Saturday 24 February 2018

The spectacular fall from grace of churchman once seen as breath of fresh air

Edel Kennedy

He denied allegations about using prostitutes.

There were also reports of him being arrested in Bangkok, and queries over his purchase of a Dublin apartment

BRENDAN Comiskey didn't just court controversy – he relished it. Loved by the media because of his brazen outspokenness, his comments could make headlines around the world.

He was happy to publicly comment on everything from contraceptives to spanking children, to former colleagues fathering children. And he even spoke in favour of allowing priests to marry.

But behind the public face was a private life – he battled a growing problem with alcoholism and he was failing to deal with sex abuse by several priests within the diocese of Ferns.

And when his facade unravelled, it did so in spectacular fashion with reports and allegations about using prostitutes, being arrested in Bangkok airport, and queries over his personal – and secretive – purchase of a Dublin apartment.

But before details of his private life emerged in the mid-1990s, he was loved by many who saw him as a breath of fresh air.

An estimated 10,000 people lined the streets of Wexford in April 1984 when Comiskey arrived as bishop in the diocese of Ferns. He had a reputation as a bishop who was energetic, articulate, forward-thinking and media friendly. The Co Monaghan-born bishop was even regarded at the time as one of the Catholic Church's best assets in Ireland.

In 1985, when the government introduced a bill that would allow anyone who was at least 18 years old to buy some types of contraceptives, he was among one of the most vocal opponents in the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

He also wasn't shy about giving advice to parents, backing those who disciplined their children with a "cuff on the ear". He said a "whack of the wooden spoon" did not constitute child abuse.

And a decade later, he waded into the celibacy debate, claiming that by allowing priests to marry recruitment would soar. He was rewarded for his comments with a summons to Rome to clarify his position on the topic.

However, it was around this time that things began to unravel for Bishop Comiskey.

His drinking was getting heavier and according to observers, it seemed as if his control over the diocese and his priests became lax.

More people began to notice his drinking and it was said that his inebriation was visible on the altar on a few occasions. As his problem worsened, he began to miss engagements.

And then the lid blew off the diocesan abuse.

Allegations had been made of sex abuse by a number of priests, and the matter could no longer be kept quiet.

In September 1995, the situation descended into farce when former Cardinal Cahal Daly was forced to deny that Bishop Comiskey had been held in a police cell after being found drunk and without his passport at Bangkok Airport.

However, Bishop Comiskey went for treatment in the US for alcoholism and came back in early 1996 to face down allegations about his conduct in both his private and professional life.

He denied trying to sweep allegations of child sex abuse under the carpet and said he "did not consort with prostitutes" while on holiday in Thailand.

He also denied being drunk in Bangkok Airport, claiming his bag and passport were stolen when he landed in the Thai capital.

The fact that he, a bishop, was forced to deny the sensational reports showed how damaged he had become in the eyes of the public.

But worse was to come.

Horrific details began to emerge of the conduct of Ferns priest Fr Sean Fortune, with severe criticism of the bishop's handling of the case.

The paedophile priest was ultimately charged with 29 charges of sexual abuse against young boys in addition to allegations of fraud from some of his former parishioners.

One of the country's most prolific predators, Fortune had used his influence to gain access to children, and concerns about his behaviour had been raised with Bishop Comiskey.

However, the bishop was accused of failing to act in time to stop the abuse of additional children.

Fortune took his own life in 1999 before he could face a trial.

The bishop further compounded his low standing in the community by giving the homily at Fortune's funeral Mass.

He spoke of the loss to the Fortune family and told of how much God loves "each and every one of us". While he mentioned the "trial process" which was under way when Fortune took his own life, he offered no apology to the victims.

Bishop Comiskey's failure to act was revealed in a BBC documentary, and he was sharply criticised by the government inquiry into abuse in the Wexford diocese, which was published in October 2005.

However, by that time, he had already stepped down. In 2002 – after the full horrific extent of the abuse by Fortune and other Ferns priests was revealed – Bishop Comiskey gave his resignation to Pope John Paul II.

After 18 years in office, he owned up to mishandling complaints of sex abuse.

His resignation made headlines across the world, and was reported in the US and Australia. He was one of the first, and few, high-profile clerics to resign from office due to their inability to protect children.

Now a recovering alcoholic, he retains the honourary title of Bishop Emeritus, and has been counselling alcoholics in Dublin and studying psychiatry.

Irish Independent

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