Mass goers hear angry responses to "lies"

 

ST AIDAN'S Cathedral in Enniscorthy, his own "parish church", was the setting for the return of the prodigal bishop.

First came a curate in an anorak, Father Peter O'Connor, to tell the crowded Saturday night Mass that the celebrant would be Bishop Comiskey.

Then the man himself appeared, looking fit and well, if a little thinner. His opening remarks could have been those of any Irish person returning from a painful exile: "It's good to be home. There were times I thought I would never be home. This is the happiest day of my life, I would imagine, as a priest."

After an introduction from the beautiful voices of the St Aidan's folk group, he went straight into his homily. He wandered frequently from his script, completed in a hurry only half an hour before the Mass started.

He started, like the Brendan Comiskey of old, on a humorous note. "Our God has a great sense of humour - I return to you on Temperance Sunday," he quipped.

He made it clear that he had chosen "a faith community" over a press conference to make his first public appearance.

He then talked of the letters, and particularly the cards and drawings of children, which had "lit up the lonely and bleak landscape of my life" in the US alcoholism clinic.

He mentioned one from Aoife, a little girl from Rathgarogue, outside New Ross, with a drawing of a "sad puppy" on the cover and the message "If I saw you now, I would give you my last Rolo" inside.

Having thanked the children, he then thanked the Protestants. Turning towards the Church of Ireland Bishop of Cashel and Ossory, Rt Rev Noel Willoughby, who was in the congregation, he thanked him and Bishop John Neill of Tuam for their "courageous and public support".

I pondered many a dark night on their love and courage," he went on, prophesying that "their response to my crisis will turn out to be a landmark in ecumenism in Ireland".

He also thanked the Catholics.

He started with his secretary, Father Tommy Brennan, who sat at his feet like a disciple through out the Mass. He and the diocese's administrator, Monsignor Richard Breen, had "remained loyal, loving, supportive and above all united with their bishop".

He mentioned his visit to Rome and his meeting with Cardinal Ganin, the Vatican's second most powerful man, who had assured him that "I return to my diocese with the blessings and prayers of the Holy Father".

Then came the apologies: firstly "for the suddenness and lack of communication on the occasion of my departure". He said he had been "unable to come straight out and state openly and publicly that I was going to seek treatment for alcoholism. I have come to learn through personal experience since then of the very powerful feelings of shame, guilt and denial which are part of the baggage of alcoholism. I learned the hard way that stating the truth about one's condition can alone make one free".

"I am now well and able," he declared, and for the second of half a dozen times during the homily, a part of the congregation broke into applause.

"If you continue clapping like that I'll be accused of getting all the 9 per cent who supported me into the cathedral," the bishop joked in a reference to the Wexford People opinion poll of the congregation, the quip had a hollow ring. Half the people around me were not clapping.

His next note - an angry one - was also characteristic of the old Brendan Comiskey. He dismissed the allegation that his treatment in the US was costing the diocese of Ferns £8,000 per month as "another example of sheer irresponsibility and shocking cruelty".

He was "not charged a single penny" for his stay at the treatment centre in the American mid west, where his therapists were themselves all recovering alcoholics.

He was similarly scathing about queries as to why he hadn't gone to an Irish centre. Pointing to his experience of being chased by journalists during his summer holidays in Kerry last year, he said: "When you are dealing with alcoholism, the last thing any patient needs is a journalist downstairs."

He noted pointedly that he "had never had any contact with any treatment centre in Florida".

This was not the time, "straight off the plane", to answer all the many questions and innuendoes which had been raised in his absence. "Can the latter ever be answered? Can you ever get your good name back?" he asked.

He needed time to prepare his answers. "But I will answer them. I will take pleasure in answering them."

However, his voice rose as he said there was one "lie" which he wanted to refute by his presence: the "lie", repeated as recently as last week on RTE, that he would never return to Ferns again. "Well, I'm back". Half the congregation around me applauded again.

