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Thursday 22 February 2018

Obituary: Churchman, campaigner... and a father

The late Dr Eamonn Casey pictured at a funeral in Dublin in 1985 Photo: Eamonn Farrell/
The late Dr Eamonn Casey pictured at a funeral in Dublin in 1985 Photo: Eamonn Farrell/ Newsdesk Newsdesk

The Catholic Bishop of Galway, Dr Eamonn Casey, who died at the age of 89, resigned in 1992 following the revelation that he had fathered a son 17 years earlier, and that he had paid the boy's mother, an American divorcee, IR£75,000 from diocesan funds after negotiations with her lawyers.

An ebullient and gregarious figure, Bishop Casey was the most popular, the most socially involved, and the most dynamic campaigner against poverty and injustice of his generation of Irish bishops. He was also a noted bon vivant, with a taste for fine claret and fast cars, which he frequently crashed. But he maintained that "any clergyman with more than four figures in the bank has lost the faith".

Eamonn Casey was born on April 23, 1927, at Firies, near Tralee, Co Kerry, one of 10 children of a creamery manager. Raised in Co Limerick, he was educated at St Munchin's College and studied for the priesthood at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, Co Kildare.

He was ordained in 1951 and became a curate in Limerick, where he said his social conscience was shaped by the misery he saw in working class housing estates. In 1960 he moved to Slough in the UK to work among Irish immigrants. Impressed by his efforts among the homeless, Cardinal Heenan of Westminster asked him to turn his Catholic Housing Aid Society into a national organisation in 1963.

In 1966 Bishop Casey helped to found UK agency Shelter, in a spectacularly effective campaign to press the government for action on homelessness. In 1968 he became chairman of Shelter, demonstrating great managerial and fundraising acumen, and was helped by his television appearance in 'Cathy Come Home', a powerful drama-documentary. Bishop Casey's chubby, grinning face and engaging manner endeared him to charity workers and prospective donors alike.

In 1969 he was recalled to Ireland to become Bishop of Kerry. At 42 he was the youngest member of the Irish hierarchy. The novelist Kate O'Brien asked: "Why is this young man of action, this Samaritan who wears his heart on his sleeve, being trapped into a mitre away from his great vocation?" Cardinal Heenan, in a sermon, said the appointment of Bishop Casey, a friend and father of the poor, was a sign of the changing Church.

But Bishop Casey's mitre did not trap his effervescence and he launched a series of high-profile local campaigns. He ended the archaic ban on Saturday night dances in Kerry church halls, pressed for the maintenance of the compulsory Shannon Airport stop-over for transatlantic traffic, which provided local jobs, blessed an unauthorised bridge to Valentia Island, and kept up a barrage of abuse of the government for failing to fund poverty programmes.

If he was criticised for any of his activities it was for his style, not his sincerity. When Cardinal Conway set up the Irish development agency Trócaire in 1973, Bishop Casey was appointed chairman. Trócaire, 20pc of whose budget was devoted to education and propaganda, supported liberation theology, and in El Salvador and Nicaragua backed bishops Romero and Ortega, incurring the anger of the Pentagon.

When, in 1983, the US government accused the agency of being anti-American, Bishop Casey organised a boycott by the Irish Catholic bishops of president Reagan's visit to his ancestral home in Tipperary. Trócaire also embarrassed the ESB, by claiming that it had driven people from their homes in the Philippines during construction of a hydro electric project under the Marcos regime.

In 1974 Bishop Casey chaired a Dublin meeting of Cherish, a support organisation for unmarried mothers. Commending the women, he bitterly castigated fathers who failed to recognise their responsibility to their children. Unknown to his audience, his own unacknowledged son had just been born, the issue of a clandestine affair with Annie Murphy, a 26-year-old American divorcee.

