r WAS IN 1992 that I got a call from a newspaper
editor in Dublin to tell
me about a sensational story that had just broken about the Bishop of Galway, Eamon Casey. It had been revealed that the Bishop had had a clandestine son with an American lover by the name of Annie Murphy. The saga is now widely known.
I was asked to write a commentary and to address the question of whether this was the end for the Catholic Church in Ireland.
My initial response to the Bishop Casey story was actually quite insouciant. I said something to the effect of, "Oh, well, look at the Renaissance Popes — they were always begetting secret children". I went into some airy dissertation about the Borgias, who were forever sleeping with their sisters, or poisoning the neighbours, but still, they commissioned some terrific art so you see God moved in mysterious ways.
This was a little too insouciant. The Bishop Casey affair had a huge impact, and the floodgates of hostility which had been building up against the Catholic Church were suddenly opened. The media had in general been criticial of the Church in Ireland from about the mid1980s, but the ferocity of the attacks on Casey himself, and on the system that had apparently shored him up was stunning.
And the animus came not just from the smart-aleck intelligentsia in Dublin, but also from ordinary people who might previously have been loyal to the Church. I'll never forget a woman in a shop in West Cork saying to me that what she really resented was the way in which the Church had controlled her life over the years, and meanwhile, look at what the men with the mitres were up to themselves.
It was around this time that I decided it would really take a hook to analyse what was happening to Irish Catholicism. And so, through the mid-199()s I worked on a book called Goodbye to Catholic Ireland, first published in London in 1997.
The 1990s grew ever worse in terms of clerical scandals of one kind or another. There was an evening in November 1994 when all the top stories on Irish television news related to sonic kind of scandal associated with the Church. I never really thought that the faith in Ireland was finished, because there have been low periods before, but 1 came to realise that there was a very serious crisis indeed, and things would never be the same again.
There is no single explanation as to why these scandals suddenly tumbled out of closets, one after another. There may be a series of answers. The permissive society of the 1960s played a material part in loosening all forms of behaviour. Values changed so radically that conduct that had previously seemed normal — chastising children, for instance — was re-categorised as "abuse". And there probably had been too much power in the hands of the Irish clergy, and power corrupts.
I also believe, curiously, that the paedophile scandals arose out of the Church's policy of redemption. That is, when a man errs, if he repents, and has a sincere purpose of amendment, he is pardoned for his sins. I believe that in some cases Bishops meant well in allowing a cleric with such a flaw to return to his calling, supposing that he would "turn over a new leaf", having repented. I don't like this hard-line attitude now forming, that paedophiles are utterly beyond redemption. This is bleak and unChristian, and worse than the previous approach, which was merely naive.
Catholic Ireland has been through the mill, and the scandals are not over, as we see from current revelations in Dublin about the late Sean Fortune, a Wexford priest described as "an ugly thug and a conman". And yet, when I came to update and re-write my book for a new paperback edition, I felt that the extreme sense of hostility against the Church was now more or less spent. This is purely impressionistic on my part, but I think there is a less bitter attitude to the Catholic Church in Ireland today than there was five years ago. Again, there are a whole number of reasons for this not least because the spotlight has since passed to the many tribunals accusing politicians and their cronies of less than honourable conduct. Many institutions, such as the banks, are seen to be deeply flawed, too. It's a case of the old Adam and Original Sin.
Moreover, while highprofile scandals have hit the headlines, the experience of most ordinary people around the country is that the priests in their own parishes are often extremely decent and dedicated men.
For the paperback edition, I was asked to conduct 10 interviews with distinguished Irish people on their feelings about Catholic Ireland, and I was astonished by how positive most of them were. From Tony O'Reilly to Maeve Binchy, from Andrea Corr to dear Lord Longford, an affectionate and even optimistic picture of Catholic Ireland emerged. The faith in Ireland is dented, but not dead, and will recover from the failings of men and women.
Goodbye to Catholic Ireland is republished by New Island Books, Dublin, next week at 110.