Friday 24 November 2017

'Brilliant but flawed'

Ryle Dwyer on the legacy of Eamonn Casey

If anyone's faith was undermined by the scandal surrounding Bishop Eamonn Casey, that person did not have much faith to begin with! The late bishop was a man of whom Kerry people could be proud.

Born in Firies on April 24, 1927, he was brought up in Adare, County Limerick, where his father was a creamery manager. He attended St. Munchin's College, before going on to study for the priesthood at Maynooth, where he was ordained in 1951, along with the future Archbishop of Dublin, Desmond Connell.

Fr Casey made a name for himself working with Irish immigrants in London. A brilliant organiser, he was the inspiration for Shelter, the British organisation for the homeless. Later, he was the driving force in establishing Trocaire, the Third-World charity.

Appointed Bishop of Kerry in July 1969, he held the position until 1976 when he was transferred to Galway. In 1979 he led the warm up for the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ballybrit Racecourse, where he was joined on stage by Fr. Michael Cleary. Both would later be better remembered for having fathered sons.

Bishop Casey was never afraid to take a public stand on social issues. He supported the strike at Dunnes Stores against apartheid in South Africa, and was highly critical of the American support of the military regime following the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero, which Bishop Casey witnessed San Salvador in 1980. As a result, he pointedly snubbed President Ronald Reagan during his 1984 visit to Ireland.

Following the disclosure of having fathered Peter Murphy during an affair with a young American woman, Bishop Casey issued an abject apology. "I have grievously wronged Peter and his mother Annie Murphy. I have also sinned grievously against God, His church and the clergy and people of the dioceses of Galway and Kerry," he declared. "I have confessed my sins to God and I have asked His forgiveness, as I ask yours."

Pope John Paul II reportedly did not want him to resign as Bishop of Galway, but he insisted, because he wished to escape before the media descended on him. The media duly demanded more than his abject apology, which was hypocritical.

The scandal surrounding his admission of having fathered a child undoubtedly undermined the power of Irish bishops. For generations, too many Irish people shirked their responsibility to inform their own consciences and think for themselves, preferring instead to follow blindly the dictates of the clergy and the hierarchy with an unquestioning loyalty. It was as if the concept of divine perfection was invested in all Irish Catholic bishops.

It was the height of naivety to think that anyone in the Church, from the Pope down, could live up to the standards of perfection espoused by the Roman Catholic religion. Of course, the bishops and everyone else should strive for perfection but, given the nature of humanity, true perfection can never be more than a desirable aspiration.

Bishop Casey was essentially forced to flee the country in the wake of the scandal. He signed up for five years with the St. James Society, a Boston missionary order, to work as a curate in an impoverished parish in Ecuador, where he used his talents to raise money to build both a school and a medical centre for the parish.

In March 1994, he returned to Ireland briefly to officiate at the funeral of his sister's husband in Cork, and he appeared at Ireland's World Cup game with Mexico in Orlando in June before returning to Ireland for the funeral of his godmother, Mary O'Connor, in Castleisland.

His return was greeted with a blast from his former classmate, Archbishop Desmond Connell of Dublin. "There is," the archbishop said, "an obligation to repair scandal because people have been deeply disturbed not by the initial revelation of say, the Bishop Casey scandal, when there was a wave of compassion, but by the subsequent behaviour of Bishop Casey."

The archbishop seemed to be suggesting that it was not initial scandal, but Bishop Casey's subsequently behaviour that was the real problem. "Every so often he seems to come back and tear open the wounds again," Archbishop Connell explained. "What worries me is that he doesn't seem to have any conception of the damage, the injury which has been caused, particularly to young people."

"It has to be said," the Archbishop continued. "I know that people were utterly shocked when they saw him appear in episcopal insignia in Cork. The scandal is there. He turns up at the World Cup and the scandal in reinforced."

Citing the damage to young people was the height of hypocrisy. The Church, which had been plagued by paedophile scandals for decades, but it refused to face up to those problems. At that time, the Brendan Smyth paedophile affair was simmering in the background and would erupt within a few months, bringing down the government of Albert Reynolds.

Now Pope Francis is seriously considering the issue of married priests. It is ironic that a married Anglican priest who converts to Roman Catholicism is entitled to function as a priest, while Catholic priest who decides to marry must quit the priesthood. That's a crazy situation.


Casey's real legacy is a society freed from dogma

Every avalanche starts with a single stone. So it was with the Catholic Church in Ireland and Eamonn Casey was that stone.

Though his transgression - fathering a child and covering up the birth - was minor in the context of the many subsequent, horrifying, scandals that have rocked the church, it was no less significant in its impact.

The revelation that Casey - at the time the best known and most popular cleric in Ireland - had a child shook Catholic Ireland to its very core.

Younger readers - brought up in a world where Father Ted is a comedy staple - may find it hard to comprehend the impact the scandal had on Irish society.

While it is only 25 years ago, Ireland in 1992 was a very different place. Divorce wouldn't be legalised for another three years, homosexuality was still a criminal offence and there were still strict restrictions on contraception.

This was all largely due to the omnipresent and overbearing influence of the church who still maintained their centuries old stranglehold over Irish society.

All that changed with the Casey revelations. The hypocrisy of the church was exposed in the full glare of the media and no longer could the clergy force themselves on the people as guardians of all that was right and proper.

For the first time the people and the press began to openly question the church, its inner workings and the policies it espoused that had helped keep Irish society in the dark ages compared to the rest of the western world.

The Casey scandal - which seems utterly inconsequential in the context of clerical child rape and dead babies in slurry pits - transformed how we think about the church in Ireland.

For that, perhaps, we owe Bishop Casey a debt of gratitude. It may not be the legacy he would have desired but it is a legacy that helped change Irish society for the better.


'Bishop Casey treated abysmally by the church'

Bishop Eamonn Casey may have had his faults, but he was also a dynamic, visionary man who had a hugely positive impact on society.

Frank Lewis who worked as a PR consultant with Eamonn Casey during his time as Bishop of Kerry fondly remembers a man "who made a bigger impact on life in Kerry than anybody since Daniel O'Connell" and was then "treated abysmally" by the Catholic Church after he fell from grace.

Mr Lewis this week recalled the "extraordinary venture" that was the Kerry Seminar Executive as one of Bishop Casey's most significant achievements in the diocese. The Executive held seminars in 10 centres across the Diocese on four or five separate occasions to raise public awareness and stimulate debate on key issues of the time.

In Mr Lewis' view, this extraordinary series of seminars led to the defeat of the Buchanan plan to centralise Irish economic planning in six centres, informed people about the pros and cons of joining Europe, and raised awareness of poverty locally, nationally and internationally.

To help pay for this work, Bishop Casey held 'Bishop's Concerts' in the Brandon Hotel in Tralee and he was able to enlist the free services of Gay Byrne and entertainers such as Ronnie Drew, Frank Patterson and Hal Roache for the shows which always sold out.

Bishop Casey also formed the Full Life for Youth Project scheme that ran in Kerry in 1972 and 1975 and engaged up 2,500 young people in working on 200 projects that involved them more closely in the life of their communities. Mr Lewis said Bishop Casey "invested in democracy when nobody else was doing so" and, through his ground-breaking work, helped create a public that was better informed about politics and social issues in the county.

Mr Lewis said there was huge regret that Bishop Casey "did not stand and put up his hands" rather than leave Ireland after his affair with Annie Murphy erupted into a national scandal.

"A whole lot of us would have been happy to stand with him," he said. "He was treated abysmally by the Church... I reckon they told him to leave."


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