Cardinal Desmond Connell: Child abuse crisis was low point of life

Patsy McGarry looks at the career of the former Archbishop of Dublin

‘I am as human as any of you . . . it is the issue which has devastated my period of office,’ Desmond Connell said in Maynooth on April 8th, 2002 . Photograph: Donal Doherty/PA Wire

‘I am as human as any of you . . . it is the issue which has devastated my period of office,’ Desmond Connell said in Maynooth on April 8th, 2002 . Photograph: Donal Doherty/PA Wire


You could say Desmond Connell, who has died aged 90, became Archbishop of Dublin almost by default. His name was among the last to surface publicly during the extraordinary nine months which elapsed between the death in April 1987 of his predecessor, Archbishop Kevin McNamara, and the announcement of his appointment in January 1988.

It was extraordinary because of the tactics employed over that period, which saw almost everyone’s favourite for the job, Bishop Donal Murray, successfully done down. He was the man most favoured for the post by the bishops and Dublin’s priests.

Former Bishop of Limerick and at the time an auxiliary bishop of Dublin, Bishop Murray was blocked by the then papal nuncio, Dr Gaetano Alibrandi, who wanted to transfer Archbishop Dermot Clifford from Cashel to Dublin.That was vigorously opposed by Dublin’s priests (and many of the bishops) who didn’t want an outsider in Dublin. And Dr Clifford was not popular with his own priests in Cashel.

When word emerged that Bishop Murray was favourite to succeed, anxious conservative elements in Dublin informed Rome that the auxiliary bishop accepted “unorthodox practices” in his part of the archdiocese. This was a reference to his allowing altar girls in Bray, still uncommon then, and the conduct of absolution services there.

An item on the matter was broadcast on RTÉ. It did the trick. Bishop Murray was ruled out of the race by Rome, to the great anger of priests in Dublin.

Hotly tipped to get the post then was the since disgraced president of St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Mgr Michael Ledwith. He was seen as “an excellent compromise”, to quote one well-placed source at the time. His theological credentials were impeccable and he had been secretary to the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops at Rome in 1985. That was seen as a clear indication of the esteem in which he was held at the Vatican.

But he was only 42 and had already been passed over, in 1984, when the vacancy in his native Ferns diocese was filled by Bishop Brendan Comiskey.

Another name mentioned for Dublin at the time was Father Enda McDonagh, then a professor at Maynooth. But he was seen as too liberal by Dr Alibrandi, who had previously ensured Father McDonagh was passed over for the post of archbishop in his native Tuam diocese, though he was the man most favoured by priests there.

It was autumn 1987 before the then Mgr Connell’s name emerged as a contender for Dublin. Comparatively unknown, he was 62 and dean of the faculty of philosophy and sociology at UCD. He had been a close friend of both previous Archbishops of Dublin, Dr McNamara and Dr Dermot Ryan, and had ministered to the dying Dr McNamara. By December 1987, word was emanating from Rome that he was to get the post. On January 21st, 1988, it was announced he was archbishop-designate.

In reports at the time, one unnamed parish priest thought the news “dreadful”. He said Dr Connell’s theology was “an extreme right-wing kind learned before Vatican II”. Another thought it “unbelievable”. Dr Connell, he said “had not a clue about life at the coal-face and lived in a world of Kant and the older philosophers”.

Devastated period in office

For his part, Dr Connell met the criticisms with good humour. But no one anticipated what lay ahead or such abject moments as awaited him. As indicated when he reacted to criticisms of his handling of clerical child sex abuse cases with “I am as human as any of you . . . it is the issue which has devastated my period of office” in Maynooth on April 8th, 2002.

Up to his appointment as Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Connell had served just six months in pastoral ministry and that was as a chaplain to the Mater Hospital between his ordination in 1951 and his going for further study to the University in Louvain. He secured a doctorate in philosophy there and joined the philosophy department at UCD in 1953. He was in UCD 35 years when his appointment to Dublin was announced.

He was a particularly conservative metaphysician. His doctorate was on the 17th century French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche and dealt with the nature of the unknown intelligence of angels. He was an authority on the medieval philosophers, particularly Thomas Aquinas, but denied any hostility to modern thinking while of the view that since the time of Descartes philosophy saw man as the measure of all things. In his belief, reality was complete only in the perception of the divine, while man’s perception was partial.

