Bishop's saga shows church's failure in communication


WHEN Bishop Brendan Comiskey spoke at the Humbert School in Ballina last August he exuded the confidence of a man who had successfully overcome a summer of trauma.

In June, his innocuous remarks that the Catholic Church might have to consider a change in the celibacy rule - in the light of a huge drop in priestly vocations - led to public controversy with Cardinal Daly and a peremptory summons to Rome to explain himself.

He participated robustly in the Humbert School Church State Forum and asserted that he would take a prominent role in the divorce debate.

His healthy appearance on that day obviously belied his actual state within weeks it was announced that he had gone to America for a period of rest and spiritual renewal which, it was later admitted, would include treatment for alcoholism.

In his absence, a deluge of allegations about his personal life, his use of diocesan finances and his conduct of clerical abuse cases was unleashed.

In an episcopal conference notable for its bland composition Bishop Comiskey had always been a larger than life character.

He had a tendency to generate scurrilous and unsubstantiated stories about his personal life, and some of the gossip which gathered around him over the years found its way into print. The constant flow of allegations must have damaged his credibility as a bishop.

Many conservatives in the church saw the barrage of unsavoury coverage, after his departure to the United States, as a another bloody skirmish in the bitter war between church and media in Ireland. And there is some validity in their position - some of the coverage was lurid, grossly intrusive and repetitive.

More realistically, it can be argued that the affair reveals a disturbing lacuna in the capacity of a hierarchical church to respond to allegations about one of its leaders. The most consistent response was that answers would have to await Bishop Comiskey's return.

But a bush telegraph mode of communication is of little use in the age of the Internet. If a senior minister received treatment for alcoholism and serious questions about his conduct in office arose in his absence, it is doubtful if we would have to wait five months for answers. Democracy has its own in built system of accountability.

Conservatives often rejoice that the church is not a democracy but they could reflect with profit on Winston Churchill's assertion that democracy is the worst form of government until you try another.

Why was it not possible to appoint an administrator who would have had the authority to investigate the allegations relating to the conduct of diocesan finances? Or, better still, could not a committee of independent lay and clerical people have been given the task?

Full answers would have had to await the return of Bishop Comiskey but the formation of such a committee would have helped allay concern and stemmed the flow of outlandish allegations.

Not for the first time, the male clerical world could learn from the example of its female counterpart.

While the Sisters of Mercy's response to the horrendous revelations about the Goldenbridge orphanages has not satisfied everyone, it is a model of openness and sensitivity, far in advance of anything originated by the hierarchy in regard to the many clerical scandals of recent years.

If a similar openness had prevailed at the early stage of Bishop Comiskey's difficulties it would. have eased the pain and confusion of the bishop, his diocese and hiss family.

As a result of the church's incapacity to deal with the revelations in Bishop Comiskey's absence, he faced a huge ordeal on his return, at a delicate stage in his recovery.,

Compared to what he experienced yesterday, his recent meetings with Cardinal Gantin in Rome must have seemed as easy as mingling at a garden party.

Any appraisal of his performance must be governed by the sensitivity he deserves as he seeks to reorient his life. Casting the first or indeed any stone is a vengeful start - in the telling words of Lord Runcie, former Archbishop of Canterbury: "In this earthly tabernacle there are many mansions and they are all made of glass".

I believe Bishop Comiskeys homily at St Aidan's Cathedral over a week ago was a good start.

It was an honest admission of past failures and brokenness. Listening on radio to his press conference yesterday I thought he made a convincing defence of his conduct of diocesan finances and his personal lifestyle.

By far the weakest part of his statement was his exposition of how he dealt with clerical sexual abuse cases. Compared to the other sections of that statement it lacked precision and detail. He did admit that he could have done better but questions linger disturbingly in the air.

Why, in the Monageer case, for example, did he place greater reliance on the advice of the psychiatrist to whom he referred the priest than on the Health Board report?

Bishop Comiskey, of course, is not alone in his poor handling of such cases. It has been the single most damning failure of Irish church leaders in recent years and has occasioned a great sense of betrayal, even among the most loyal Catholics.

The recent guidelines have gone some way to retrieve the situation, but much still remains to be done if confidence is to be restored.

Bishop Comiskey did not do enough yesterday.

The whole sorry affair of the past five months highlights a further deficiency in the hierarchical model of governance in the church - a model that is falling into increasing disrepute in recent years.

It encourages a cult of secrecy. There is a widespread impression that the church establishment is an exclusive and secretive male club, the members of which are embedded in each other's prejudices and indulge each other's foibles. This impression contains enough of the truth to be worrying.

As Bishop Comiskey recognised in his Enniscorthy homily, it places people on lonely pedestals. It lacks a system of accountability that is credible in a democracy.

While the Second Vatican Council did not see the church developing into a formal democracy in the document Lumen Gentium, it pointed towards an ethos of democracy.

It envisaged the enactment of norms of consultation, collaboration, accountability and due process, even in the absence of a mechanism of elections.

Some efforts have been made in this direction but they lack vitality. And in recent years there has been a profound and disturbing regression from the spirit of Vatican II.

The confusion of the past few months can be of value to the church. In Ireland the mystique of the omnipotent hierarchy was finally shattered on that fateful May day in 1992 when Bishop Casey's affair with Annie Murphy was revealed.

Not even the most extensive resources of the hierarchical church can put that particular Humpty Dumpty together again in an age of diversity and dialogue.

Can our church leaders recognise this and act on it? Or will it be said of them, as it was of the Bourbon Kings of France, that they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing?