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The Cloyne Report: Tony Flannery

I am writing this on the morning after the Cloyne report, and out of the perspective of almost forty years conducting parish missions around the country.
Cloyne was always an unusual diocese, or to be more accurate, Cobh was. In the era after Humanae Vitae, when on our missions we tried to soften the rigid implementation of that teaching in the Irish Church, we met more resistance in Cobh than anywhere else. That Cathedral, with its scrupulous and legalistic bishop (John Ahern) and those six priests houses at the back, was easily the most clerical scene I witnessed in my time. Men like Tim Sheahan, John Thornhill, Pat Twomey and Denis Reidy were clear and strong in their views, and were unwavering servants of the official Church line on all things. So any dialogue was almost impossible. Certainty was the order of the day. Curiously, in the seventies, I met with more anti-clericalism in Cobh than in any place outside of Limerick or Dublin. It must be said that the atmosphere in the rest of the diocese was very different, and there were many great priests there, just as there are today, and my heart goes out to them this morning.
Then John Magee was appointed bishop. Why was he appointed? He was clearly unsuitable, and was an imposition from Rome. Was it that they wanted to get rid of him over there, or that it was a reward for covering up the circumstances of John Paul I’s death. I don’t know, but it was a good example of the terrible policy of Episcopal appointments pursued by John Paul II, which I see as being one of the main reasons for the mess the Church finds itself in today. He was never fully accepted, and his manner and attitudes were foreign to many of the priests and people. He gathered some kudos by promoting perpetual adoration for a time. But I remember an old priest, now long dead, saying to me about 1990 that the diocese would reap a terrible whirlwind from the policies of John Magee.
Of course there never was an easy relationship between John Magee and Denis O’Callaghan, because O’Callaghan felt that he should have got the mitre. So it does not surprise me to learn that a big part of the problems that was revealed yesterday had to do with a lack of communication between the two. O’Callaghan was too much into power and position in the Church himself, as was obvious from his volte face as a moral theologian after Humanae Vitae came out.
All in all, this sorry chapter highlights a lot of what is wrong with the official Church, and with the Vatican bureaucracy. Will anything be learned? I don’t know. The abuse victims have had their day, and that is good. And the state would appear to be responding well. The sooner the handling of everything around sexual abuse of children is dealt with by the state the better; and that is why I am no fan of Church bodies or guidelines dealing with it. It would be much better if anyone who has a complaint in this area did not go to a bishop or a priest, but went to the civil authorities, and let them deal with it. And if the law is not sufficiently strong to handle the complexity of the cases, then let it be changed. In that way there would be no confusion or cover-up.
In the meantime we priests struggle on. And I would ask the people of Cloyne diocese today to be conscious of their own priest, and what it must be like for him. Maybe a word of support or encouragement would help.
Tony Flannery

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  1. Many bishops hand the poisoned chalice of dealing with abuse allegations to their chancellors or secretaries. Hard to blame them.
    Everyone knows that Denis O’Callaghan is a good and humane man. Remember Parnell’s plea, ‘Do not throw me to the wolves’ — I think Denis probably heard that plea from accused priests and responded to it more charitably that the present witchhunt mentality allows.

  2. David Walsh says:

    It grieves me to see what my home town, Cobh, is afflicted with. I remember with affection Bishop Roche and my friend Dr. Ronan, as bishops secretary and scout chaplain. But that was a long time ago. I hope the people of Cobh can put all the scandal to one side for others to deal with and start afresh with a gift a faith in Jesus and the gospel.

  3. Gerard Flynn says:

    Perhaps one of the positive outcomes of the Cloyne report will be that Catholics in Ireland and elsewhere will review the relationship between the leadership of the church in Ireland and the Holy See. It is regrettable that the issue will require a tragedy such as the sexual abuse of children and the way in which it was dealt with, in order to be reviewed and discussed. There is something fundamentally dysfunctional and unhealthy about the current relationship. The most critical aspect is the appointment of bishops. The current system is relatively new. At the beginning of the 20th century, fewer than one-sixth of the world’s bishops were directly appointed by the Vatican. Currently, the 40 plus men who are members of the Congregation for Bishops decide who the leaders of the church in Ireland will be. That is no longer tenable, if it ever was. The inadequacies of the system are all too obvious.
    The Church of Ireland has a process for electing bishops which has very much to recommend it.

  4. I am wondering what precisely all the fuss is about? For several years now the Gardai have been investigating claims of child abuse in the Cloyne Diocese and the following is the result:
    An allegation of reckless endangerment against former Bishop Magee was dismissed by the Director of Public Prosecutions in October 2010.
    In May 2011 Father Dan Duane a 73-year-old retired priest from Mallow, who was on trial charged with indecently assaulting a woman 30 years ago when she was a teenager, was found not guilty by direction of the trial judge in Cork Circuit Criminal Court (or in colloquial language the judge threw the case out of court without letting it go to the jury).
    HOWEVER in November 2010 Fr Brendan Wrixon was given an 18 month suspended sentence for gross indecency – which consisted of mutual masturbation of a 16 year old youth in 1983.
    And those to date are the results of several years of Garda inquiries. (There is another trial coming up in next November I think, and that may be the very last.) Since investigating child abuse is a specialist function, the Gardai who spent years investigating decades-old claims against priests, would otherwise have been involved in the prevention of child abuse today. THAT should be the real scandal!

