Sunday 15 September 2019

Charismatic cleric's fall from grace was first crack that splintered edifice of the Church

The fallout

Annie Murphy, mother of Bishop Eamonn Casey's son Peter, with Gay Byrne on the Late Late Show in 1993
Annie Murphy, mother of Bishop Eamonn Casey's son Peter, with Gay Byrne on the Late Late Show in 1993
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

That fall from grace, that evidence of human fallibility - it was the moment in time when the first crack spidered through the imposing edifice of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Nothing would ever be the same again.

In 1992, American divorcée Annie Murphy caused widespread consternation when she revealed how her teenage son was fathered by Bishop Eamonn Casey. Further, it emerged that he had "borrowed" £70,000 from Church funds to meet some of his responsibilities, or to buy her silence, depending on how his actions were interpreted.

Ms Murphy's story was a turning point. Catholic hypocrisy on sexuality was laid bare. The scales fell from people's eyes and from then on, our ingrained deference to the hierarchy began to ebb away. Catholicism took a blow to its credibility, with trust in the hierarchy damaged - 25 years on, neither has recovered.

From today's vantage point it's not shocking that a lonely man, required by the Catholic Church to be celibate, should have felt the need for a little comfort and companionship. But his response to what happened - that's trickier to accept. He acquiesced to the Church's view that sexuality was sinful and wrong.

When his secret was made public, Bishop Casey resigned his bishopric and went off to do penance as a missionary.

If he had gone on the airwaves and said, "I am fallible, I am human" he may have weathered the storm, and helped to move Catholicism into a more credible place.

Or imagine if he had left the Catholic Church instead of his bishop's palace. Imagine if he had carried on doing the excellent work with Irish emigrants or in developing countries which helped to build his reputation. Imagine if he had wholeheartedly (instead of grudgingly and belatedly) acknowledged his son, Peter, and challenged the unnatural celibacy which condemns so many priests to loneliness. What leadership that would have shown.

Bishop Casey had courage - but not enough courage for that.

There was much about him that was good, and a side to him that was problematic. The double standards are difficult to explain away.

Read More: Bishop Casey 'was a great source of love', says grieving family

Other scandals followed, including the 1993 revelation that high profile 'Singing Priest' Father Michael Cleary had fathered a child with his housekeeper and lived with them as a family. He was a friend of Bishop Casey.

Both men were charismatic, colourful, larger-than-life figures and both clearly loved their Church and worked hard on its behalf. But they also caused it harm by their actions. They did not live by the standards they demanded of others. Bishop Casey may have been regarded as a liberal, but he still supported clerical celibacy in public.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church had a tight grip on politics in Ireland, and enormous influence over the laws passed here. Its control over health and education was not just draconian but unhealthy. In hindsight, consensual sex between adults seems tame compared with the paedophile crimes - and the hierarchy's role in protecting the perpetrators - that later became known. But what rankled with many of the increasingly less faithful were the double standards: no premarital sex, contraception tightly controlled, Church opposition to divorce and abortion under any and every set of circumstances.

Congregations were told how to lead their lives in exact detail and no uncertain terms. They were even told how to vote.

What's clearest in my memory from that time is the way Ms Murphy was excoriated on 'The Late Late Show' the following year, in 1993, following publication of her book.

She spoke with dignity as she gave an account of their relationship - it was her story to tell, after all - but the accusations levelled at her by the hostile audience smacked of a witch hunt.

Read More: 'A passionate and energetic Church campaigner who fought for justice'

Her honesty was questioned by the bishop's supporters. "Eamonn is a great man with some defects," she said. But middle Ireland was in denial. If he did father a child with her, she must have flaunted herself and tempted him.

Ms Murphy did the State some service by shining a light on double dealing and bad faith. But you'd never have thought it from the howls her story provoked.

As for Bishop Casey, it's true that he tried to make reparation with his pastoral work in Ecuador afterwards. But if he believed he had sinned and needed to make amends, it might have been better to do so as soon as he discovered Ms Murphy was pregnant, instead of trusting to silence and the passage of time.

Some might conclude that he was rather attached to the power and status of being a bishop.

Read More: A man of fast cars, fine wines and showbiz – but he also had a dirty secret

There was something approaching greatness in him, a certain nobility, but it never quite attained its potential. He broke Church regulations. But he broke a more important rule with shabby treatment of his son, Peter, during his childhood, although they formed a bond when the boy grew up.

Of course, men who didn't wear priestly collars also abandoned their children - for example, to the tender mercies of mother and baby homes. Some did it to further their careers, others so as to avoid scandal. But these men didn't preach a stern morality. They weren't arbiters of society's morals.

The Bishop Casey story is related to Tuam - to the uncomfortable truths which Catholicism sought to hide behind high walls. You can but wonder how many silenced Annie Murphys there were in Ireland.

Irish Independent

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