The beginning of the end

Second Reading

DOUBLE LIFE Former Bishop of Galway, Eamon Casey. Pic RTÉ Stills

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

There are events of such magnitude that we never forget where we were when we heard the news. It was May 7, 1992, 30 years ago, and I was travelling to Dublin on the early morning train from Ballina. About Athlone a whisper spread like wildfire through the carriages. Eamon Casey, the bishop of Galway had resigned on fact of the revelation that he had fathered a son, Peter, who was born in 1974.
Casey was then the best known Catholic bishop in Ireland. Granted, most of his colleagues were colourless men who rarely made headlines beyond the reverential pages of The Irish Catholic newspaper. Casey was ebullient, charismatic and opinionated.
He appeared regularly on the Late Late Show and other media platforms. He loved to sing at parties. As an emigrant chaplain in London in the 1960s, he was one of the founders of Shelter an organisation dedicated to providing housing for impoverished people.
As bishop he was instrumental in the establishment of Trócaire, the Third World agency and was its first chairperson. He was a strong opponent of US policies in Central America in the 1980s. He refused to meet the President Reagan when he visited Galway in 1984. He supported Dunnes Stores staff who were locked out because they refused to sell goods from Apartheid South Africa. He drove fast, expensive sports cars.
Fintan O’Toole, in his fascinating memoir ‘We Don’t Know Ourselves’, graphically describes a frightening experience he endured when the bishop gave him a lift to Dublin after an episcopal press conference in Maynooth:
“At the exit from Maynooth College Eamon Casey just hurled the car out onto the road without stopping or so far as I could tell, even looking. As soon as we were in traffic, he swerved out and overtook two, three, four cars before veering back into his lane. He stayed behind a line of trucks for a few minutes then he pulled out again and pressed down on the accelerator. I looked at the speedometer: 120 and rising.
“Over the brow of the hill a car was coming towards us. Casey accelerated again, the Lancia was surging like a rocket. The incoming car was nearly on us and there was still one truck blocking our return to the inside lane. The approaching driver blared his horn. Casey darted left in front of the truck and sped on. My skin was tingling with fright…. when he dropped me off in the city and I climbed out of the Lancia, my knees were weak.”
Reflecting on the experience afterwards, O’Toole reckoned that Casey was reckless, arrogant and so consumed by clerical privilege that he thought the rules of ordinary mortals did not apply to him.
I met Eamon Casey once. In 1983 I studied for the higher diploma in Education in VCG. I lived in St Mary’s College, the Galway diocesan school of which Casey was patron. Before the summer holidays he visited us. He breezed rapidly through the school corridors, greeting pupils and teachers. He shook hands with me and asked who I was and where I was from. Before I could respond he moved on. My abiding impression is of a man who talked incessantly and listened little. To use the deadly west of Ireland put down, he had a great welcome for himself.
The religious affairs correspondent of § Patsy McGarry, recently described Casey’s resignation as a ‘pivotal moment’ in the story of modern Irish Catholicism. In the same article, former president and now canon lawyer Mary McAleese offered a forthright assessment:
“It was seismic. The beginning of the end of trust in mitred men. He presented as not at all remote or distant like many bishops which made the revelations of his double life, his coverup, his hypocritical preaching on fidelity and responsibility and family planning all the more galling and all the more difficult to credit. Once the façade shattered, it was easier to be sceptical, to claim the right to challenge clerical power. It was the beginning of the end of deferential, reverential trust.”
In the years that followed Casey’s resignation, the chamber of horrors in the basement of Irish Catholicism was unlocked and outpoured revelations about clerical sexual abuse of children, the industrial schools, the Magdalene Laundries and the mother and baby homes.
In a sermon at his installation as bishop of Galway recently, Michael Duignan stated: “We can no longer ignore the fact that much of what the Church has built up in Ireland over the last two centuries is crumbling before our eyes. The more and more I see, the more and more I am convinced that much of our infrastructure, our system, our hospital practices that were beneficial in the past, now hinder rather then help the life of the faith.”
It seems to me that until the leadership of the Catholic Church in Ireland acknowledge that the institution in its pomp was tainted by triumphalism and encouraged a ministry of fear, it cannot begin to speak credibly of the Christian Gospel of compassion, justice and love.