  5. Maria Conroy says:

    Your analysis seems to place a lot of faith in the ability of the State to deal with the issue of child abuse, ignoring the fact that the State has performed miserably in this regard. It’s also difficult to believe that the State will step up to the plate given the fact that there is no mention of added resources to aid the implementation of any new guidelines. If anything, the recent move to take resources away from services for children reveals a lack of commitment to our most needy young people.
    Some of your comments seem to associate a belief in traditional Church teaching with a hard, uncaring and scrupulous approach which I feel misrepresents the great advances represented in publications like ‘ The Theology of the Body’ which was greatly welcomed by married people like myself. Very far removed from a rigid, unfeeling viewpoint.
    The scandals have shocked us all, but I hope we can all continue to work hard to rebuild and start anew, truly putting our faith in the gospel and seeing ourselves as playing our part in the Church instead of leaving it all to the clergy. Let’s work together to see the positive in a spirit of hope and love. I think the “them and us” approach and the total lack of faith in any future Church guidelines is a little too dismal and places too much faith in the State and too little hope in the efforts of so many individuals in the Church who are sincerely concerned with the protection of all our children.

  6. Tim Hazelwood says:

    In the light of the recent findings much reflection is needed here in Cloyne as we look to the future therefore Tony’s piece is welcome. Nevertheless I found it disturbing, on the morning after the publication of the report into how allegations were handled that some men who worked all their lives in the Diocese were named as if they somehow were connecter to or in some way responsible. I have known the men mentioned for many years and even though our outlook and views might differ they were and are men of the highest integrity. Analysis and debate is healthy but I feel that mentioning names is not. Regards, Tim

  7. I think the Association of Irish Priests have let down Irish Priests by their uncritical embrace of the Cloyne Report and Enda Kenny’s speech.

  8. Bill Bermingham says:

    19th July 2011
    Rev. Tony Flannery, C.Ss.R.,
    Redemptorist Community,
    Co. Galway.
    Dear Tony,
    I write to express my dismay and deep distress at your posting regarding the diocese of Cloyne on the website of the Association of Catholic Priests. This posting contains your personal comments on the late Bishop John Ahern and several named priests of the diocese in a manner that is most offensive to their families, friends and parishioners. You state that this is occasioned by the publication of the report of the Government Commission of Investigation into the diocese of Cloyne. Whatever your personal view of the priests upon whom you choose to cast your judgement, it must be said that the dreadful, shameful situation in which the diocese of Cloyne finds itself cannot in any way whatsoever be blamed on the late Bishop John Ahern, the late Tim Sheehan, the late John Thornhill or on either Denis Reidy or Pat Twomey. Indeed, it can be said that had any one of these priests, for whose names and memories you display such scant regard, been charged with responsibility for safeguarding children in the diocese over the past fifteen years, we would not be in the position in which we find ourselves now.
    I fail to see the relevance to public debate of your personal views on a good and humble Bishop, a man of intelligence and integrity, and on four priests who have been for me, and for many others, the best of friends, guides and examples of priesthood. The reputations of all of these men stand tall among the people they have served over the past fifty or sixty years. Their names are reverenced not out of any misplaced deference, but out of genuine appreciation of their ministry.
    Your comments do not become you. The fact that you posted them on the website of an association which seeks to offer support and encouragement to the priests of Ireland appears to me to undermine the central aims of that association.
    In the diocese of Cloyne we are wide awake to our faults and failures. We seek no sympathy from any quarter, but words that offer support and encouragement are welcome. Ashamed as we are of those failings, we will never cease to be proud of good and decent men who have served God, the Gospel and the people of their parishes with quiet honour and with a dedication born of their faith. Perhaps further thought might lead you, out of a sense of human decency, to remove from the internet the less than generous spirited comments you have posted.
    Yours sincerely,
    Bill Bermingham

  9. Gerard Flynn says:

    Bill, I think you are over-reacting. Tony’s post says that the named men were clear and strong in their views and unwavering servants of the official church line in all things. This reference and the mention of scrupulosity and legalism and of the almost impossible likelihood of dialogue is very clearly set in the context of Humanae Vitae and its aftermath. It is, I suggest, an accurate reflection of the polarity of opinion of that period. To many people, the quallities identified by Tony would be considered virtuous. Your indignation is understandable, given the broader picture, but your targetting of this piece, in my opinion, is misguided.
    Tony has called it as it was for him.

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