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Saturday 17 March 2018

In 2005, Justine McCarthy revealed how during an interview years earlier, a drunk Bishop Brendan Comiskey issued an astonishing threat to rape her

IT was 2pm. Bishop Comiskey was very drunk. He reeked of alcohol and was swaying. Then he told me, if you write a story like that I'll come up to Dublin and rape you.

For the rest of that week after the bishop threatened to rape me, he phoned me in the office every day, sometimes twice a day. His morning calls were usually softer-voiced and pathetic. By the afternoon, they had grown harsher, more rambling, less coherent and more disturbing. I could measure the progress of his intoxication on the phone each day.

The more he phoned, the more I felt he was establishing a macabre bond between us. Each time I heard his voice, I felt panicky. In one morning call, he turned the tables by implying that I was the one guilty of causing him injury, or planning it. The last time the bishop rang, he apologised. He had asked in one of his earlier calls if it was true that he had made a specific threat of violence against me and what, precisely, was that threat. Spelling out to a drunk prince of the church on the phone that he had threatened to rape me was not only surreal, it felt like the second-worst kind of enforced intimacy. Now this last time he called, he sounded exhausted and sober. He said he could not remember saying it but, "if I did, I'm sorry".

The following morning, my bland interview with Bishop Brendan Comiskey was published in the Irish Independent, depicting him, to my shame, as a compassionate and fearless rebel in the crusty conference of bishops. I never heard from him again.

Before the second week of April 1994, the information I had about the Bishop of Ferns was scant. I knew he was friendly with Charlie Haughey.

I was aware that he was regarded as a modern, quotable bishop.

I heard stories about him being carried out of a Dublin restaurant, too drunk to walk and collapsing with drink on a church altar; but I am not sure if these stories surfaced before or after my encounter with him.

About a year before I met him, I had arranged to interview the Newry-born healing nun, Sr Breege McKenna, at Clonliffe College. I remember being mildly surprised and, admittedly, somewhat flattered when, as she walked towards me that morning, her first words were: "Bishop Comiskey says you're a good journalist and I can trust you."

Last Wednesday, I read Mr Justice Murphy's report of the Ferns Inquiry. I wanted, in particular, to find out what had happened to the teenage girl who had allegedly been sexually interfered with by the bishop in her own home.

Like some other journalists, I have known about this incident for many years but could never write it because the girl and her family did not want the publicity.

The Murphy Report records that the girl's parents complained to the South Eastern Health Board in 1990 of the bishop's behaviour towards their daughter, but it was not reported to the Garda because the girl was over 16 and she insisted it remain private.

The bishop, who had been drinking at the time of the reported incident, told the Murphy Inquiry he had no memory of it and denied the allegation.When the caretaker bishop, Dr Eamonn Walsh, found out about the allegation in 2004, he reported it to Cardinal Desmond Connell, as the Metropolitan for Ferns diocese. A report was prepared, without interviewing Dr Comiskey, and sent to the Holy See. This report concluded that Bishop Comiskey had violated no law but that his inebriation needed to be addressed.

Although he agreed to step aside from active ministry after the allegation came to light in 2004, Brendan Comiskey had, a year later, been returned to full ministry by the Congregation of Bishops.

Before I reached the end of the Murphy Report, I knew what I had to do. I knew in my heart that I had no right to hope that the woman allegedly molested by the bishop when she was a child would someday tell her story as long as I still kept mine secret . . .

The fateful meeting happened a week after Easter in 1994. The Bishop of Ferns had claimed on his local radio station the previous Saturday that a "tiny elite in Irish society'' was "working for anarchy''. He said there were "about 20 people running the country . . . Basically, they are people in control of the media'.' Two days later, he publicly criticised a government plan to spend half-a-million pounds on an advertising campaign for the divorce referendum. The remarks were interpreted as signalling the start of what would be one of the last almighty showdowns between the Catholic Church and the State with, as it turned out, the passing of divorce into Irish law.

I rang the Bishop's House in Wexford and was impressed with his accessibility when Dr Comiskey took my call. I asked him if he would elaborate on his recent remarks in a full interview for our Saturday paper. He agreed and we arranged to meet at his house, early on the following afternoon.

As best I can recall, it was 2pm when his housekeeper opened the door and I saw, in the hallway behind her, a man with a distinctive, full hairstyle staggering as if drunk. I recognised Dr Brendan Comiskey from his media appearances.

I was brought to the study where I met Ger Walsh, then the editor of the 'Wexford People', owned by Independent Newspapers. Ger was to have lunch with the bishop, following the annual interview with the local paper. As they were only entering the dining room when I arrived, I too sat at the table but declined an invitation to eat. The bishop offered me wine which I also refused as I was working and, more importantly, I was nearly five months pregnant.

Bishop Comiskey was very drunk. He reeked of alcohol, his speech was slurred and he was precariously unsteady on his feet. During his frequent absences from the dining room, Ger whispered to me that the bishop had seemed drunk to him when he arrived as scheduled at 11am and that he had been drinking whiskey in the study throughout the interview. He was making less and less sense, struggling to finish sentences and even words, but the utterances he did make had a suggestive tone.

Re-reading the account of the interview that I wrote, I see he said that it was "rubbish accusing bishops of knowing nothing about sex and marriage because we sit until one o'clock in the morning listening to women who have been abused'' and that "sodomy is sodomy and if you don't like the word it's up to journalists like you to find another one''.

That account of the interview did not mention the personal remarks he made about me, such as how he would lie in bed on Saturday mornings and look at my by-line picture in the paper. He recalled a journalist from another paper coming to interview him a couple of years earlier and writing primarily about his house and his clothes and he warned me: "If you do that, I'll come up to Dublin and I'll rape you."

Shock has a strange effect. My mechanical reaction was to ask another polite question while inside my head I shrieked, 'he can't really have said that'.

After Ger left, the interview – such as it was – continued. The bishop made no more threats and I wound up the interview quickly, anxious to get out of the house.

That night, I rang my features editor and told him what happened. He duly told the editor of the paper, who decided that we could not publish the true account of the interview.

I believed his decision was correct because I thought it would be wrong to hold an alcoholic up to ridicule for a single transgression. A line in the Murphy Report about how victims of child sexual abuse feared destroying their attackers' lives strikes a chord with my memory of this time.

THE Murphy Report says that many victims feared they would not be believed. I had that fear. Who, after all, was going to accept a journalist's word against a bishop's? Most of all, I did not want the precious time of my child's arrival into the world to be tainted by that day. I was wrong. I should have written the whole truth then. Perhaps it would have empowered someone else to speak up, starting a momentum for accountability. Maybe a child would have been saved from the horrors going on in Ferns. It was still 20 months before Fr Sean Fortune was arrested for raping and assaulting boys.

Months after he resigned as Bishop of Ferns, following the 'Suing The Pope' BBC documentary. I was in Rosslare for a weekend with my sisters and our children. On the Sunday morning, we filled the front pew of the local Catholic church as the priest announced: "We're honoured that Bishop Comiskey is going to celebrate this Mass.''

I turned and saw Brendan Comiskey parade up the centre aisle in golden vestments, holding an elaborate edition of the Bible high above his head. I could not look at him on the altar, even when he gave his homily and preached to us about conscience and moral duty.

As we walked away from the church after Mass, the Bishop Emeritus swept past us behind the wheel of a new BMW car.


Irish Independent

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