Essentially a private man, he could be charming, kind, gentle, humorous and ran his university department without acrimony. Former students speak of him with affection, while having mixed views about his beliefs. One described him as “a quiet, long-suffering man” who was “trying to live a theology of obedience, poverty, and chastity in a time of frantic change”.

His early life

He was born in Phibsboro, Dublin, on March 24th, 1926. His father John was the son of an RIC sergeant from Moycullen, Co Galway, while his mother Maise was from Dublin. She was working in the GPO when the Rising began in 1916, and was shepherded to safety by The O’Rahilly.

John Connell was a civil servant in the Department of Industry and Commerce, where he became a close friend of the minister, Seán Lemass, who appointed him managing director of Bord Siúcre Éireann.

Connell snr ran a religious household. He died in 1939 from an infected ulcer, and the family of three boys moved with their mother to Ballymun Road. There was no civil-service pension then. “It was tough, very tough,” Dr Connell said, “but it coincided with the war, when everybody was suffering hard times.” He attended Belvedere College before going to Clonliffe, where he studied for the priesthood.

His first years as archbishop of Dublin were unremarkable, at least in terms of public controversy. He preoccupied himself with addressing the major financial problems then facing the archdiocese, which he and then finance administrator Mgr John Wilson, soon brought under control. He also began to speak out on social issues, particularly on unemployment, Travellers, and the disadvantaged generally.

This was unexpected but became a consistent theme during his term in office. Indeed, he was among the first senior national figures to express concerns about how refugees and asylum-seekers were being treated in Ireland.

Less surprising were his unequivocally orthodox stances on divorce, abortion, homosexuality, women priests, and reproductive technology. In instances where his brother bishops maintained more discreet, though similar, positions on such subjects, he sometimes waded in.

Then there was his use of language. In 1995, referring to the case of Father Ivan Payne, he said the archdiocese had never paid compensation to victims of abuse by its priests. This was after it emerged that Payne had paid compensation of almost £30,000 to Andrew Madden, who had been abused by him. In 1998 it emerged that Payne borrowed the money from the archdiocese. Dr Connell said it was a loan, not compensation. It was a semantic refinement too far for some.

Criticism of Mary McAleese

His reaction to the President, Mary McAleese, taking communion in Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral in December 1997 and his description of a Catholic doing so as a “sham” brought the house down around his ears. His advice, then too, that the former Bishop of Galway Dr Eamon Casey, returning from five years “exile” on the missions in Ecuador should get lost as other retired bishops had done, was seen by many as unacceptably harsh.

His 1999 statement that children whose parents planned their births through reproductive technology were less loved was greeted with incredulity. However, his stance on these and other issues helped forge closer ties with Rome, where he has been a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1993. Such, it is said, led to his being given the red hat in 2001.

But the wincing of his flock at home did not end then. His almost triumphalist address about how much Ireland owed to the Catholic Church at the Irish College in Rome on the day of his elevation to the College of Cardinals in February 2001 had unnerving echoes. Ireland would not be Ireland without the Catholic Church, he declared.

At the State reception in his honour in May that year, hosted by the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and his then partner Celia Larkin, he spoke of the primacy of the family as an institution. So doing, it seemed, he could attend the reception while not allowing it be interpreted as an endorsement of the Taoiseach and Ms Larkin’s personal arrangements.

Empey not one of the high flyers

And there was his interview in the book The Irish Soul: In Dialogue, published in October 2001. His then Church of Ireland counterpart, Archbishop Walton Empey, was not one of that Church’s “high flyers” he said, and “wouldn’t have much theological competence”. He expressed annoyance that Trinity College did not award him an honorary degree in 1988, the year of the Dublin millennium.

Both suggested an intellectual hubris that brought ridicule on his head and an outpouring of affection for Archbishop Empey. But, without doubt, 2002 was his annus horribilis, par excellence. It was the year when his handling of clerical child sex abuse cases was exposed most mercilessly. In April it emerged that he had not told gardaí­ that Father Paul McGennis, who abused Marie Collins in 1960, had admitted the crime. In October 2002 Prime Time’s Cardinal Errors programme gave a damning account of his handling of cases involving eight priests of the diocese who had been involved in child sex abuse.