There was one more "lie" which had been repeatedly stated which he wanted to address: that he "ran away from the diocese to escape the pain of confronting child abuse issues".

"No issue has caused me greater pain nor has taken up more of my time than this. Any pain or anguish, however, which I have experienced is miniscule compared with the awful hurt, pain, outrage and anger experienced by parents who, have brought a child into being.

He then spoke in general terms of the mistakes he had made in dealing with child abuse cases. He could not say he had acted "swiftly, prudently and without hesitation" when these were brought to his attention.

This was "because in some instances the information which I received was entrusted to me either as confessor or as confidential under a solemn promise not to be repeated. The conflict of judgment and the crisis of conscience which this created within me compounded my own inner turmoil, the net result of which I made mistakes. Let me repeat, without equivocation. I made mistakes."

"I now know that the enormity of the appalling crime of child abuse overrode all confidentiality whether it be of priest, parent or doctor, all confidentiality except the seal of confession."

However he stressed one thing: "I have never, ever put at risk a child's safety to protect any priest in my life.

He went on: "I have always acted in the utmost good faith and have never, ever, obstructed an investigation into the acts or omissions of any priest directly or indirectly under my authority or control. I have never in my life refused to be interviewed by a member of the Garda Siochana."

He could not do such a thing, he stressed, as the son of a man who had been a founding member of the force.

Then, departing from his script again, and with his voice rising angrily, he turned to the coverage of the allegations against him in some sections of the media.

The "total lies" that had been told about him would be "exposed". He wanted to hear those who had made "these wild and cruel statements" to repeat them under oath. His detractors could not "hide behind journalistic confidentiality"; the "callousness" of their allegations overrode all journalistic confidentiality.

But anger turned to sadness, as he described the isolation and loneliness which had driven him to drink. His kind of alcoholism was called "isolating alcoholism" - "when I was lonely and down I would drink in my room". His addiction arose "from an absence of friends."

The "pedestals" priests are on are "the loneliest places in Ireland and a fantastic breeding ground for present and future alcoholics. I was born in a little house in the middle of nowhere and I never asked for a pedestal.

"I was put up there. By the grace of God, I'm down on the ground again and it feels great, powerful, wonderful, magnificent. And no one, not all the king's horses and all the king's men, are not going to put this Humpty Dumpty back out there again.

From now on, he said, quoting St Paul, he would "shout and boast of my weaknesses. It is in that spirit that I take up my ministry among you once again".

He said he "identified with the man at the back of the church crying out for compassion and mercy" rather than "the priest at the front boasting of all he has done for the Lord. Perfect people don't need me, and I don't need them".

He said he had "found more love among a bunch of drunks in a smoky basement" in his US clinic than in "many of our churches with all their liturgy and finery".

He had "broken down at times when he thought "how hard my father and mother worked for their good name".

For the only time in the strongly delivered homily, emotion overcame him, and for a few seconds he could not go on. "That good name could be dragged through the muck and mire of Ireland for motives which will be one day exposed."

However he believed he was coming back to "the happiest, freest period of my ministry". The adrenalin seemed to take over and the bishop became almost messianic. "I want above all to light new fires of love and hope and enthusiasm in strange new places in Ireland; I want to become God's story teller, weaving tales of a God made quite mad with love and passion for his people."

For a moment he was dangerously close to comparing himself to Christ. "During the past five months I had the grace and opportunity to see people from the perspective of Christ on Calvary."

The Wexford People poll was still in his mind. "Even 9 per cent constituted more than Jesus was left with before Calvary," he said.

An hour into the Mass, there was some shuffling in the church now and a few children's impatient small voices.

Communion was still to come and the Saturday night pubs and television screens were beckoning. Bishop Comiskey apologised for the length of his homily and brought it to a close.

It was a bravura performance, even by the high standards of the Hierarchy's finest communicator. Signalling to the television cameras to stop filming, the cathedral's administrator, Father John Sweet man, began the communion ceremony.