Brendan Hoban’s article for the Western People, on Bishop Crean and myself.

Fr Tony Flannery has paid a high price for his membership of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP). A founder member, over five years ago, in the dog-days of the Pope Benedict era, Tony and others (including myself) spelled out as our platform the need for an agenda of reform for the Church we had served for decades – and which everyone (or almost everyone) could see was dying by the day.

That we struck a nerve with our fellow-priests was obvious. Within a year or so over 1,000 priests has signed on as members. But because we didn’t fit into the tradition of priests being seen and not heard and because bishops were in denial of the reality of Catholic life in Ireland, we were regarded as ‘dissidents’, partly responsible (as Pope Benedict’s Apostolic Visitation team would later report) for the bleak situation of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious. The high-powered ‘Visitors’ from overseas (Cardinals and archbishops) looked in from afar for scapegoats and the ACP, to their mind, fitted the bill. We were part of the reason, they concluded, why the Church in Ireland was in such disarray!

We (the ACP) had imagined in our innocence that the Irish bishops would be happy (even anxious) to hear the views of almost 30% of their priests, especially priests who had bourne the heat of the day and had served the Church for many years. But caution prevailed and the bishops refused to meet us – as did Archbishop Brown, the papal nuncio. We were, as they say, bad news.

We were warned that, as leaders of the ACP, we were easy targets fr a swish of the crozier. We were warned that there might well be, in view of the Catholic Church’s history in the past, an effort to get at the shepherds so that the sheep would scatter, but we didn’t take that advice/threat very seriously. We couldn’t imagine that anyone could possibly be so irredeemably stupid. But, incredibly, they were.

Someone had reported some popular writings of Tony Flannery to the CDF in Rome.

What Tony was doing, in his column in Reality magazine, was asking, in popular form, questions that theologians and Scripture scholars have been asking for years. He was recognising the respectable concept in Catholic theology of the development of doctrine, the understanding that teaching can change, which it demonstrably has. He wasn’t saying anything hundreds of others hadn’t been saying for years.

But it suited to depict Tony Flannery as some kind of crazed radical intent on doing whatever damage he could to the Church and the fact that he was a founding member of the ACP left him exposed. He was ‘one of them’.

I have absolutely no doubt at all, but that Tony’s position in the leadership of the ACP did him no favours. The result was his ‘silencing’, and his effective banishment from priesthood – a terrible injustice to a decent man.

In view of his long and significant service to the Irish Church, the Irish bishops should be beating a path to Rome demanding his reinstatement – particularly in view of the fact that since the CDF did their worst, a new pope has been elected, and there’s hardly a whit of difference between the direction he’s pointing the Church and the platform of the ACP. Pope Francis is, as someone suggested, stealing our clothes.

But the Irish bishops, as ever instead of taking responsibility for their dioceses, even in the pontificate of Pope Francis when the una voce dog-days of the last two pontificates are long gone, are still looking over their shoulders at Rome wondering what way Rome expects them to jump and asking, ‘How high?’

All of the above is a reaction to the decision of Bishop Billy Crean of Cloyne to an invitation by the Pastoral Council of Killeagh parish in Cork to invite Tony to speak in the parish church. Bishop Crean contacted the provincial of the Redemptorists to order Tony to withdraw and the man in charge of the Reds had the good sense not to do his bidding. The bishop then ordered the PP, Tim Hazelwood, to withdraw the invitation. Hazelwood quite properly told him that the invitation came from the Pastoral Council. The Pastoral Council decided to change the venue to a community hall where the writ of the bishop was presumed not to run. Still the bishop visited the Pastoral Council and, under pressure, they and the PP, agreed to withdraw the invitation.

Does the Irish Church imagine that Tony Flannery would do irreparable damage to its reputation if it allowed him to speak in a community hall in far-flung Killeagh – on Pope Francis, of all people? Did the bishop think that Killeagh and Cloyne wouldn’t be able to cope with the damage that Tony Flannery would do in one talk? Or was it that he looked over his shoulder to Rome and decided that he had no alternative?

So what did the bishop’s decision achieve? It diminished and possibly angered Killeagh’s Parish Council and their PP. It sent a strong signal that Pastoral Councils, unless they are the voice of the bishop, will be given no say in the running of their Church. It has brought the Irish Catholic Church once more into disrepute in that it showed that other voices have no place in it, even if Pope Francis encourages them in the wider Church. It insulted Tony Flannery by portraying him as some kind of noxious virus. And it shows once again that the people are ahead of the priests, the priests are ahead of the bishops and the bishops, caught in the nineteenth century, are either out of touch or in abject denial.

In football terms, the management are living off the glories of the past, the players on the field are past their sell-by date and the frustrated supporters are leaving the grounds in droves, unable to cope with the final whistle.