The bishop who speaks his mind

Sat, Nov 6, 2010, 00:00

THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW:There may not be an afterlife, the causes of paedophilia are uncertain, arguments against women’s ordination are not at all convincing: the unsettling but refreshing thing about the retired bishop of Killaloe is that he thinks aloud, trusting in the listener to respect the many debates he has with himself, writes KATHY SHERIDAN

WE LAST MET in the bishop’s palace in Ennis, a rambling, shambling old house, ill-designed for home or office. A Traveller man had been at the front door since dawn and wasn’t leaving without €20,000 towards a new house.

As the bishop made tea in the dim, chilly kitchen, a priest walked in through a side door. Come noon, the phone was ringing non-stop and the Travelling man was still at the front door. Palace indeed. Like Heuston Station, with added aggravation.

Eight months on, Willie Walsh is now the bishop emeritus and has retired to a little house opposite St Flannan’s College, where he was once a boarder and worked, later, as a teacher. “Lovely” is a favourite word, cropping up frequently to describe his new life, new home, even the new bishop. The modest, homely bungalow is his first taste of true privacy.

“I came in and closed the door and said, ‘This is lovely, I’m at peace, there’s nobody going to walk in, the phone isn’t going . . .’ People were saying it’d be kind of traumatic but my new life is lovely. ’Tis lovely.”

After his successor’s ordination in August, he took a week in Rome long promised to a nephew and niece, followed by 10 days in Newcastle, Co Down, with a couple who have been his holiday companions for over 12 years and who arrange house swaps from Sweden to San Francisco. “Lovely, just lovely. I’ll be offering this one as a swap next year,” he says with a laugh.

He has “a small group of very close friends”, forming “the odd couple” with an older man, a widower, when they go socialising with couples. He is close to his siblings – two sisters, who are pharmacists, a brother who is a vet and two more who run the farm they grew up on near Roscrea. His regular golf outings are with a small group of clergymen.

The implication is that Willie Walsh will not be found in indiscreet situations with women. “The very close friends I have are couples and, while the friendship might have arisen through the woman I’d be very careful . . . I wouldn’t make a habit of visiting the house while the husband was away.”

Temptation did beckon, especially in his 40s, over several turbulent years. While his opposition to institutional celibacy is well documented, he also had his own struggles with it. “There would have been a very strong attraction there at times, certainly, and you would of course wonder, wouldn’t it be lovely to be married to that person, even to the extent of wondering whether I should leave the priesthood,” he says. “Thankfully I don’t think I’ve ever exploited those sorts of loving relationships, which certainly have enriched my life.”

And how many women would have turned his head? “More than one is all I’ll say. But nowadays what I’d see as part of the sacrifice of celibacy would be a degree of envy I’d feel when I see grandparents and how much new life and wonder and joy grandchildren bring to them. That would make you lonely at times.”

But the midlife struggles went deeper than celibacy. “I would have been struggling with faith itself. In some ways faith is a leap in the dark. There was never a doubt about the values which I believe Christ showed us – truth and compassion and forgiveness – but there would have been questions of how deep is your belief?” Such as in the divinity of Christ? “As deep as that.”

He worked on it by becoming stronger in prayer and spiritual reading. “Even now I’m not smug about it. I’m content that I’ve lived my life generally the way I feel I should have lived it, and I have no regrets. But I see now more and more when I’m talking to close friends, loyal to the church all their lives, and their children are saying: ‘I don’t want any part in that, the way you treat women, the whole abuse thing.’ And those parents would be saying to me: ‘We begin to wonder at this stage did we get it wrong?’ And I begin to say to myself – I don’t want to say it to myself . . . ” He hesitates. “Well, could it end with a hole in the ground?”

To question the existence of an afterlife is a startling thing to hear from an Irish Catholic bishop, though not so surprising perhaps from a scientist or a man who grounds his beliefs in the messy realities of the everyday. “I suppose at this stage I have decided that I choose to believe to some degree, but I can’t prove from reason these teachings.”