Post-October 2002, he seemed to finally admit his own personal responsibility for much that had gone wrong in the archdiocese where the handling of clerical child sex abuse during his term was concerned. His meeting with abuse victims Ms Collins and Ken Reilly on December 30th of that year was a genuine coming together of minds with a common purpose.

This threatened to fall asunder in February 2003 when it emerged the archdiocese had no structure for the support of victims, as per the 1996 guidelines issued by the Irish bishops. It reflected his “only guidelines” remark to Ms Collins about those church directions, at a meeting with Ms Collins in December 1996.

But in March 2003 he issued a strong statement that such a structure was being put in place with direct input from Ms Collins and Mr Reilly. And that was done.

In February 2008 there was general relief, not least within the church, when Cardinal Connell agreed to withdraw his High Court action claiming privilege over 5,586 documents before the Dublin Archdiocese Commission of Investigation (Murphy Commission) into the handling of clerical child sexual abuse allegations.

The subsequent Murphy report, published in November 2009, found that he “was slow to recognise the seriousness of the situation” on assuming office. He was “over-reliant” on the advice of other people. While “clearly appalled by the abuse” it took him some time “to realise that it could not be dealt with by keeping it secret and protecting priests from normal civil processes.”

He showed “little understanding of the overall plight of victims” some of whom found him “remote and aloof” and some “sympathetic and kind.” However, and “on the other hand he did take an active interest in their civil litigation against the Archdiocese and personally approved the defences which were filed by the Archdiocese.”

Liability for injury and damage “was never admitted.” His strategies in civil cases, “while legally acceptable, often added to the hurt and grief of complainants.”

Dealing with abuser Fr Tony Walsh

The commission acknowledged that Cardinal Connell “did act decisively once he became Archbishop” in 1988 where one of the most notorious abuser priests in Dublin Tony Walsh was concerned. It was Cardinal Connell who decided to have Walsh laicised “and he pursued this course in spite of the advice and, indeed, interference of his judicial vicar (Msgr Gerard Sheehy) and in spite of the Roman Rota (Appeal Court)”, it said.

It subsequently emerged that at a 1998 meeting with Cardinal Castrillion Hoyos, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy (1996 until 2006), then archbishop of Dublin Desmond Connell thumped a table in frustration as the cardinal insisted it was Vatican policy to defend the rights of an accused priest above all.

Mental reservation

The Murphy Commission also reported how Cardinal Connell had explained the concept of mental reservation to it. He said: “Well, the general teaching about mental reservation is that you are not permitted to tell a lie. On the other hand, you may be put in a position where you have to answer, and there may be circumstances in which you can use an ambiguous expression realising that the person who you are talking to will accept an untrue version of whatever it may be – permitting that to happen, not willing that it happened, that would be lying. It really is a matter of trying to deal with extraordinarily difficult matters that may arise in social relations where people may ask questions that you simply cannot answer. Everybody knows that this kind of thing is liable to happen. So mental reservation is, in a sense, a way of answering without lying.”

A kindly, sensitive man on a personal level, many would conclude it was an act of cruelty to appoint him Archbishop of Dublin as he approached retirement from academics where he had spent the best part of 36 years teaching metaphysics and who in the priestly life had just six months pastoral experience.

He served on many Vatican congregations, including the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where he was close to then Dean of the Congregation Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI. They shared a similar theological outlook and similar tastes in music, particularly when it came to Mozart.

His was barely able to hide his delight on taking part in the election of Cardinal Ratzinger as pope in April 2005. When speaking to media subsequently typically he did not betray his oath to keep proceedings at that conclave secret but even in his exhaustion then he was unable to completely hide his euphoria at having taken part in that event and at its outcome.

There can be no doubt it was a high point of his life. The low point was the abuse crisis. As he told a press conference in Maynooth in 2002 the abuse issue had “devastated” his period as archbishop of Dublin. And it did.

In recent years he has been in decline and has resided at a nursing home in Dublin’s northside, the part of the city where he grew up.

Funeral arrangements will be announced later.

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