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News of the ‘Bishop Casey affair’ left Catholic Ireland in state of disbelief


In public, Eamonn Casey was a staunch supporter of Catholic doctrine but his private life was a different story. Photo: Collins

In public, Eamonn Casey was a staunch supporter of Catholic doctrine but his private life was a different story. Photo: Collins

In public, Eamonn Casey was a staunch supporter of Catholic doctrine but his private life was a different story. Photo: Collins

Disbelief. Total and utter disbelief. These are the only words to sum up the reaction among the majority of Irish people when they first heard that Bishop Eamonn Casey had fathered a son.

I remember when as night editor of the Irish Independent the news came in around 2am - and how the office went silent as even seasoned veterans of the newspaper world wondered could this really be true?

And in historical terms that is the most profound legacy of what became known as the 'Bishop Casey affair'. Prior to that moment the Catholic Church was perceived as a kind of unyielding monolith. Central to its belief system in Ireland was that the clergy in general were above human frailty.

There may have been a toleration of priests who clearly had an alcohol problem - and indeed there were others who laboured under foibles such as a tendency to gamble too much on horses or greyhounds. But when it came to matters of the flesh our priests, and especially our bishops, simply had to be above reproach.

Looking back, when it came to such matters, Ireland was a land of innocence.

As the Bishop Casey story unfolded, there was an attempt by nearly all concerned to pull down the shutters. His fellow bishops were left floundering. Nothing like this had ever before hit Irish Catholicism. One of the many enduring images from the time is Archbishop Cathal Daly, almost overcome with a palpable sense of shock, grappling for words when trying to describe the "other party" involved in the relationship.

The other party was quickly identified as Annie Murphy, a direct-speaking American woman. She would radiate a certain sense of bewilderment, that so much complexity could be added to what was in one sense a simple and straightforward story. The summation of it all is that she simply had been in a relationship with "a man of the cloth" and they had a son together.

Was it not obvious what the next move should be? Could it not be argued Eamonn Casey's primary responsibility was to his son - and ensuring he fulfilled his duties as a father.

But perhaps Annie Murphy always knew that Eamonn Casey the priest, whose vocation was fashioned in the small Kerry village of Firies in the 1930s and '40s, could never bring himself to renounce his religious vows. And that dilemma will remain the great unanswered question of his life. Could he, should he, have left the priesthood, given his parental responsibilities?

After all, other less senior members of the clergy - particularly in other countries - had become laicised and had subsequently got married. Maybe the Bishop felt that given his own high status in the Church he had no option but to stay within the fold, even though in time he would be banished to South America, and later prevented from saying Mass in public.

There would remain many contradictions about his life. The man whose background was of conservative farming stock, would in adult life become a kind of social radical. He would bring the extraordinary energy of his younger years to the fight for housing for the less well off in London. An underlying radical streak was also manifest in his opposition to the visit of US President Ronald Reagan to Ireland.

Casey strongly opposed the more hardline right-wing economics of Reagan, and his gung-ho foreign policy approach if American interests were threatened.

Perhaps one of the biggest criticisms that can be made against Eamonn Casey was his determination to publicly support church dogmatism on issues such as contraception and divorce, despite the reality of his own private life. Indeed, until his death he never wavered in his absolute backing for the institutional church.

It has been remarked on many occasions that his high-profile role - along with Fr Michael Cleary who it was discovered was also in a relationship with a woman and had fathered a child - when Pope John Paul visited Ireland marked a defining moment in the Irish church. Later events would prove that both priests, despite their public intolerance for human frailty, were in fact living a lie.

The years would go by, but subsequent controversies would show that the so-called Casey affair was of a profoundly different hue to the child sex abuse scandals, which would shame much of Irish life. At the end of it all, he was involved in a consenting relationship with another adult.

In time he cut the figure of the avuncular older man. The jovial smile of former times could sometimes emerge on the odd occasion he was seen in public. But he kept his secrets, determined to carry to the grave his deepest thoughts on an event that at the time convulsed the Catholic Church and indeed Irish life.

However, there is some consolation he was able to have a final meeting with his son Peter, here in Ireland, before his health went into serious decline. Perhaps they were both victims of a time and place, when the rush to judgment was all too easy, by those more than willing to cast the first stone.

Irish Independent

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Bishop Eamonn Casey Photo: Don MacMonagle