In Ireland, a ‘Silenced’ Priest Speaks
Rhona Tarrant | May 10 2016
If you were to choose a venue for a public talk with Father Tony Flannery, a Redemptorist priest, the old, disused courthouse in the town of Dingle, County Kerry is as apt as any. Flannery sits at a table by the witness stand to speak about 100 years of the church in Ireland during the Feile na Bealthaine, an annual weekend festival held in the town. But he never gets around to that; the public are far too curious about Flannery and the public and personal trials he has faced since 2012.
It’s been four years since he was “silenced” by the Vatican, with his subsequent struggle detailed at length in newspapers, on radio shows and in his own tell-all book. By his own admission, some of his supporters feel the story has been exhausted. Even so, Flannery still manages to draw a crowd.
Since his suspension from public ministry, Flannery has dedicated his energy to speaking out about the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body responsible for investigating priests. Flannery was back in the news last month when he joined with 14 other Catholic sisters, priests and lay people, all of whom had been investigated by the C.D.F., to write the Vatican. Spurred on by the release of “Amoris Laetitia,” they argued that the C.D.F. “doesn’t reflect the gospel values of justice, truth, integrity and mercy that the Catholic Church professes to uphold.” The letter was sent to the C.D.F. and Pope Francis, as well as the media.
Flannery received a reply shortly after, in the form of a leaflet about the C.D.F., sent through the head of the order of the Redemptorist Society and passed down through the ranks to Flannery. This, he says, goes to the heart of his ongoing campaign: He has never received any direct communication from the body that investigated and suspended him, nor has he been able to communicate directly with them. He says his objection stems from the way the suspension was conducted, not the suspension itself.
Flannery’s suspension was based on articles he had written for the Redemptorist magazine Reality, in which he challenged church teaching on women priests, homosexuality and contraception. In one article, written at the height of the sexual abuse scandals, Flannery said, “priesthood as we have it now in Ireland, is not as Jesus intended.” Flannery’s own theory is that the hierarchy felt threatened by the Association of Catholic Priests, which Flannery helped to set up. He describes the group as radical in many ways, separate and independent from the church hierarchy. He says the church hierarchy watched suspiciously. “They wanted to put manners on me,” says Flannery.
Cardinal William Levada, who led the investigation into Flannery as Prefect of the C.D.F. at the time, said the investigation was initiated because he had “questioned, undermined, the teaching of the church on the Eucharist and on the priesthood.” Speaking to The Irish Catholic after his retirement, Cardinal Levada said, “If you hold these positions you are formally in heresy.” Flannery cites the article in his talk, still upset by the headline.
The sting of finding out that the Vatican was investigating him is still there. Flannery describes the enormous shock, the floundering, the confusion. “I saw myself as a relatively innocuous priest on a little island, I had no dealings with the Vatican,” he says. His initial reaction was to give in, and he almost did. “I was given a document to sign, in which I had to declare with all church teachings, and go back on things that I said. And I couldn’t tell anyone about it. I couldn’t do that,” he says, “How could I look at myself in the mirror after it?”
Father Gerry Moloney, who was editor of Reality, was also investigated in 2011. Unlike Flannery, he signed the document and remained silent for some time, only recently going public about his experience. He said that he felt anger and betrayal, describing himself as now “broken in body as well as in spirit.” Moloney signed the recent letter to the C.D.F., as did Father Brian D’Arcy, another Irish priest who said the investigation into his writing in 2010 was “the most devastating faith-crisis of my life.”
In the outrage of the moment, Flannery thought about bringing his case to the Irish courts but ultimately decided against it. “I weighed up the desire to embarrass the Vatican hierarchy against the toll of four or five years in the courts,” he says, “I decided to go public instead to expose injustices. Silence is the weapon of the oppressor.”
Flannery has built a high profile since then, speaking at international events on the C.D.F., reform and women’s ordination. He says the recent letter to the C.D.F. was written “to embarrass them, put some pressure on them; and also if they try the same thing with others that people will be less inclined to play along with the secrecy when they see what we have done.” Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said he had not read the document, and the group was unlikely to get a response.
Despite his criticism, Flannery isn’t removed from church life; he lives close to the Redemptorist order in Galway and spends his days there. He now lives in the family home in which he grew up and, apart from his brothers and sister, does not have any close family.
“None of my siblings had children,” he says. “Without the Redemptorists, who do I have?” He also remains active in the Association of Catholic Priests, whose membership now numbers around 1,000, although he removed himself from a leadership role.
