Gusty performance by a man under huge pressures

 

IF the Enniscorthy cathedral appearance was strong, the St Peter's College press conference was stronger. Bishop Comiskey sat on his own in front of the 70 journalists with only a tense young curate, Father Peter O'Connor, to chair the proceedings.

He was calm, in total control of the material he had been collating for the past 10 days and, as the questions unfolded, increasingly relaxed and humorous. By any standards it was a gutsy performance from a man who was under the huge double pressure of fighting to win back a badly damaged reputation while recovering from alcoholism.

The diocesan finances were quickly dealt with in a flurry of facts and figures. Only one or two journalists had the expertise or in the case of Veronica Guerin the insider knowledge to query his answers.

He was quietly scathing about some newspapers' artificial doubling of the distance he had travelled to Thailand to make a good headline.

In one of the few really sharp moments of the whole press conference, he challenged the editor of the Wexford People to produce the evidence that he had denied knowledge of sex abuse allegations against the parish priest of Monageer.

In his lengthy opening statement he had mixed defiance and contrition when he talked about child abuse. "There has never been a single case of child abuse in this diocese which has been brought to my attention which I have failed to act upon," he declared.

A minute later, however, he was admitting that his "single greatest mistake" was his "failure to go immediately to those who were hurt and suffering I went to the lawyers and not to the children and their parents."

He particularly asked forgiveness from the parents, whom he admitted to having neglected, out of "ignorance and confusion, not ill will".

It was no accident that two thirds of the 80 minute question and answer session was given oven to how he had dealt with allegations of clerical child sex abuse. As the bishop said himself, it was "by far the most important point" he would be dealing with.

And because two cases involving his priests are currently before the courts and therefore he declined to take questions on them it was inevitable that most of the spotlight would fall on the allegations against Father Jim Grennan, the Monageer priest who died in 1994.

Ten girls said they were abused by Father Grennan during confirmation classes in 1988. Abuse was later validated by the South Eastern Health Board.

There is deep anger and division among people and priests in Wexford about why this case never came to court, and the Garda has set up an inquiry.

Bishop Comiskey said the "most hurtful" allegation of all those made during his five month absence was that he had obstructed justice in the Monageer case. He went into considerable detail and said he would do so again "under oath" before any tribunal to reject this charge.

However, he also admitted there remained "an air of mystery" about the case.

"Everything was being done by the book," his solicitor had told him. He was told to leave "everything to the statutory authorities. The health board was informed, the Garda Siochana were investigating the case, and I have no idea in the wide world, as God is my judge, why the case was dropped."

However, Father Grennan had always "vehemently denied" the allegations against him and the Dublin psychiatrist to whom Bishop Comiskey had sent him said the priest was "completely innocent", a belief certainly shared by most of the senior priests of the diocese.

He brushed aside a question as to whether he had accepted the psychiatrist's view over that of the health board, stressing that the key thing to bear in mind was that the gardai had investigated the allegations against the Monageer priest and had found them insufficient to charge him.

The bishop's emphasis, again and again, was on his total cooperation with the "statutory authorities" and his inability to use church law to move against Father Grennan when the Garda could not move against him in civil law.

It was a strong, logical argument. However many of those in Ferns most critical of his handling of the Monageer case will continue to ask whether it is an adequate one for a Catholic bishop, a spiritual and moral leader of his people.

This doubt was put most succinctly by the religious affairs correspondent of the Guardian, the only British journalist present. She noted that in the English Catholic bishops' guidelines (like those of their Irish counterparts), the paramount consideration was the safety and welfare of children.

He was allowing Father Grennan back to his parish after a bare three weeks away even if the Garda could not charge him the best way to protect the children of Monageer? Could Father Grennan not have been given a desk job away from children?

At that time, in 1988, Bishop Comiskey responded, it was regarded as very enlightened for the church and the statutory authorities to be working so closely together the law on reporting sex abuse was different in England and he could be laying himself open to a civil action by the priest concerned.

Again it was a full, detailed answer to a questioner benefiting from eight years of hindsight. But perhaps it had too much of the lawyer in it, and not enough of the Christian minister.

Law and logic appeared to win out again when he was asked if he regretted having brought Father Grennan, who would once again come under investigation for sex abuse before his death, back to the parish.

"I could do nothing else at the time," he said, stressing again his satisfaction at his close co operation with the gardai and the health board and his belief in such circumstances, in the adequacy of his response.

He moved on to another repeated theme of the press conference his call on the State to make it mandatory to report child sex abuse allegations to the Garda and other statutory authorities.

To this reporter, with his limited knowledge of the bishop's financial affairs and history of long distance travel, Dr Comiskey dealt with most of the other awkward questions stylishly and with apparent candour.

He admitted he would be amazed that any parent would want him to confirm their children after all the scurrilous allegations against him.

He had never drank, or gone on holidays with, any priests accused of child abuse. He talked about his 30 year love affair with Thailand his admiration for the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton, who died there his study of Buddhism his enjoyment of his holidays there which, as "a workaholic as well as an alcoholic", were his only hobby.