independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Rising star was brought down by Ferns Report and demon drink

BRENDAN Comiskey was once one of Ireland's best-known bishops. Indeed, with his outgoing personality, his media savvy and his mildly liberal theological views, he was seen by many as exactly the sort of bishop the Catholic Church in Ireland needed.

He became Bishop of Ferns in 1984, aged just 49, and this was another indication of a generational change in the air.

When I became editor of 'The Irish Catholic' in January 1996, Bishop Comiskey was still a columnist with the paper and I had some few dealings with him at that time.

But his personal and professional troubles were already mounting. The previous year, his press officer, Fr Walter Forde, confirmed to the media that Bishop Comiskey had taken a three-month sabbatical due to drink problems. He soon stopped writing his column at 'The Irish Catholic'.

His drink problem probably contributed to his appalling handling of clerical sex abuse in his diocese. One of his priests was one of the worst offenders of all – Fr Sean Fortune, now deceased.

Along with Fr Brendan Smyth, Fortune became one of the names indelibly associated in the public mind with the abuse scandal. One of his victims was Colm O'Gorman, one of the most articulate people in Irish public debate and a man who doggedly pursued justice for himself and other victims.

In 2002 Colm O'Gorman's pursuit led to the BBC airing 'Suing The Pope', which detailed many of the failings in the Ferns diocese and, in particular, Brendan Comiskey's failure to rein in Fortune. Comiskey said he found Fortune "virtually impossible to deal with".

A strong image from that programme was Bishop Comiskey rushing to get inside his front door away from a reporter.

In any event, 'Suing The Pope' led to Brendan Comiskey's resignation as Bishop of Ferns.

I recall an emergency meeting of the Bishops' Conference taking place in Maynooth that day and waiting outside with a scrum of reporters, waiting to be ushered into a press conference hosted by a very nervous Cardinal Desmond Connell.

'Suing The Pope' also led to the setting up of the Ferns Inquiry and its publication in 2005, by which time I was religious affairs correspondent for this newspaper. That was the first major report on clerical sex abuse in this country and it was absolutely groundbreaking.

Stretching back to 1962, it uncovered over 100 abuse allegations against 21 priests.

The Bishop of Ferns from 1964 to 1983 was Donal Herlihy and the report showed that the pattern of moving accused priests from parish to parish had existed for a long time.

Bishop Herlihy did not see priests as offenders who should be punished under either canon or civil law. Later he began to send them for treatment – but still not to the civil authorities.

By the time of the Ferns Report in 2005, Bishop Comiskey had already been out of the public view for three years and today he has been out of the public view for almost 12 years.

He now gives talks on spirituality, as well as conducting retreats.

In a way, he has gone back to his origins as a priest of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

But for a time he was as closely associated with the church's disastrous handling of the clerical sex abuse scandals as Cardinal Desmond Connell.

It was a long fall for a bishop who was once a bright, rising star.

Irish Independent

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