The “big question” for the church, he reckons, is not moral behaviour but faith, faith in God. “I think if you can accept the existence of God, then all the other things are possible. And there’s the other side, which is that if you believe in nothing, you can believe in everything – like The Da Vinci Code. So, ultimately, believing in God and the afterlife is the only way I can make sense of life. It’s a huge leap.”

The “only one thing” he is “absolutely satisfied with”, he says, is that his God is not a harsh God, nor judgmental. “I just can’t accept condemnatory judgments from anyone, because every time I come across something that’s wrong or evil there’s always a story behind it. Yeah, that’s wishy-washy, I know. It worries me a bit but I certainly prefer that to this harsh judgmentalism.”

That reluctance to judge may partly explain his disastrous radio interview this time last year, immediately after the Dublin report on clerical child abuse, when Bishop Donal Murray was under pressure to resign. He accused Murray’s critics of a “gross misreading” of the report, of looking “for a head on a plate”, then said he hadn’t read the report. “If Bishop Willie Walsh doesn’t get it, what hope is there for the rest of the institutional church?” asked Fintan O’Toole.

“What I really wanted to say was, let’s try and examine these things in a calm atmosphere. Then the next thing is the person asked, ‘Have you read the report?’ And I said no. I just panicked. I had looked at bits of the report that referred to different bishops, but that was the panic answer I gave. I did feel for Donal Murray as a man who had given his life to the church and I did feel a sense of loyalty to him. But I can certainly understand people’s anger . . . Even a very close friend of mine told me that she was enraged by it.”

Piecing the story together, it appears a call made to him that morning placed him under intense pressure right up to air time and certain phrases were spun at him – such as “gross misreading” – that he blurted out at the interview. “I was caught, yes, and I got a hammering, but I don’t have any sympathy for myself when I see what has happened to men like Eamon Walsh and Ray Field. What I do know is that Eamon Walsh has done the best work in this area of any bishop in the country.”

The danger with Bishop Willie Walsh contextualising anything is that he thinks aloud, always trusting in the goodwill of the listener to hear and respect the entirety of the debate he is having with himself. A discussion about his early teaching days at St Flannan’s leads into an enlightening riff about the superfluity of priests in the country then: bright, educated to third level, bored, stifled and underemployed in far-flung parishes with no likeminded companions beyond their own compadres, who were also rivals in the power grab for schools, sports and drama groups. All that may explain the “abuse of power”, he says, “but the sexual abuse I think is more complex”. He thinks future studies will show that there were no more abusers among priests than among lay people but priests had access to more victims.

By now he is wondering aloud, dangerously, whether the true culprit was not celibacy but the formation of the boy priests. “From the time I was 12 years old until my mid- to late-20s, I lived in a totally male environment and I think that has some significance in your growing to sexual maturity. I’m very nervous about saying this – it’s an issue that hasn’t been faced – but practically all the abuse that I’ve come across has been abuse of boys, and boys of 14, 15 years old. Now, that raises some serious questions, and if you really went into them you would be accused of mixing up homosexuality and paedophilia. If a priest abuses a 16- or 17-year old, is that homesexual? It’s certainly not paedophilia. Where does the division come? It is a very hazardous area – and there’s no question in my mind that I’m not equating homosexuality with sexual abuse by priests. No, I’m not. But I’m saying that at a certain point the distinction is not that clear.

“There’s the whole argument: is our sexual orientation there from birth or does it come about from early sexual experience? I think and believe it’s not one or the other, but I think that early sexual experience is a factor and that there is a risk in an all-male environment of sexual experimentation, and that can in some way affect their sexual development. I mean, some people would argue that a male who abuses a 15-year-old is really himself a 15-year-old sexually.”

And while the church was “very, very strong on the seriousness of sexual sin”, he says, he wonders if confession offered an “easy way out” for some perpetrators. “He has confessed, he is forgiven and therefore he can go on from here?”

He is not remotely convinced by arguments against women’s ordination and is irked by the welcome accorded by Rome to (usually married) Protestant clergymen fleeing their own women priests. “I wish if people were changing to the Roman Catholic Church, they’d find a better reason than the non-ordination of women. I find that bothersome,” he says with uncharacteristic edge. “I really don’t want to cause division in the church, but what I have real difficulty with is that some subjects are not for discussion. I don’t see how we can be that certain of things – celibacy is another – which I don’t see as belonging to the essence of the Christian message.”

