elevated perch in Irish life. 

For decades, it had dictated how the citizenry could live, most particularly in relation to sex. 

Its bishops retained a level of influence that could still send a chill down the spine of politicians.

Yet now, the emperor was exposed without a stitch on him, through the person of one of its leading and most popular lights. The phrase “it could happen to a bishop”, was quickly revised to declare that it had happened to a bishop.

The revelation was not just a domestic story, but travelled around the world like wildfire. 

(The author of this piece was wandering in Asia at the time. It made the front page of the Japan Times and was still news three days later in the South China Morning Post.)

There was nothing for it but flight. The ink wasn’t dry on the newsprint when Casey had handed in his resignation and fled to the anonymity of the US, leaving in his wake a flock grappling with deep shock and a sense of betrayal.

Even had he chosen to stay and face the music, his colleagues would have forbidden it. This was nuclear in an institution that didn’t do the weakness of the flesh. 

Within days, it emerged that not only had he plunged to the depths of mere mortals, but he had contributed to his new family by dipping into diocesan funds. 

A total of around €100,000 had been misappropriated from monies raised in the name of the Lord, or bequeathed to the Church by those who had supreme faith in its tenets and had lived restricted lives accordingly. 

The ebullient Casey quickly transmogrified in the public mind into some chancer.

It was a purgatory in which he was condemned to spend a relatively short period. 

Within a few years, the true nature of what had gone on behind the heavy oak doors of the Church cast the bould Casey in a much gentler light.

His stage companion at Ballybrit, Fr Michael Cleary, was exposed after his death as having fathered not one, but two children.

It wasn’t that fact, but the shabby manner in which he dealt with the mother of his children that cast the singing priest as a bullying hypocrite.

Unlike Casey, Cleary had been loud in exercising the Church’s power to condemn natural sexuality and target anybody who didn’t conform to the dictacts of the religion.

The late humanitarian GP Paddy Leahy once recalled how Cleary berated him for distributing contraceptives to mothers of large broods in Dublin’s Ballyfermot, as if the doctor was sinning grievously against God and man.

By comparison, Casey, who devoted much of his pastoral duties to alleviating poverty and hardship at home and abroad, was a man of integrity.

Far worse was to emerge, with the succession of scandals that first showed the extent of child sexual abuse by clerics and the complicity of the hierarchy in covering it all up, sacrificing children for the sake of keeping a lid on scandal.

With each new revelation, the longer view was casting Casey’s transgression in ever more benign light.

After fleeing the country, he spent five years in Ecuador, working again with the poor, travelling miles to say Mass and showing that the old mojo was still intact by raising money for a school in his parish.

Thereafter he moved to a parish in Sussex after some discussion with his former colleagues as to whether it was appropriate for him to return to his native soil. 

The general consensus among the bishops was that he should be allowed back if he kept a low profile. Instead, he opted to go to the UK.

“I feel at peace at the moment,” he said in a rare interview in 2005. 

“I am at peace with God and I can tell you when the chips are down that’s all that counts. I have had a very genuinely contented time over the last five years. 

"The parishioners know who I am and they know what happened in the past. I look after them and they look after me.”

He was ultimately allowed to retire to Co Clare, where he lived out his days safe in the knowledge that the notoriety which briefly attached itself to him had gone the same way as the power so misused by the institution to which he gave his life’s service.

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