Sunday 25 September 2016

Gay sex storm in the seminary casts shadow on cloistered life

Bishops have been accused of turning a blind eye to the alleged unholy goings-on at St Patrick's College, writes Maeve Sheehan

Published 07/08/2016 | 02:30

Maynooth seminary South Campus, Maynooth. Pic:Mark Condren
Maynooth seminary South Campus, Maynooth. Pic:Mark Condren

It seemed like tabloid heaven - a Catholic archbishop talking about a "gay culture" at the national seminary and rumours of student priests using gay dating app Grindr.

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Archbishop of Dublin Diar- muid Martin explained why he had decided to pull his seminarians out of St Patrick's College, Maynooth, to study in Rome instead.

"I just wasn't happy with Maynooth," he said last Monday after the Irish Independent brought the story into the national consciousness. "There seems to be an atmosphere of strange goings-on there - it seems like a quarrelsome place with anonymous letters being sent around."

On RTE news on Wednesday he said the allegations in these letters included claims that students were on Grindr and that the authorities there were dismissing anyone who tried to complain.

He described a "poisonous" atmosphere in which anonymous letters flourished.

As one of four archbishops in Ireland, Dr Martin is a trustee of St Patrick's College and was a recipient of these poison pen letters.

CONCERNS: Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin 'just wasn’t happy with Maynooth'. Photo: Frank McGrath
CONCERNS: Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin 'just wasn’t happy with Maynooth'. Photo: Frank McGrath

The President of St Patrick's, Monsignor Hugh Connolly, has echoed Dr Martin's concerns about the letters, but says there is no "concrete or credible evidence" of a gay culture in the national seminary.

For an archbishop to speak out as Dr Martin did was surprising, and the portent of what he had to say was no doubt disturbing for priests and the wider Catholic community.

At least 14 bishops have implicitly challenged Dr Martin's actions by declaring their support for St Patrick's.

Dr Martin has come to be known as a maverick who has taken on Catholic orthodoxy, in particular over priests who sexually abuse children. His actions of last week have once again highlighted divisions in the Catholic hierarchy, not necessarily over the issue of sex and priestly celibacy.

According to the Association of Priests in Ireland, religious politics is at play.

Br Sean McDonagh, an outspoken Columban priest and climate change campaigner, believes the politics is about "the soul of the future church in Ireland", what sort of priests we want, what sort of Christianity we want them to offer.

Meanwhile, questions continue to mount over what exactly has been going on at St Patrick's.

Read more: 'Church knew of gay culture for decades'

Read more: Secrecy that hovers over Maynooth reflects lack of transparency in clerical abuse scandal

Earlier this year, a seminarian walked in on two others having sex in the coll-ege, according to a report in yesterday's Irish Times. The seminarian decided not to report it, according to the report. Word got out, however. An anonymous letter was sent to a bishop about the incident.

Martin Long, the director of the Catholic Communications Office, told the Sunday Independent: "I can confirm that two anonymous letters were received in the first week of March. These were processed by the seminary council. The college cannot comment on individual members of the seminary community and so it cannot engage in public dialogue regarding the content of these anonymous letters. The college encourages all who have concerns to report them in the appropriate way."

Last week, Francis Mc- Loughlin, a former student priest who is now in his 30s, told RTE that he left the seminary in May this year after his friend "witnessed two seminarians engaged in inappropriate behaviour". He said that "from my experiences of being an undergraduate and a seminarian I can see, and I have my evidence for it, that there is an attraction for men with a same-sex attraction to the seminary".

Asked why he left, he said: "A friend of mine allegedly witnessed two seminarians engaged in inappropriate behaviour. Myself and another seminarian brought that to the attention of the authorities, not revealing the man who allegedly witnessed it, because he was afraid he would be asked to leave if he was known."

He said there was a culture of "keep your head down".

Another trainee priest, who was not identified, told RTE last week that the atmosphere at the seminary was "poisonous".

He said "one of the elements which is destroying life in the seminary is the existence of a homosexual subculture." However, he said "the bishops have turned a blind eye to this problem".

According to Mgr Connolly, anonymous letters naming individuals began circulating to the authorities this year.

"We did get some very difficult stuff to process this year where names were said in anonymous letters. We actually brought this to every single person named in those anonymous letters. We gave them a very clear and very robust opportunity both to engage with us and to tell the truth, which I'm sure they did," he said.

"As soon as something like that comes to our attention we will challenge the individual who is living in a non-celibate way. If anyone is not living celibately they shouldn't be in the seminary. Very simply, there is no reason for anyone to be preparing for a celibate way of life if they are not being celibate."

Mgr Connolly said the complaints procedure is robust and independent, involving lay people but no clerics. He said they were looking at ways of improving procedures and described the atmosphere as "healthy and wholesome".

A seminarian at the college, speaking to RTE on Friday, said that "one of the elements which is destroying life in the seminary is the existence of a homosexual sub-culture".

The seminarian, who was not identified, said he could not describe the atmosphere as anything other than "poison- ous", and claimed that "bishops have turned a blind eye to this problem".

The seriousness of the allegations being made was further underlined last week when it emerged that one former Maynooth seminarian has recently made a complaint to gardai in Dublin about alleged sexual harassment at the college between 2007 and 2009. The college reportedly investigated the matter and found no case to answer.

Sex - or alleged sex - is only part of the problem at St Patrick's. The current storm is over the alleged gay sub- culture. Last year's controversy saw a number of student priests asked to take time out because they were "too conservative", according to a report in the Irish Catholic. They were later invited back after their bishops intervened.

Mgr Connolly rejected this, saying it was rather a "question of getting the right experience".

Four years ago, Dr Martin suggested that some of those who present for priesthood "are fragile and some are much more traditional than those who went before them".

When he said last week that he was considering setting up a new seminary in Dublin, his reasons may not have been so much about a "gay sub-culture" in Maynooth but because he thinks trainees may be better off in the community.

He said he would like to see seminarians living in smaller communities in Dublin parishes while possibly commuting to Maynooth or elsewhere for their studies. If the colleges agreed, there might be no need for seminarians to leave the city at all.

Perhaps that's the debate he really had in mind when he revealed the "poisonous" gay allegations in Maynooth.

Sunday Independent

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