Yet he has been accused of waffling, of trying to have it every way on church teaching. When asked about a church marriage for gay couples he is firmly opposed. But he has called for a “greater understanding” towards gay people, which would include “a recognition that people don’t choose their sexual orientation”. But if the church persists in its teaching that homosexual acts are sinful, what use is “understanding” to a committed gay couple?

“Sexuality is much wider than, say, the use of genital organs or whatever. It’s an essential part of the whole person. I think the fact that I don’t have sexual relations with somebody doesn’t mean that there isn’t something of sexuality in our friendship.”

We digest this in silence. Then he wonders aloud whether it’s right to expect “clear, cut-and-dried answers to everything. Life is very messy, and to have clarity on every issue I think is just not possible.”

The astonishing thing is that he ever became a bishop. On July 25th, 1968, when he was just 33 and working as a parish holiday locum in a New York presbytery, he was “stunned” to hear about Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae encyclical, reaffirming traditional Roman Catholic teaching on family planning. “That was a watershed. Up to that time, I think, practically all Catholics accepted that, whether they disobeyed Catholic teaching or not, the teaching was right. It was there that the questioning began.”

In many ways his subsequent response to it defined Walsh’s essentially decent, painfully conflicted responses to similar challenges throughout his priestly life. “I felt it was going to cause a lot of suffering, but I suppose I did what a lot of theologians and various people did: I tried to water it down in some way and find excuses in my own mind and find excuses for people, but somehow felt that the church couldn’t be that wrong – that was early in my priesthood. But you were sort of saying, well, conscience is the primary thing anyway no matter what, that people have to go by their own conscience – which in many ways was an attempt to soften the teachings.”

Keeping that precarious balance between loyalty to church and to personal convictions can’t have been easy, especially for a man who claims he “lacks the courage for a fight”. “I’d put up with things rather than fight with somebody. I sometimes say I’d sell my soul for peace.”

Yet, when approached by the nuncio with the offer of the bishop’s job, he was upfront with his questions about church teaching. “I said I wasn’t a campaigner but I did have some difficulties in the area of family planning, the treatment of people of homosexual orientation, people in second unions, sexuality . . . ”

And the nuncio said? “He listened and said something like, ‘At times we all have question marks.’ I was only a short time in it when I raised the issue of celibacy and was reminded this wasn’t for discussion. Yeah, Rome would have reminded me a few times.”

So no freedom of thought, then? “Oh, there has to be some sort of freedom, acknowledging and recognising that we may change our views on things. [Cardinal] Newman, who was beatified recently, was often questioned about this and said that ‘where there’s a battle between my conscience and Rome, my conscience will win’, which is a very strong statement.

“I don’t think he’d become a cardinal now,” he says wryly.

Ultimately, you sense that all this stuff is complete palaver in his eyes, that what he really wants to ask, loudly, is what the hell any of this angelic pin-dancing has to do with the simple life and gospel of Jesus Christ. He is desperately uncomfortable about the pomp, the robes, the art, the material possessions of the church.

“I think what we need – and this applies to all of us and to me sitting in a comfortable house – I think what we really have shied away from or watered down is our teaching on justice. That’s one of the ways where we can show people that we really believe.”

CV Bishop Willie Walsh


January 1935, youngest of six, on a comfortable, mixed farm near Roscrea, Co Tipperary.


Boarded at St Flannan’s College, Ennis. Won a scholarship to St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, and gained a science degree while studying for the priesthood.


1959 Ordained a priest in Rome and completed canon-law studies at the Pontifical Lateran University. Taught for a year at Coláiste Éinde, Galway, then returned to St Flannan’s as a maths and physics teacher, while coaching hurling teams at all levels.

1970 Involved in setting up the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council (now Accord) in the diocese.

1988 Appointed curate at Ennis Cathedral, then administrator.

1994 Ordained Bishop of Killaloe.

2010 Succeeded by Fr Kieran O’Reilly SMA. Retired to the See.