The Catholic authorities seem reluctant to state what they know about Miceal Ledwith, says Colum Kenny
THE Irish Catholic bishops let him walk away with a fat pension and his reputation intact. Now Monsignor Miceal Ledwith is out there on the Internet, being promoted as a former president of Maynooth College and as an advisor to the Vatican. He is still listed in the Irish Catholic Directory as a priest of the diocese of Ferns.
Ledwith, a brilliant theology lecturer, has denied an allegation that he sexually abused a minor at Maynooth, although he did make a private settlement with a claimant in 1995.
Some of the bishops who were also trustees of Maynooth at the time received complaints about his behaviour from senior students for the priesthood. A number of recent reports by Patsy McGarry, in The Irish Times, have alleged that those who protested about Ledwith's behaviour were first ignored and later victimised within the church. From the mid-Seventies, there were criticisms of the manner in which Maynooth was being run.
Some of the criticism was narrow and reactionary, aimed against change and exploration. Some was unrealistic, not accepting that seminarians as young men were liable to indulge occasionally in sex and drunkenness. But some of the criticism was serious. Critics alleged an "anything-goes" atmosphere, with intending celibates being allowed as a matter of course to date and to drink heavily.
In October 1973, a Scottish Catholic publication called Approaches carried a 95-page supplement entitled 'The Scandal of Maynooth'. While this mainly concerned the supposed 'scandal' of liberal theology, it also reported complaints of 'unbecoming and even immoral behaviour'. Five years later came a fiercer broadside from the conservative monsignor, PF Cremin, who was then professor of moral theology at St Patrick's College Maynooth. In the Irish Independent, on November 10, 1978, Cremin claimed that 'there has been no evidence of any order in this seminary for many years', and that 'there has been what rather incredibly appears to be a permitted policy of drift and of anarchy, or absence of rule'.
During this time of turmoil at St Patrick's, Miceal Ledwith climbed the promotional ladder from humble lecturer in 1971 to president between 1985 and 1994.
Following a complaint against him that year, he quit the presidency and became a personal professor, being given two years leave of absence. He finally left Maynooth in October 1996. But the controversy that preceded his departure was covered up until recently by Church authorities.
Ledwith today works alongside Ms JZ Knight, a housewife from Roswell, (the New Mexican town of extra-terrestrial fame). She believes that a warrior who supposedly lived 35,000 years ago speaks through her. Her bizarre cult of Ramtha has thousands of followers and its ideas are based partly on ancient Gnosticism. Ledwith himself is reported to be writing a book about Thomas, whom some believe to be the twin brother of Jesus and whose writings inspired the Gnostic 'heresy'. The Irish monsignor 'speaks of The Dark Night of the Soul and, beyond that, the beautiful possibilities if we just look, and manage to see what we really are'. That is according to one US radio station on which he has appeared.
But what really is Miceal Ledwith? Ledwith retired early and, until last week, Catholic authorities in Ireland refused to comment on his departure. Even still, they appear more determined to engage in a damage-limitation exercise than to state clearly what they know about his reign at Maynooth.
Had the bishops sacked Ledwith they might have faced an awkward and expensive legal action by him. And he might not have been able to afford to settle the claim being made against him, giving rise to the possibility of the bishops then being sued again. And he might never have emerged on the US west coast as a New Age guru trading on his past reputation within the Catholic Church.
Is this what it has come to? Paralysed by caution and conservatism, the bishops seem to be completely at sea.
Forty years ago, the bunting that bedecked so many homes last week would have been papal yellow and white for the feast of Corpus Christi. Today, they are the colours of a religion that seems to mean more to many people than the churches do, football.
The Catholic bishops have still not launched an independent audit of child sex abuse complaints more than two months after they promised it. At their Summer meeting in Maynooth this week it will again be on their agenda, but there are likely to be disagreements about its nature. Yet, just last week it emerged that three more priests have been suspended in Dublin because of allegations against them.
Indications that the laity might be consulted for their views on such current matters have come to nothing, with only vague and distant prospects of a special Dublin synod. The sheer dedication and goodness of many priests is greatly appreciated by their parishioners. But priests face a laity which expects little inspiration from its hierarchy.
If the engine of the Catholic church is still running, those in the driving seat do not appear to know where they are going. Maynooth itself is a physical symbol of what has gone wrong. It has long stood for power and privilege.
Now those who studied there as seminarians are complaining that its internal ethos was worldly rather than wise, that there was too little spirituality in the formation of priests. Maynooth's bleak buildings still host the bishops' meetings as though there was no need for change.
The Catholic hierarchy has made it even more of a fortress by insisting that various church agencies move into it from elsewhere. A consolidation that was perhaps meant as a wise economy comes across as the modern equivalent of pulling up a drawbridge. Those who wish to turn the clock back and restore old ways will seize on recent scandals to confirm their own views.
The names of Casey, O'Leary, Comiskey and Ledwith will become an anti-litany and a stick with which to beat those who argue that the Catholic Church needs change. But why these men prospered as lifestyle liberals, when radicals and prophets were discouraged, will not be explored. Meanwhile, the religious orders have signed an agreement with the Government, under which many legal claims relating to sexual abuse by members of those orders will be settled and paid for out of the public purse.
In return, the orders have contributed a lump sum of ?128m, some of this being made up of contributions of lands that were already donated ostensibly for social purposes. While critics may claim that the settlement lets the orders off lightly at the expense of the taxpayer, it also recognises the reality that the orders were effectively running institutions on behalf of the State. They ought not to be scape-goated now for doing dirty work then that people wanted them to do. The settlement is a mature, if belated, recognition of social responsibility by the State. It marks the end of an era that some in the hierarchy still seem to hope desperately might be restored, at least to judge from their rash support for Bertie's referendum on abortion.
Perhaps the bishops need yet another advisor to help them out. Someone with a solid reputation within church structures? Someone whom they have seen fit to shower with honours and never to reproach? Someone with access to 35,000 years of experience? Someone like Miceal Ledwith perhaps? He is out there now in cyberspace, described as 'one of the most fascinating speakers in the world today' and an expert on how 'religions having gotten so far off the mark'.
During 2000, Ledwith was still being tagged 'Maynooth College' when listed as a speaker at an international conference in Latvia. If Monsignor Ledwith was good enough to be let loose by the bishops on unsuspecting foreigners from 1996, why is he not good enough now for the hierarchy? It is a question that awaits a satisfactory answer.