My Reflections on the AGM of the Association of Catholic Priests

The Association of Catholic Priests held their AGM on Tuesday last, 7th November in Athlone. These are some reflection on the event.

The new, younger leadership of the ACP was very impressive. Tim, Roy and Gerry have really taken up the reins, and are moving things forward very effectively. That was obvious from the first half of the meeting, which contained reports of the year’s activities.
We heard about the series of eight meetings held with priests around the country, in which the participants spoke openly about the reality of life as a priest for them today. It was a fascinating, but also a disturbing story that emerged. Clearly priests are under pressure, and some are finding it very difficult.
Tim had done a lot of work in the area of allegations against priests, in liaison with the NBSCCC, and he reported on his findings, along with giving each priest a card with advice on what to do in the event of an allegation being brought against them.
I was involved in making a presentation to the solicitor who has worked for us since our beginning in 2010, Robert Dore. I was delighted to do this, because Robert has been wonderful in his work and support for priests. He got a standing ovation from the large gathering.

After the coffee break our guest speaker was Mark Patrick Hederman of Glenstal. He had given us advance notice of the text of his talk, so we were not surprised when he launched into a strong criticism of the ACP. His criticism focused on two aspects in particular.
Firstly, he said the ACP were too negative and critical, especially of the bishops. He spoke positively of the bishops, saying they are good, friendly, amenable men, whom we should be able to work with. In the course of this, the largest section of his talk, he quoted extensively from articles written at various times by one of the ACP leaders, Brendan Hoban, as if they were official ACP statements. Brendan writes a regular column for his local paper, and also writes for the Furrow on occasions. To suggest that sentences, and words, taken from such articles were ACP statements was of course false.  For instance, he claimed that the ACP had called the bishops ‘half-wits’. I have been on the leadership team of the ACP for most of its existence, and I know for a fact that we were always careful about how we worded our statements.
It is good to get critiqued, and that we have been too negative is something that has been said about us on occasions, in particular by the’Catholic’ media. The past seven years have been a very difficult time to be leading an association of priests, and I would readily agree that we have not always got things right. We have made our share of mistakes.
We agree that the bishops, by and large, are nice, amiable men. But our problem with them is that they are ineffective. And that is a big problem at a time when the Church in Ireland is in free-fall. Over the years we have had a number of meetings with delegations from the Bishops Conference, but invariably they sent some of the lesser lights, who had little or no influence in the Conference, and, while the meetings were generally pleasant and fraternal, nothing ever came of them. For us the situation was urgent, so we found it impossible eventually to have patience with these fairly tokenish meetings. (As I write, there are some indications that maybe, at last, we will have a meeting with the senior people in the Conference, and if so, that will be, I hope, worthwhile. It is, above all, a time for all of us to work together.)

Mark Patrick’s second main point was one I found astonishing. He criticized the ACP leadership for making statements without consulting every member each time. This seemed to me to demonstrate a failure to understand the role of leadership, and also to fail to recognize that in our rapidly moving world, quick response to developing situations is essential. If one were to consult about one thousand members each time one wanted to make a decision, no decisions would be made. And, I suspect, nobody would want to be in leadership!

There was considerable response from the floor to the address, as was to be expected. And then Mark Patrick was giving his final few words. This was the point at which the most surprising thing happened. He turned to address “my friend Brendan”, and proceeded to say some very critical things about him. I was amazed. I could hardly believe what I was hearing, that any public speaker  would act in such an inappropriate manner.
I was sitting beside Brendan, and rather than have him respond, I went to the microphone and spoke to Mark Patrick, making it clear how disappointed I was with the way he had behaved.

So that sums up, as best I can, what was a fairly dramatic and eventful AGM.