Death of Irish priest who was former world head of Dominican Order


THE death has occurred of Father Damian Byrne, a former world head of the Dominican Order and one of Ireland's most distinguished churchmen.

Father Byrne was 67 and a native of Galway. He was ordained in 1955 and in 1965 was sent to head a new Dominican mission in Argentina. Two years later, he became vicar provincial of Trinidad.

In 1975 he was appointed provincial of Mexico, an unusual distinction for a non Mexican member of the order, and in 1977 he was elected Irish provincial. He was president of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors (CMRS) for three years.

In September 1983 he was elected master of the Dominican Order at its general chapter in Rome. He was only the second Irishman to hold the order's top office. The first was Father (later Cardinal) Michael Browne, who became master in 1965.

He led the Dominicans for nine years until 1992. He is understood to have then declined the offer of a bishop's post, the normal position for the head of such an important religious order to take up at the end of his term of office.

He returned to Ireland and in 1994 was appointed general secretary of the Conference of Religious of Ireland (the successor of the CMRS). In this post, he provided much of the energy behind the moves to get the Hierarchy to take seriously the clerical child sex abuse scandal.

He organised the first big seminars at which priests and religious discussed the issue, and was an influential member of the bishops' advisory committee on child sexual abuse. Friends said yesterday that "it took a lot out of him because he was phoned and called out at all times of the day and night for his advice".

Father Austin Flannery, a fellow Dominican, said last night Father Byrne was "a simple man in the best sense of the word". Although not an intellectual or theologian himself, he had defended the controversial Flemish theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx, at the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In this capacity he had had to deal with its powerful prefect, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, whom he always found a fair man.

He lived an extremely simple lifestyle, said Father Flannery, not smoking or drinking but travelling to England to watch Manchester United play.

Cardinal Daly said last night Father Byrne had made a massive contribution to the Catholic Church, both in the service of his beloved Dominican Order and in the service of the church, worldwide".

He said the Irish church would be "forever in his debt" for the "wisdom and commitment" he brought to his membership of the bishops' committee on child sexual abuse.