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Scandal of the affair marked beginning of end for Church's dominance in Irish public life


Bishop Eamonn Casey pictured at the ordination of Archbishop Dermot Clifford in Thurles in 1987. Photo: Don MacMonagle

Bishop Eamonn Casey pictured at the ordination of Archbishop Dermot Clifford in Thurles in 1987. Photo: Don MacMonagle

Bishop Eamonn Casey pictured at the ordination of Archbishop Dermot Clifford in Thurles in 1987. Photo: Don MacMonagle

A wise man once wrote that the good we do is written in sand, whereas the things that are, well, less good, are carved in stone. That's certainly true of Bishop Eamonn Casey and newspaper headlines frequently introduced him as "disgraced former bishop". And Bishop Casey certainly brought disgrace on himself, his vocational commitment and the Church he so publicly represented for decades.

Growing up in Co Kerry in the 1930s, he could've scarcely imagined the role he would one day play in the story of the decline of Catholicism in Ireland.

But what man wants - much less deserves - to be remembered at his lowest point? Eamonn Casey was a man of immense pastoral charity and outreach. When he was appointed a bishop in 1969 aged just 42, he seemed exactly what a conservative hierarchy needed to breathe life in to a Church that had, in reality, being merely coasting along for decades.

The revelation that Bishop Casey had secretly fathered a child - Peter - in 1974 with Annie Murphy stunned and saddened many people when it was first confirmed in 1992. It's impossible now to explain to younger generations the impact the news had.

I was 13 years old and vividly remember the sense of shock and disbelief among family and neighbours in our close-knit Catholic community in rural Co Tyrone. Inevitably, there were some who viewed it as a media fabrication - denial is a very human reaction to news one finds difficult to comprehend. But there was no fabrication.

Catholics had been brought up to look up to senior clerics as role models. The fact that a bishop could sin in such a fashion, and continue to seek promotion within the Church when he knew that same sin could be publicised at any moment, beggars belief looking back.

Along with that other larger-than-life clerical character Fr Michael Cleary, Eamon Casey formed the backdrop of the papal visit to Ireland in 1979. He famously appeared in television footage beamed around the world from Galway racecourse with nothing but sky in the background, so high was the platform that had been erected so the cheering teenagers and young adults could greet the Pope.

Casey's immediate resignation in 1992 and self-imposed exile to the missions of Latin America brought relief to a hierarchy reeling as it tried to come to terms with the scandal.

Looking back, one might say it was the beginning of the end for the Church's dominance of public life in Ireland. Looking back too, I suspect most people will think of Eamon Casey in a forgiving fashion. His misdemeanour pales into insignificance when one considers the now-exposed widespread culture of cover-up and down-playing of child abuse by senior clerics. His sin, what theologians might describe as a 'sin according to nature', seems so minor in comparison.

Nonetheless, when one comes to write the history of the declining influence of the Catholic Church in 20th century Ireland, Casey's departure will certainly mark a pivotal moment. For many Irish people, it was the beginning of a series of punishing revelations that the men of the Church - the Church they were brought up in to instinctively believe would always do the right thing - were capable of great hypocrisy. Much of the anger against the Church is not anger that people in high office fail - it's was more the fact that people in high office preached one thing, and did something quite different. I suppose the Church should take it as a positive thing that people expect higher standards from clerics.

Eamonn Casey was a complex man: proud, vain, ambitious, sensitive, caring and capable of great acts of human kindness. His early years in priesthood were marked by a lively pastoral concern for young Irish people who were forced to emigrate far from their native shores. He urged successive Irish governments to do more for these often-forgotten citizens.

Appointed a bishop in 1969 in the heady years after Vatican II, he was seen as a progressive within the Church. In keeping with the 1960s, he was a colourful man in a Church often dominated by grey characters.

Perhaps it was that zest for life that was to prove his undoing. He loved fast cars - which he often pushed to their limits - and a drink. He became known as a renowned host and friends delighted in his company.

He was a sharp critic of US foreign policy, particularly in Latin America and stood shoulder to shoulder with the Dunnes Stores workers who refused to stock goods from apartheid South Africa.

He was present at the funeral Mass for the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador in 1980 when gunmen opened fire on mourners, killing an estimated 50 people.

After his penitential years on the missions in Ecuador, he returned to relative obscurity in Ireland in 2006. He returned to a very different Ireland than the one he left almost 15 years earlier. Friends say he rarely spoke about the events that were to be his undoing. In recent years, that cruel stalker dementia was to take over and the silence was no longer something he had a choice about.

He continues to be greatly loved by both many people and priests in his native Kerry and his adopted Galway. Expect what we call in Ireland "a big funeral". Among those leading tributes to Casey last night was none other than his old friend President Michael D Higgins. The president highlighted his tireless work for human rights and to raise awareness about the developing world. Touchingly, a statement from his family last night opened with the words: "On behalf of his son, Peter . . ."

They sometimes say old men have a lot of time to pray. Scientists don't know what effect cognitive impairments have on the inner spiritual life.

I suspect that Eamonn Casey is a man who has long since found peace with his faith and with God. To err is human, to forgive divine.

Michael Kelly is Editor of The Irish Catholic newspaper.

Irish Independent