In early November, Fr Séan Sheehy caused uproar when he criticised same-sex couples and transgender people from the pulpit of St Mary’s Church in Listowel. The comments made national and international headlines and rumbled on for several weeks in public opinion.
Fr Sheehy had a measure of support from some people, but for the most part he was heavily criticised for what was branded insensitive and judgemental comments. Fr Sheehy was also criticised by the Bishop of Kerry Ray Browne.
Fr Sheehy was deputising for Listowel Parish Priest Canon Declan O’Connor when he condemned Government legislation around the promotion of abortion and what he described as the ‘lunatic approach of transgenderism’.
“We see it, for example, in the promotion of sex between two men and two women. That is sinful. That is a mortal sin and people don’t seem to realise it…It’s a fact, a reality, and we need to listen to God about it because if we don’t, then there is no hope for those people,” Fr Sheehy said.
Over 30 parishioners walked out of the Church before Fr Sheehy’s sermon finished, to which he replied from the altar: “There are people who won’t like what I’m saying, but the day you die you’ll find out what I’m saying is what God is saying…Those of you who happen to be leaving today, God help you. That’s all I have to say to you. And God bless you who are here and worshipping God.”
The Bishop of Kerry issued a stinging statement in the days after the sermon. Bishop Browne said he was aware of the deep upset and hurt caused by the contents of Fr Sheehy’s homily.
“I apologise to all who were offended. The views expressed do not represent the Christian position. The homily at a regular weekend parish Mass is not appropriate for such issues to be spoken of in such terms. I regret that this has occurred while a parish pilgrimage to the Holy Land is taking place,” Bishop Browne said.
Ben Slimm, a Tralee native who is gay and married to his partner, also launched a blistering attack against Fr Sheehy.
Mr Slimm referred to an incident in 2009 when Fr Sheehy, and up to 50 others in the community shook hands with a convicted sex offender in a courtroom.
Mr Slimm accused Fr Sheehy of being hypocritical when he judges others on sin.
“It’s okay for him to line up with 50 other people to shake the hand of someone convicted of sexual assault, but I’m going to hell because I married the man I love and was born as a queer person?” said Ben.
He described Fr Sheehy’s comments as particularly damaging to Ireland’s trans community – people under the same pressures experienced by gay people when they struggled to achieve inclusiveness. He also feels Fr Sheehy’s comments are dangerous.
“Trans people are going through now what gay people did when the same conversations about sharing bathrooms, being sex offenders, and that HIV was our punishment from God was going on,” he said.
“It’s very dangerous [Fr Sheehy’s comments] because we have a problem in Ireland with the rise of the far-right. This priest is airing views the likes of which the far-right will jump on. When we hear this from a priest on the pulpit, it is seized on by these groups,” Ben said.
A protest by LGBTQ+ people was held, a week after the controversial sermon, at the gates of St Mary’s Church. Rainbow flags were tied to the railings and couples held a silent protest. Also a week later, in Tralee, Fr Sheehy and his supporters gathered to say the Rosary in the Square.