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A good person who became focus of public anger over sex abuse scandals


Desmond Connell with Mary McAleese. Photo: Chris Doyle

Desmond Connell with Mary McAleese. Photo: Chris Doyle

Desmond Connell with Mary McAleese. Photo: Chris Doyle

My father was in school at the same time as Desmond Connell. I remember him telling me once that it was the opinion of the other boys in the school that the young Desmond Connell would become either an academic or a priest. Even then he was studious and serious-minded.

In fact, he become both a priest and an academic and in time, the Archbishop of Dublin and a Cardinal of the Catholic Church. He would certainly have been a happier man had he been left in the philosophy department of University College Dublin instead of being asked to take the reins of Dublin Archdiocese in 1988.

He had only three years to go before he would have had to retire from his position as a lecturer at UCD and then he would have spent another 10 years in formal active ministry before retiring altogether.

Instead he become embroiled in the worst scandals to hit the Catholic Church in centuries.

It was during his watch that the child sex abuse scandals first came to public attention and they consumed practically his entire period as Archbishop of Dublin.

When I interviewed him for this newspaper upon his retirement in 2004, he admitted that he had become "a lightning rod" for public anger. This is because he was the most high-profile bishop in the country for much of his time in office, one of the few bishops the public knew by name, and so the understandable public anger that greeted the scandals was poured out mainly on his head.

It didn't help that he had a reserved manner and was very awkward and defensive whenever he was confronted by journalists. He also had a tendency to put his foot firmly in his mouth.

For example, in 1997 when president Mary McAleese received Communion in a Protestant church (Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin) in defiance of the Catholic Church's rules against intercommunion, he called what she had done a 'sham'. This caused uproar and he was widely condemned.

Two years later he bravely defended the very unpopular 1968 papal encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which reiterated the Church's ban on the use of artificial contraception, and in doing so he said that couples who plan their children may come to love them less because they might regard them less as gifts and more as products to be ordered. There was more uproar because he seemed to have insulted almost every parent in the country.

It confirmed for many people that he was aloof and out-of-touch. His doctoral thesis was on the French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche, and was easily caricatured as being more concerned with angels than humans, but it was really about the mind and what the mind can and can't know, which is still a raging debate in philosophy.

The child sex abuse scandals really began to break over his head from roughly the early 1990s. His initial response was halting and inadequate and overly concerned with the opinion of his canon law advisers, and sometimes the wrong kind of advice from some civil lawyers.

The report of the Murphy Commission into clerical abuse in Dublin Archdiocese, published in 2009, dealt with his part in the response to the scandals in great detail. It was not as harsh as might have been expected.

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The report summed up his response as follows: "The Commission considers that Archbishop Connell was slow to recognise the seriousness of the situation when he took over in 1988.

"He was over-reliant on advice from other people, including his auxiliary bishops and legal and medical experts. He was clearly personally appalled by the abuse but it took him some time to realise that it could not be dealt with by keeping it secret and protecting priests from the normal civil processes."

The Commission was more critical of his predecessors, and in particular Archbishop Dermot Ryan. Most of the worst scandals, in fact, occurred under his watch in the 1970s and 1980s, and most of Desmond Connell's time was spent dealing with the appalling legacy of that period.

The Murphy Commission said that Cardinal Connell saw very few victims (noting that his predecessors seemed to have seen none), and that some who saw him found him "sympathetic and kind" while others found him "remote and aloof".

The Commission noted the very negative role played by "one of the most powerful" canon lawyers in the archdiocese, the late Monsignor Gerard Sheehy, who fought against involving the police and against breaking what he saw as the absolutely confidential relationship between priests and their bishops, something Cardinal Connell was overly cognisant of.

However, in his favour, Cardinal Connell was first to 'defrock' (laicise) a priest found guilty of child sex abuse, namely Tony Walsh, and when the Vatican overruled him, an angry Cardinal Connell went out to Rome and insisted they uphold his decision.

In fact, partly because of Desmond Connell, Rome introduced a new system that led to far more priests being laicised and far more quickly because of the crime of sex abuse. The Murphy Commission also acknowledged that the now very robust child protection systems in Dublin were put in place by Cardinal Connell.

There is no doubt, however, that none of this would have happened without the constant pressure of victims like the heroic Marie Collins.

In his retirement, he was looked after by a handful of priests and the religious who were very loyal to him and knew him to be an honourable, decent person despite his almost fatal inclination to listen to extremely harmful interpretations of canon law offered by the likes of Gerard Sheehy.

If he had lived in an earlier time he would probably be chiefly remembered as a conservative bishop but essentially a good man. Instead he became, as he recognised himself, the chief lightning rod for public anger over the scandals.