'Brilliant but flawed'

Ryle Dwyer on the legacy of Eamonn Casey

Bishop Eamon Casey (second right) and other bishops arriving for the funeral Mass in the Pro-Cathedral for the former Archbishop of Dublin Dr John Charles McQuaid in March 1973
Bishop Eamon Casey (second right) and other bishops arriving for the funeral Mass in the Pro-Cathedral for the former Archbishop of Dublin Dr John Charles McQuaid in March 1973

Ryle Dwyer

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.