Though he knows he will never return to public ministry, he’s not sure that he could. “I would have great difficulty ministering again,” he admits. He is hopeful for the future of the church under Pope Francis but says that most church leaders don’t, or can’t, speak with the same freedom that Francis enjoys.
When Flannery finishes speaking, a woman in the audience describes driving 30 minutes out of her way to attend Mass in a neighboring parish. “He’s a young priest, he is outspoken and talks about real life. At Mass my children are terrified that I will stand up and cheer at the end of the sermons,” she says, “they’re almost holding me down by my sleeves.” She recently heard that he had been warned by church hierarchy about his comments and had been moved to another parish.
She asks Flannery what advice he would give to that young priest. He thinks for a moment but can’t quite answer. “I’m probably the worst person to ask for advice on this,” he admits. “I don’t know, because what’s the alternative?”
Another man in the audience, who says that he admires what Flannery has done, asks if he could have achieved more within the church, rather than outside it. “Quite possibly, yes,” answers Flannery. He doesn’t have the answers, and knows he might never have them. But he is still looking.
Rhona Tarrant is the Irish correspondent for America magazine.
Editorial: Time to reform doctrinal investigations
NCR Editorial Staff | May. 6, 2016
Charles Curran, Roger Haight, Margaret Farley. What some of this country’s most prominent theologians share in common, sadly, is a history of investigation and censure by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. And it’s not just an American problem. Consider Switzerland’s Hans Küng, Brazil’s Leonardo Boff or Sri Lanka’s Tissa Balasuriya.
Now some theologians and two bishops are calling for Pope Francis’ spirit of openness and transparency to be extended to Catholic theologians under investigation by the doctrinal office. In a letter sent to the congregation and Francis last month, a prominent group of church men and women are recommending that the current procedures be updated and reformed. The most basic demands are that the curtains of secrecy that envelop this process be lifted and that all parties involved engage in open, civil discourse.
The new approach should aim “to reflect the attitude of Jesus and to integrate values that the world sees as basic to a functioning, civilized society,” says a copy of the letter obtained by NCR.
Reforms should make the process “just and equitable,” with presumptions of “sincerity, innocence, and loyalty to the church on the part of the person being investigated,” the letter said.
We agree. While we have seen time and again church authorities giving the benefit of the doubt to those who prey on children or reject the Second Vatican Council, the treatment of theologians whose job is to wrestle with the tough questions of our faith hearkens back to the doctrinal congregation’s origins in the infamous medieval Inquisition. Such unjust practices are more befitting countries headed by dictators than the church founded by Jesus.
For example, current practice does not allow people under investigation to meet or speak to their accusers, since the doctrinal office often works only through a religious superior or bishop. In many cases, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith acts as “investigator, accuser, judge and jury,” according to the letter, and procedures can “drag on for years, with sometimes negative consequences for the mental and physical health of the accused.”
The letter writers know from personal experience. Organized by two men who have been investigated by the congregation, Irish Redemptorist Fr. Tony Flannery and Australian former priest Paul Collins, the letter was signed by other high-profile Catholics who have suffered similar investigations, including Roy Bourgeois, Loretto Sr. Jeannine Gramick, St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson and Australian Bishop William Morris.
Reform of these procedures would be a smart public relations move for the Vatican, since such investigations inevitably draw much negative media attention that portrays the church as backward and outdated. A case in point is how ordinary Catholics and the general population rallied in support of the U.S. sisters during the recent Vatican investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. (Remember that Congress even passed a resolution in support of the U.S. sisters.)
More important than public relations, though, is reform of a system that — according to people who have experienced it firsthand — doesn’t reflect “the gospel values of justice, truth, integrity and mercy that the church professes to uphold.” This reform is the morally just thing to do.
Theologians deserve to have their work properly presented, without bias, and examined by competent professionals. The process must be completed in a timely manner and with sincere charity. At a bare minimum, those under investigation must be treated as brothers and sisters in Christ when questions arise about their work.
But it will take more than reformed procedures on the books; such procedures must be implemented. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case. For example, the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine has ignored procedures it agreed to follow when investigating theologians, most notably in the case of the 2011 critique of Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God.
In Johnson’s case, the bishops said the 1989 “Doctrinal Responsibilities” guidelines, which called for dialogue with the theologian before public criticism, were optional. The Catholic Theological Society of America and the College Theology Society, which had been instrumental in creating the guidelines, supported Johnson and criticized the bishops for not following their own rules.
If Küng is correct, and “Francis has set no restrictions” on discussions, then the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith must reform its investigative procedures. Theologians, who have dedicated their lives to serving the church, deserve as much.