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How Cardinal became a magnet for controversy


Last week I turned down probably a dozen requests from various TV and radio programmes to discuss the latest Cardinal Desmond Connell controversy. There were two reasons for this.

One was that I didn't feel sufficiently informed about it. As of last week, I didn't think anyone had enough information to pass a definitive judgement about what is going on and I still believe this to be the case. All we can do is offer more or less informed opinions.

But the second and more important reason is that after 10 years of commenting on clerical abuse scandals, I had sworn to myself, never again. However, this week I am going to write about it because at a certain point it becomes almost a failure of duty for a religious and social affairs commentator not to offer comment on a story as big as this.

The first thing to be said is that no Church figure attracts controversy like Desmond Connell. He doesn't seek it. It just happens. Either he feels compelled to take positions that are unwise, or unpopular, or both, or he says things in such a way that they are bound to be misinterpreted, and badly, by the wider public, often egged on by a media determined to sock it to him.

For example, there was the uproar that attended his comment on President Mary McAleese's decision to receive Holy Communion at Christ Church cathedral a decade ago. He called it a 'sham'.

There was the uproar that followed when he said that parents who use family planning might love their children less. Then there was the time when he said that his then Church of Ireland counterpart, Archbishop Walton Empey, was not a 'high-flyer' theologically.

All of this is apart from the way he handled the clerical sex abuse scandals, which is what really damaged his reputation. To be fair, the way in which he handled these wasn't so different from the way in which practically all the bishops handled them; which is to say, very badly. In fact, in some respects he handled them relatively better than some of his colleagues. He was the first to 'defrock' a paedophile priest, for example.

But as Archbishop of Dublin, and along with Brendan Comiskey in Ferns, he became a lightning rod for public anger over the scandals. In this regard the 'Cardinal Secrets' programme of 2002 sealed his fate.

That programme also helped lead to the setting up of the commission that is inquiring into sex abuse in the Dublin archdiocese, an inquiry that is completely dominating Cardinal Connell's horizon in retirement. Those close to him know it is practically all he thinks or talks about.

Those who have met him recently also say he is in a very bad emotional and physical state. This probably won't win him much sympathy among victims; understandably so, given what happened to them, but it needs to be said all the same. He is practically a broken man.

He has taken this case against the commission because he obviously believes very deeply that certain advice a person receives from a lawyer is confidential and should remain so. The entirely unsubstantiated accusation that he is trying to hide something could be made, but could also be made against anyone who claims legal privilege. So we must consider whether we believe in legal privilege or not.

He was probably also deeply annoyed because Archbishop Diarmuid Martin (it would appear) had not told him all his files had been given to the commission. He may also feel that it is easy for the very media-friendly Dr Martin to hand over the files because none of his fingerprints are on them. He does not have to take the fall.

Desmond Connell is the sort of man who, if he was a bishop under Henry VIII, would have gladly submitted to the executioner's axe rather than sign the Oath of Allegiance recognising Henry and not the Pope as head of the Church in England. But that does not mean he is correct in this instance, even if he is within his legal rights.

Perhaps there is a very convincing reason why he has taken the case that we don't know about. But if there is, he owes it to the victims, the general public, and the Church to tell us.

And if there is no such reason, not even one that will convince Catholics who might be naturally sympathetic to him, then he owes it to those victims, to the general public, and to the Church, to drop it.

As it stands, what he is doing is causing yet more damage to himself, and to the Church he cares so deeply about. He must tell us why he is doing this, or else he must instruct his lawyers not to go into the High Court on Monday morning. The scandals have caused enough harm. Leave it be. Please.