Thursday 22 February 2018

Bishop's fall from grace

Renowned for his links to three popes and last-ditch efforts to end the IRA's 1981 hunger strike, John Magee's tarnished legacy is now indelibly tied to the darker history of the Catholic Church.

Up until the Cloyne scandal was made public in late 2008, his climb through the clerical ranks was swift and widely regarded as colourful rather than controversial.

But after two damning child sex abuse allegations and by the 73-year-old's own admission, inadequate attempts to deal with them, the good natured perception of his bishopric has been all but destroyed.

John Magee wrote to the Vatican in February last year asking to stand aside after staunchly refusing for two months to resign and securing public support from Cardinal Sean Brady.

Questions remain over whether he jumped or was pushed and whether the shattered trust of Mass-goers and the realisation of public anger seeped into a special meeting of Irish bishops in Maynooth 11 days earlier.

The damage to his reputation is likely to deepen further when Judge Yvonne Murphy reports on the events in Cloyne.

For years John Magee was held in high esteem as a trusted Vatican aide and that faith may go some way to explain the year-long wait for a decision on his future - it took Pope Benedict just ten days to make a similar decision on Bishop Donal Murray.

A clerical highlight came during Pope John Paul II's visit to Ireland where the Co Down dairy farmer's son was an almost constant presence at the Pontiff's side.

Years later he spoke of the father-son relationship he enjoyed with Pope Paul VI and the more brotherly bond he experienced with Pope John Paul I and Pope John Paul II.

Such a trusted confidante, he was party to an infamous white lie following John Paul I's death - rather than let the world know a nun had found the Pontiff dead in the early hours, a statement was issued insisting Bishop Magee had made the sad discovery.

The mystery and colour around those events will inevitably be overshadowed by a child abuse scandal.

Career pinnacles will not be forgotten, however, including 1981 when he was dispatched as a papal envoy in an eleventh-hour bid to end the IRA hunger strike.

Just days before Bobby Sands died, the Newry-born cleric - the only person to serve as private secretary to three popes - personally implored republican leaders in the Maze Prison to call off their protest.

The plea failed, but its significance was not lost, and on his deathbed Sands wore a crucifix given to him by the then Monsignor.

The Maze talks, which drew massive publicity, saw John Magee meet other hunger strikers - Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O'Hara.

While in the North he embarked on a sequence of private attempts to sympathise with families of victims of republican terror, including Richard McKee, a Protestant Ulster Defence Regiment soldier shot dead by the IRA. The Monsignor prayed at his coffin. He also met the family of Catholic Territorial Army officer Hugh McGinn, shot dead outside his home near Armagh by the INLA.

A third approach was rebuffed when the widow of Protestant RUC man Kenneth Acheson declined to speak to Bishop Magee.

John Magee served in the missions in Nigeria in the 1950s with the Kiltegan Fathers before moving to Rome and climbing the Vatican career ladder.

Despite three terms as private and personal papal secretary, what followed was widely regarded as a surprise posting to lead the Diocese of Cloyne.

Rural parishes in Cork were far removed from the pressures and powers in the corridors of the Vatican.

Some commentators believe his closeness to three pontiffs had paved the way for a bishopric in Rome, which, as far as is publicly known, was never offered.

Up until 2008 the closest John Magee had come to controversy or publicity was a row over the renovation of St Colman's Cathedral in Cobh.

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