Eleven Years: life as a suspended Priest

It may not be something that one would wish for oneself or anyone else, but eleven years dealing with the Congregation (now Dicastery) for the Doctrine of the Faith has been for me a substantial experience of both learning and change, with a fair degree of trauma thrown in. It all began in the month of February 2012, when I received a phone call from the Superior General of the Redemptorists telling me that I was under investigation by the CDF, and that I was in serious trouble. I have told this story many times, so there is no need to go into the details of it here. Three features of those early days stand out for me, and in hindsight are significant. 

First of all, in the initial phone call my superior, along with giving me the outline of the trouble I was in, and telling me to get over to Rome ‘tomorrow if at all possible’, also told me, and emphasised, tell nobody about this; it is to be strictly kept secret. As it happened I was in the house of a friend when I got the call, and along with being able to hear my end of the call, she could clearly see that I was upset. So, straight away, I broke the first demand of the process. My friend’s immediate reaction – ‘secrecy is the weapon of the oppressor’- became a guiding principle for me.

The second major lesson I learned came quickly when I got to Rome, and sat down with my superiors. I was informed that the process was already complete, ‘crimes’ decided, judgments made and penalties already decreed. I could see straight away that there was no possibility of any type of process that might be regarded as even remotely fair or just. Up to that stage in my life, I was sixty five, I had got on with life and ministry largely oblivious of the CDF and its workings. But now totally out of my comfort zone, shocked and not knowing how to react.

The third lesson was when my superior informed me that I should go to a retreat centre in the United States for a period of time to reflect and pray on my situation. Putting that together with the demand for total secrecy, I gradually recognised that part of the strategy was to separate me from my support structures, family and friends, and make it more easy to subdue and manipulate me.

In my Redemptorist novitiate, way back in the sixties, we were taught about the early saints and fathers of our congregation. One of those was St. Gerard Majella, who was a religious brother in the early years in Italy. We read about how an allegation of misbehaviour was made against him, without the nature of the allegation ever being revealed. But the way he reacted, with complete humility and obedience and making no attempt to defend himself, was presented as an example to us in our religious lives. I’m afraid I didn’t display either the humility or the obedience of Gerard Majella. I went public before the end of that year. It was the time when clerical sex abuse was a hot topic in this country. I knew well that if I suddenly stopped working as a priest, and left the country, without giving any explanation, the obvious conclusion would be that I was an abuser. Whatever about being considered heretical, it was much preferable to the other possibility.

The other big feature of those early days was the demand from the CDF that I cease all involvement with the Association of Catholic Priests. The ACP was in its third year at that stage, and had made quite an impact, including winning a case against RTE over a Prime Time Investigates programme making allegations against the parish priest of Ahascragh, Kevin Reynolds. I was one of the founders, and also at that stage one of the foremost spokespersons for the association. So when I got a letter that autumn from my Superior General, putting me under a formal precept of obedience not to attend the AGM of the association, and threatening that if I disobeyed the consequences would be serious, I decided that things had become ridiculous. The membership of the ACP was largely made up of older priests, religious and diocesan, and our agenda had to do with the implementation of the Second Vatican Council, and bringing about reform of our Church. It was taking the situation out of all proportion to suggest that my attendance at this meeting would be an act of rebellion against the Church. The large majority of those who attended were men who had dedicated their lives to the Church and to spreading the Gospel. But the incident taught me one important thing. I presume that my Superior General must have known that using the weapon of a formal precept of obedience, very rarely used, with attendant threats, was completely out of proportion in this case. But I could see now that he was totally subservient to the CDF, and that he would do exactly what they ordered him to do. So I knew that the game was up; that there was no possibility of any sort of resolution to my situation. I was not able to comply with the CDF demands, because it would have meant publicly denying things I had gone public on many times, and which I firmly believed, and knowing that the CDF would neither change their demands or meet directly with me, and that I could not depend on my religious superiors taking a stand on my behalf. 

So at that point I decided to go public on the whole affair. I held a press conference, and proceeded to write a book, A Question of Conscience, outlining everything that occurred, and publishing all the documentation. 

It is strange now to think back on the issues that brought me to the attention of the CDF.

The main one was from an article which I had written around the time of one of the state sponsored investigation into clerical sexual abuse in an Irish diocese. I suggested in the article that priesthood as we had it in Ireland at the time of the abuse was hardly what Jesus intended. This implied that Jesus did not institute priesthood, and in their eyes that was heresy. I now know that many, if not most, Scripture scholars would agree with what I said. Priesthood was a much more gradual development in the early Church. The other topics had to do with women’s place in the Church, and with various sexual teachings, especially to do with contraception and homosexuality. All these topics are very much part of the discussions and reflections going on around the world during the current Synodal process.

