Handling of sex abuse cases main difficulty left for bishop

 

AT his press conference on Wednesday, the Bishop of Ferns, Dr Brendan Comiskey, said he had become aware of allegations of child sex abuse against priests "almost immediately" after he arrived in Ferns in 1984.

There were, in fact, already complaints on file in the bishop's house.

Eighteen months earlier, in October 1982, the professor of psychology at University College, Dublin, Father Fechim O'Docherty, had written to Dr Comiskey's predecessor, Dr Donal Herlihy, recommending that Father James Doyle a Wexford curate who eight years later would be convicted of indecent assault on a teenage boy should be kept away from young people.

Father O'Docherty wrote that Father Doyle, whom he had interviewed, was "a clear example of mollifies, which my dictionary says means, in a bad sense, weakness, effeminacy.

He said Father Doyle had a history of "auto eroticism and both homosexual and heterosexual behaviour". He "did not face up to celibacy in any realistic sense".

It was "desirable that he should have a change of role, away from working with young people", concluded the psychologist.

Around the same time a Wexford parish priest, worried about an alleged incident involving improper behaviour by Father Doyle towards an altar boy, communicated his concern to Dr Herlihy.

In June 1990 Dr Comiskey was informed that Father Doyle, then a curate in Clonard parish in Wexford town, was being charged with indecent assault against a boy in his early teens, an offence committed the previous April.

The bishop relieved him of his pastoral duties and he went to a specialised clinic in England for treatment.

He pleaded guilty and received a suspended sentence the following November.

Asked on Wednesday if the diocese had any prior information or professional advice about the risk Father Doyle might pose to young people, and if any priest had warned him about such a risk, Dr Comiskey said there bad been "a letter from a counsellor" but his recollection was that it did not mention risk to children.

He could not remember any warning from a priest, but asked to be allowed to check his records before giving a definitive answer.

A source close to the bishop said later that Father O'Docherty's letter appeared to have been stolen, and in any case it had warned about a different problem, not connected in any way with paedophilia.

A SECOND area of uncertainty arising from the press conference was the conflicting versions of the 1988 Garda investigation into the late Father Jim Grennan, then parish priest of Monageer.

Dr Comiskey himself admitted to being mystified at why that investigation had been stopped.

More specifically, the bishop said the then Garda Chief Superintendent, Mr Jim Doyle (no relation to the priest), had come to him in the last week of May 1988 and asked him to remove Father Grennan temporarily from the parish while allegations of abuse against 10 young girls were investigated.

In the event the priest was sent on holiday for three weeks and was back in time to confirm the children of Monageer, including the girls he was alleged to have abused.

Dr Comiskey also said the chief superintendent had told him gardai feared Father Grennan might take his own life and were keeping a watch on his house.

The former chief superintendent remembers none of this.

He recalls only that Supt Vincent Smyth of Enniscorthy had come to him to report "verbal complaints from parents" about Father Grennan abusing their daughters, and to say the parent's, were anxious that the priest "should not appear with the bishop at confirmation".

He had asked Chief Supt Doyle to inform Dr Comiskey of this.

The former Chief superintendent insists that all he did at his meeting with the bishop was to pass on this message from Supt", Smyth.

He says it was "not correct from my point of view" for the bishop to say the chief superintendent had asked him to remove the priest or had said Father Grennan's house was being watched.

Former Supt Smyth declined to answer questions on his role this week.

Sources close to Dr Comiskey quoted from a note of the May 1988 meeting between the two men which had them agreeing that there must be "no cover up" of the Monageer allegations, and Chief Supt Doyle saying that gardai were watching Father Grennan's house for fear of him committing suicide.

In Wexford, outstanding questions about what happened at Monageer remain one of the areas of concern following the bishop's press conference.

All except one of the dozen local people contacted by The Irish Times none of whom this reporter had ever previously spoken to, thought he had done well on Wednesday.

However all except one also thought he still had questions to answer on his handling of child sex abuse allegations.

"If there are still questions, many people will say he should be given the benefit of the doubt and let get on with things," said an Enniscorthy doctor.

A NEW ROSS farmer said his neighbours were still divided between those who felt Dr Comiskey's ability to give a spiritual and moral lead had been irrevocably damaged and those who thought that he had acquitted himself well and the past should be laid to rest.

A businessman from the same area felt that he had answered the questions on lifestyle, travel and diocesan finances "very well".

On child sex abuse he would be one of those waiting to see what, came out of future journalistic investigations, the Garda inquiry into Monageer and the forthcoming court cases involving local priests.

A Wexford solicitor thought he had handled the media well and put those journalists who had treated him badly in their place but questions about diocesan finances and land sales had not been fully answered.

She also felt there had been a cover up at Monageer, although probably "with the best of intentions in the belief that it could be sorted out within the church".

A priest from a parish near Wexford town said the Wexford People poll, showing 47 per cent of people thinking that Dr Comiskey should resign, had been valid when it was taken, before the bishop had returned and at a time of deep uncertainty and rumours that he would not come back at all.

It had been consistent with the feedback he had been getting at the time in his parish.

However, the moment Dr Comiskey arrived back, that feedback had showed "a considerable swing" towards support for him. He believed the press conference would have again increased "the groundswell of reaction in his favour".