Casey scandal was 25 years ago but Irish Church still has head in sand
BBC Radio 4 broadcast a series a few years ago called 'What If'. Hosted by historian Professor Christopher Andrew, the Cambridge don would ask what if some of the major turning points in history had taken a different path. What if the Germans had discovered that the Allies had cracked the Enigma code; or what if George Washington had lost the US War of Independence?
If they ever resurrect the programme, they might consider asking what if Bishop Eamonn Casey hadn't fled Ireland after it was revealed in 1992 that he had fathered a child with Annie Murphy while Bishop of Kerry. What if the popular prelate had stayed and faced the music and answered the questions that needed answering, would Irish Catholicism have benefited? Would the Irish faithful have been forced to grapple with some of the questions that they are only today addressing, such as the value of mandatory celibacy for Catholic clergy?
It is possible to argue that had Bishop Casey stayed instead of running away, first to the US and later to Ecuador, he might have formed a relationship with his son sooner. The plain people of Ireland might have forgiven him sooner and the Irish hierarchy might have taken its head out of the sand sooner on a host of issues.
I was a student in Italy when the Casey affair erupted and, to be honest, I can't recall much reaction there. Italian Catholics tended to presume that priests and bishops had clandestine affairs with women. Ireland in 2017 seems more like Italy in 1992, given that Canon Michael McLoughlin of Galway could acknowledge in his tribute to Bishop Casey, "To be human is to be both blessed and to be flawed".
Yet, people in Ireland recall the general reaction to the news in 1992 as one of utter shock. According to Fr Dermod McCarthy, the former head of Religious Broadcasting at RTÉ and a friend of Bishop Casey's, the revelation was "a big shock to the whole country, it was a bit like when Kennedy was shot - people remember where they were when news came out." Had they forgotten the plot of TV series 'The Thorn Birds', which we were all glued to in 1983?
The way Bishop Casey chose to deal with the scandal was cowardly. It seems strange to accuse him of that in view of his courage in facing down the right-wing military squads in El Salvador intent on killing mourners at the funeral of Archbishop Romero in 1980. This was also the man who took on US president Ronald Regan and refused to welcome him to Galway. His courage in speaking out against social deprivation and unjust structures, be they at home or in the Philippines, Africa or Latin America, was inspiring, as President Higgins and those who worked with him in Trócaire have affirmed. But when it came to Annie Murphy, a young woman whose attractions he couldn't resist, he was not so courageous or progressive. Though Bishop Casey was regarded as a breath of fresh air on the grey episcopal scene in Ireland and something of a liberal, he still publicly voiced his support for clerical celibacy. He was also a defender of the Church's ban on contraception. His stance in those areas may have crumbled had he stayed to answer questions in 1992.
If there is one thing that the Casey affair underscores, it is that the Catholic Church's rule on mandatory celibacy needs to be revisited. Twenty-five years after we could have had this discussion, we know that the Irish bishops, at their recent meeting with Pope Francis, refused to even discuss the matter.
But the Pontiff appears to have his feet more firmly planted on the ground than the Irish hierarchy, as he is already at work trying to prise open a debate on the issue. But he shouldn't look to the Irish hierarchy for support.
Bishop Casey's death came in the wake of the Commission of Investigation's interim findings on the mother and babies home run by the Bon Secours nuns in Tuam. In hindsight, knowing what we now know about high infant mortality rates in such homes and the heartbreak of children put up for adoption in trying to track down their mothers and siblings, we realise what guts Annie Murphy had to resist Bishop Casey's pressure to have Peter Murphy adopted. Had she not been so feisty, she might well have become just another number among the 35,000 unmarried mothers who spent time in the 14 mother and baby homes up to the 1990s.
Though the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) has yet to make a comment on the death of Bishop Casey, it did issue a statement in response to the Tuam revelations, saying it provoked a sense of both sadness and shame. The group said that the revelations, coinciding with the attitudes of Vatican officials which led to the resignation of Marie Collins from the Vatican commission on clerical sex abuse, served to underline how, "There is still a long way to go before women are treated with equal respect and dignity in the Catholic Church".
Annie Murphy might have said as much 25 years ago, had we been willing to listen.
Well written Sarah!
Well written Sarah!