What have these eleven years been like for me? Ever since my ordination I had been very active in ministry. I preached parish missions and retreats, worked on novenas at parish and regional level, speaking regularly in churches large and small to enormous numbers of people. By and large I loved it, even though it was energy sapping work, and as years went by it was becoming more difficult, with all the problems in the Church and the decline in attendance. For instance, I remember an evening in a large city church in Cork on the day that the government had collapsed over the Brendan Smyth scandal, having to  scrap my prepared topic and instead address what was occupying all our minds. It was difficult. 

There was a certain sense of excitement in the early years after my censuring. Because of my public stance I became a prominent name in the international Church Reform movement. I worked on that for a good few years, giving many talks around Ireland, mainly on the new style of Church being promoted by Pope Francis. I attended various international church reform meetings around the world, and did a month long, twenty city speaking tour in the U.S. Francis had given us a lift, and I was glad to use my relative celebrity to help promote his message. But through it all I was more and more presented with the reality that I was no longer welcome in the Church. Wherever I went, I was never allowed to speak in a Catholic building, church or hall. I was an outsider.

I also came to the conclusion that I could no longer live in one of our monasteries. Having been all my priestly life at the centre of apostolic/ministry activity I learned that being there, with it all happening around me, and I no longer allowed to participate, was too much for me. The reality for me from the beginning was that it was the ministry, rather than the religious life, that gave meaning to my life. And of course we were living through the collapse of religious life as we knew it, with younger members leaving in droves, and the rest of us getting older.  I needed to distance myself. I was lucky in that my old family home was vacant, and I lived there for a good number of years. In recent years, since that house was no longer available, I am grateful for the generosity of a friend. I remain a Redemptorist, keep in touch with my official community, and generally preserve good relations with my confreres.

During the eleven years I have had to make many decisions with significant implications for my life and future. In a way the easiest one was not to agree to the demands the CDF made on me. If there had been a possibility of dialogue, there may have been a chance of working out some compromise, but that was not available to me. I was blessed with good support and people I trusted who gave me advice. But I decided not to go down the route of employing a canon lawyer to fight my case. Maybe that was a mistake. I don’t know. My belief was that I would be playing the game on their pitch, where the CDF held all the cards, and my experience was that they only dealt in authoritarian diktats. I also had read and learned of other people who attempted that way, and that it dragged out for years, taking an enormous toll on the person, until they eventually died. I am thinking of people like Tissa Balasuriya and Jacques Dupuis. I was determined to avoid that happening to myself, if I could at all avoid it.

I am discovering now that my situation is taking a greater toll on me than it did in the earlier years. Covid put paid to public speaking, and now that it has passed I don’t seem to have the same energy for the task. I have read a lot of theology and spirituality, and my views and beliefs have change on many aspects of faith. I look very differently on the Divine presence, on the possibilities and the nature of life after death. I believe that the Church, going right back to the fourth century, has been too concerned with defining doctrines, to the detriment of the wonderful mystery of life, of death, and, deepest mystery of all, God. 

It is easy to begin to feel sorry for myself, to dwell on hurts from the institution, and to become bitter. I am well aware that is a most destructive road to go down, and I have battled constantly against it as best I am able. Only others can judge how well I am succeeding, and some of my critics in social and catholic media throw it up at me.

I lost two of my siblings in the last eighteen months, both only slightly older than I am now. Inevitably the thought of my own death is something I try to come to grips with. I know of others, for instance Sean Fagan, when death was near, had their censures lifted by the CDF. If I am not restored to ministry while I am still active and able, I certainly don’t want it on my deathbed. Does the CDF really think that their action at that time would effect in any way the love that I believe awaits all of us in eternity, since God is total and absolute love. They have shown me no love or care when it mattered, it would be meaningless then.

We don’t have a choice when or how death comes to us. Redemptorists are dressed in the religious habit in the coffin, and buried in a plot with the other confreres. Do I want that? I am not sure. My sister’s wish was to be cremated, and her ashes buried with her parents in the little graveyard in our home parish. Maybe that is the option I will choose, if the circumstances of my death allow for time and clarity to make such a decision. And I hope that, in spite of all the ups and downs, I will be able to look back on a life that contained so much that was beautiful and fulfilling, and that I will face into the final journey with confidence and trust that the welcoming Lord will embrace me in his love.