Funerals of priests who are out of ministry

Funerals of priests who are out of ministry

At present there’s an interesting debate taking place between a significant percentage of doctors, estimated by some as about one-third of the Irish College of General Practitioners, and the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, over conflicting rights in regard to the roll-out of abortion services after the referendum earlier this year.

One the one hand the doctors claim their right to follow their conscience in not participating in the proposed abortion process and, on the other hand, Simon Harris defends the rights of Irish women to avail of abortion as was the democratic decision of the people.

As with many such dilemmas where competing rights collide there are many variables at play and there seems to be no easy solution. What’s healthy is that the debate is taking place.

Recently the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) uncovered a policy with regard to the funerals of priests who are out of ministry due to an accusation of child abuse. It reveals that there are significant limitations around the rights of such priests to have a funeral ceremony similar to everyone else, as victims argue that to allow such a ceremony would be to re-victimise them a second time.

Some of the suggested protocols in the policy are:

(i)    Consideration should be given to having funeral liturgies in a private chapel and/or at a time other than the usual time.

(ii)    A death notice should not normally appear on newspapers or on social media sites.

(iii)    Concelebration is to be avoided.

(iv)   The deceased priest should be referred to by his Christian name.

(v)     The deceased priest is not to be buried in his vestments or clerical garb.

This policy raises many questions for us. One, if it applies to priests found guilty of sex abuse then why does it not apply to all who are found guilty of this crime ? Two, should there be a funeral policy for others who commit terrible crimes?  Three, why is there an exception made for priests?

‘Out of ministry’ covers a broad spectrum.

It includes

(i)  those who have been accused and have never gone to trial;

(ii) those whose cases were unsuccessful in getting a prosecution but remain out of ministry;

(iii) those who are out of ministry for reasons that have nothing to do with child abuse, for example, some form of inappropriate behaviour.

It seems reasonable to ask why are all those lumped together?

Denying a priest a regular funeral is very upsetting to priests who are (as some have been) wrongly accused and to family members who feel that the accusation is a comment on them. During the past number of weeks and months priests, some of whom are in the situations mentioned above, have contacted the ACP in relation to this issue.

While some regulation may be necessary, it needs to be considerably more nuanced than the present protocols. One priest trapped in a difficult situation suggested that, in the present arrangement, “neatness and fear are substituted for justice and mercy.”

Mindful as we are of the difficult situation of those who have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of priests, we believe that in the interest of justice and mercy there are questions that need to be answered. Why all the secrecy around this policy? Does this apply only to priests? Who decides what type of funeral is to take place? What about the families of priests in this situation? Where does justice and mercy find an appropriate space?

During the past few weeks many media outlets have covered this story. The vast majority contacted the ACP as it was at our AGM that the policy was exposed. Even though they all took different stances on the dilemma presented they contacted us to discover the facts and to engage in the debate.

Interestingly the one exception was the Irish Catholic newspaper. It never made contact to access the full extent of the situation but instead ignored the fact that a priest has rights too.

Like the competing rights in the debate between the doctors and the Minister for Health mentioned earlier, justice demands not that one set of rights trumps another but that, in situations of competing rights, that a nuanced policy would seek to respect the sensitivities of all concerned.

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  1. Mary Vallely says:

    If each of us is made in the image of God then each of us when we die is entitled to a Christian burial, as a child of God. There is no need for a hierarchy of vestments to adorn the deceased; whether a curate, a bishop, a pope or an ordinary unordained person each of us is entitled to a dignified, simple funeral leaving it to God alone to judge the life led by that person.

    There is still too much of a sense of entitlement by some clergy. What matters whether a priest reached episcopal heights or not. A good pastor was what he set out to be and as a pastor he should be buried in the simplest of garments and in the simplest of coffins. It is beyond cruel to make a judgment on someone who has not been found guilty in a court of law. The lack of compassion shown by some bishops and fellow clergy to those accused and waiting in the wilderness to be cleared is shocking in a Christian Church.
    Treat people as the Nazarene would have treated people. ‘WWJD’ isn’t asked often enough.

  2. Pól Ó Duibhir says:

    There is also the question of whether a public funeral (eg death notice & notification on might give closure to some victims in the case of abuser (including defrocked) priests whether convicted by a court or not.

    I have a particular deceased defrocked priest in mind who appears to have been buried in private (I assume by the Church).

  3. Brendan Cafferty says:

    Seems harsh on priests who have not been found guilty of anything,and even where priests have been convicted in courts of law they too are entitled to to a proper normal funeral,not an ostentatious one maybe,but not held in secret either. Think of the families,and think of the way suicide deaths were dealt with long ago.And while I am at it,look at the way IRA and other gangland killers have got open celebratory church funerals-not that I think any priest should be placed in same category as an IRA person who has possibly killed fellow human beings.

  4. Rory Connor says:

    Mary: “The lack of compassion shown by some bishops and fellow clergy to those accused and waiting in the wilderness to be cleared is shocking in a Christian Church.”

    The lack of compassion shown to those who HAVE been cleared is even worse! The Sisters of Mercy apologised fulsomely to the two accusers of Nora Wall (formerly Sister Dominic) and Pablo McCabe when they were convicted of rape in June 1999. When the case against the accused collapsed a few days later, the Sisters of Mercy said nothing. Also nothing when Nora Wall won a libel award against the Sunday World in 2002, a Certificate of Miscarriage of Justice from the Court of Criminal Appeal in 2005 and damages against the State in 2016. So the ONLY comment on the public record is the Sisters apology to the two false accusers!

    OTOH suppose that the media suddenly launched an attack on the Sisters of Mercy because of the way they treated Nora and the now deceased Pablo. Isn’t it clear that the Sisters would apologise like a shot? Where does Christian (or any type of) morality come into this? Is FEAR now the only thing that motivates Religious Superiors and Bishops??

  5. Joe O'Leary says:

    Rory, I appreciate your efforts to recall us to humanity and to basic Christianity.

  6. Rory Connor says:

    Thanks Joe. I have been trying to figure out the behaviour of the leaders of the Sisters of Mercy for years now: of course they won’t talk to me. The most interesting explanation I heard, is that they were originally naive and later became terrified by the attitude of aggressive “victims” and even more thuggish journalists. I still don’t see why there was no period between the end of their “naivety” AND the beginning of their fear, when they might have told the truth about Nora Wall and Pablo McCabe.

    I recall the old joke about the USA being “a country that has moved from Barbarism to Decadence without passing through an intervening period of Civilisation” – and I apply that to you know who!

    Aside from jokes, I would think that a truly “Naive” person who did harm would be conscience stricken and eager to made amends. I detect no such attitude from the Sisters. For obvious reasons the journalists who savaged Nora and Pablo are putting no pressure on the Sisters of Mercy to withdraw their apology to the false accusers – and that seems to suit the latter just fine. I find that attitude incredible, especially as I have come across a number of non-Christians and atheists over the years who have done a lot for falsely accused persons. One example is the late Richard Webster and neither himself nor his relatives were accused, so he was under no moral obligation to do anything. I wrote about him here
    In Memory of Richard Webster

    I suppose this makes ME sound naive!

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