Ms Murphy, a distant relative of the Bishop, had been sent to Ireland in the spring of 1973 to help her recover from a disastrous marriage and a miscarriage. In her book 'Forbidden Fruit', co-authored with the former Jesuit Peter de Rosa in 1993, she offered a lurid account of her relationship with the bishop, who, she said, had tried to browbeat her into having the child adopted to conceal the affair. She also suggested that he might have had other affairs. Describing his boudoir technique, she remarked: "He was a goddamn bishop. Where had he learnt all this?"

In 1976 Bishop Casey was transferred to the more urban diocese of Galway, a move prompted by local agitation for a more liberal prelate to replace the arch conservative, Bishop Michael Browne. But although Bishop Casey happily wore the liberal tag bestowed by observers of his social conscience, his theology was conservative.

He kept a low profile in the public controversies over socio-sexual issues in the 1970s and 1980s but negotiated a secret accommodation with the medical staff at Galway's Galvia Hospital, who agreed to ban sterilisation and in vitro fertilisation, both of which were against Catholic teaching, as well as amniocentesis, which was regarded as a prelude to abortion.

In 1986, after he was arrested and banned for drink-driving in London, he made a tearful public confession to the people of his diocese. He was lauded for his honesty and humility.

He was an extrovert, warm-hearted and impulsive man whom car salesmen sought out - his regular collisions ensured a brisk turnover in new models. Having a preference for Italian cars, the bishop wrote off several Lancias, but also crashed a Mercedes. He was an occasional entrant in saloon car races at the Mondello Park circuit in Co Kildare.

In 1991 persistent rumours began to circulate about his affair with Ms Murphy, whose son Peter, then aged 17, was pressing for public acknowledgement by his father. Although several Irish newspapers were approached with the story, none dared publish a line. But the public whispering reached a pitch in May 1992 and the bishop resigned while on a visit to Rome.

In a statement, he said merely that he had left for personal reasons and would devote the rest of his active life to work on the missions. He disappeared from view for almost a year but was tracked down to a convent in Mexico by the author Gordon Thomas, who photographed the now bearded bishop and described his secluded but comfortable lifestyle.

Much embarrassment was caused to the Church authorities by the revelation that Bishop Casey had appropriated diocesan funds to give to Ms Murphy; later, it was announced that the losses had been made good by an unnamed well-wisher. Bishop Casey continued his exile in Central America, but returned to Ireland for brief visits to funerals and family occasions.

Having worked on the missions in rural Ecuador, Bishop Casey later found himself a retirement job in Britain in the tiny parish of Staplefield near Haywards Heath, Sussex.

Here he devoted himself to visiting the sick in the local hospital, where his ministry was greatly valued. Known as Fr Eamonn, he was much loved by local people for his warm-hearted approach. Having done penance for his sins, the people of God had clearly forgiven him for his transgressions.

In 2006, Bishop Casey, now almost 80, returned to Ireland, settling in the small east Galway village of Shanaglish. About a year after that he recorded several hours of interviews with an Irish folklorist called Maurice O'Keeffe. He did not discuss the circumstances of the scandal, but revealed that when he knew that his secret relationship was about to be exposed he went to the Vatican to hand in his resignation and "acknowledge [his] wrongdoing".

The Pope's representative, however, "wouldn't accept it", Bishop Casey claimed. "He said the Holy Father doesn't want to accept it." He also recalled a stay in a North American monastery in which he had twice set off the alarm by smoking (contrary to the rules) in his room late at night.

In 2011 Bishop Casey was admitted to a nursing home in Co Clare suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

The Rt Rev Eamonn Casey, born April 23, 1927, died March 13, 2017.

Funeral to take place in Galway

The funeral for Bishop Eamonn Casey will take place in Galway tomorrow.

His remains will be removed to the Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and Saint Nicholas, Galway, this evening at 7pm.

The funeral will take place at 2pm tomorrow, followed by internment in the Cathedral crypt.

Mass celebrant will be the Bishop of Clonfert John Kirby.

Bishop Casey passed away in Carrigoran House, a nursing and convalescent centre in which he had resided since 2011, in Newmarket-on-Fergus, Co Clare, on Monday.

Irish Independent

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