Wednesday 16 January 2019

How naive we were - a scandal that belonged to a simpler time

Bishop Eamon Casey
Bishop Eamon Casey

Younger readers are going to have to bear with me, because what follows actually happened, and not all that long ago.

Bishop Eamonn Casey, retired, exiled and returned former Bishop of Kerry, has died. He was 89.

In life, he was by all accounts a good man - charitable, generous and a breath of fresh air for a stale church. He had what the press term a "colourful" personality.

He was also a father in both senses of the word. For those of us of a certain age, this was the original church "scandal", the most shocking of revelations, for a reason that now seems almost laughable, certainly paling in comparison with all those that have since emerged.

Indeed, you had to be there to believe it - "there" having both place and time in meaning.

In 1979, the then-Pope, John Paul II visited Ireland. A stop in Galway, at Ballybrit Racecourse, was included for the "young" generation.

The many thousands of teenagers and young adults who turned out to see JP were treated to a double-act warm-up in the guise of then "cool" priests, Fr Michael Cleary and Bishop Eamonn Casey. They wowed the crowd.


Indeed, as the wags now put it, among almost every parent who had dragged their children to one of the Papal events that week, Casey and Cleary were in the distinct minority by leaving their own children at home, despite their ringside seats.

Eamonn Casey had fathered his son, Peter, in 1974, by a woman sent to stay with him by her family following a bitter divorce and with whom he had an affair, Annie Murphy.

The fact that both were consenting adults of the opposite sex would today be met with barely a raised eyebrow, albeit an ironic one.

However, the Ireland of the time, and for many years afterwards, had yet to legalise divorce, same-sex marriage (just being homosexual was illegal until 1993), and even contraception could not be purchased without a prescription.

Adultery was a grave sin, while a breach of the vow of celibacy could hardly be countenanced among right-thinking Catholics.

Ireland then was unburdened with tales of buried babies in septic tanks; of abuse and buggery among altar boys and girls; of priests (whom we would now term paedophiles) consistently and deliberately moved from parish to parish when their misdeeds were reported by bewildered and scared parents and children.

The Ireland then would simply never have believed it.

The Ireland then was shocked beyond belief, as it was, by a Bishop being a father.

The Church, true to form, shipped Casey off to Ecuador on some urgent mission, well out of the way.

The man himself issued an abject and full apology, the wording of which is worth reading even now as a template on how to prostrate oneself in the face of sinful admission.

It is only with the benefit of hindsight, and the awful terribleness of worse to come, that we can now see Casey as nothing more than a benign sinner.

The real scandal was not him fathering a child. It was far worse than that.

The real scandal was that he wanted nothing to do with the boy, his son. He had attempted to force Murphy to have him adopted (sound familiar?) and no doubt could have arranged it quickly and quietly. He misappropriated IR£70,000 (a huge sum) from parish funds to funnel to Murphy.

When he finally agreed to meet his son, it was only a couple of times, and after public outings in the media.


However, the biggest scandal, the actual story that perhaps lit the touchpaper of change, was the treatment of Ms Murphy by our own High Priest of Television, Gay Byrne.

In tr ue Biblical fashion, the sins of the man were visited on the woman.

It didn't happen in 1974, but as late as 1993 on The Late Late Show. In the interview, a clearly hostile Gaybo defended his old friend Casey, telling Murphy that if her son was half the man the Bishop was, he'd be "doing alright".

It caused Annie to retort that, actually, she wasn't too bad herself.

Gay even questioned whether Peter, the spitting image of his father, was Casey's child at all.

That she had brought up her son, as a single, working mum, without any support, was not mentioned. But something was now different. And then everything was different. Ireland finally grew up.

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