The troubled life of Bishop Eamonn Casey

He liked fast cars and good company, but was also a driven activist who set up Trócaire

Bishop Eamonn Casey has died. The controversial pastor had served as Bishop of Kerry and then Galway but resigned in 1992 after it was revealed that he had fathered a child with American woman Annie Murphy. Video: Bryan O'Brien


That May morning almost 25 years ago had a seismic effect on the Catholic Church in Ireland.

On Thursday May 7th, 1992, The Irish Times ran a front page story headed “Dr Casey resigns as Bishop of Galway”. It referred to “payments amounting to $115,000 to a woman in Connecticut and a lawyer in New York on July 25th, 1990, and other regular payments to the woman over a period of 15 years since the mid-1970s.”

Within days Annie Murphy was interviewed on RTÉ ’s Morning Ireland radio programme and told her story.

The Ireland of 1992 was a foreign country. Albert Reynolds had been taoiseach for three months and in “a temporary little arrangement” with the Progressive Democrats. Minister for health Dr John O’Connell was preparing a Bill to allow contraceptives be sold in public and there were nervous whispers of another divorce referendum.

Truly shocking

The idea of an Irish Catholic bishop having sex, never mind a 17-year-old son, was truly shocking to the faithful. That such a bishop should take money from diocesan accounts was a double whammy.

May 7th, 1992 was the beginning of the end of 19th-century Catholicism in Ireland. It was, of course, a pale dawn before what was to come. Bishop Eamonn Casey’s offences, in that context, seem minor nowadays.

He had operated at a senior level in Irish church governance for 23 years, from the time of his appointment as Bishop of Kerry in 1969. But he became an embarrassment to the Church after 1992 and, as has become evident in Ireland lately, great institutions are merciless when it comes to individuals who get in their way, or who are likely to cause them discomfort.

After 1992 the Church was determined to keep him as far away from the spotlight as possible. It was why he ended up in Ecuador with the American Missionary Society of St James the Apostle.

Major preoccupation

What to do with him when his five-year contract there ended in 1998 was a major preoccupation of the church in these islands. Cardinal Basil Hume made it quite clear earlier that year that Casey would not be returning to Westminster archdiocese where he had served before becoming Bishop of Kerry.

It was in London Bishop Casey founded the housing agency Shelter, of which Cardinal Hume was his succeessor as president.

Eventually a post was found for him in the English diocese of Arundel and Brighton where Cormac Murphy O’Connor was bishop, a man with strong Cork connection who later became cardinal archbishop of Westminster.

Abuse allegations were made against Bishop Casey in November 2005. He was summarily removed from ministry by phone call. No charges followed a police investigation and it emerged later the same woman made similar, unproven allegations against others.

Bishop Casey was kept out of Ireland until 2006, 14 years after the 1992 revelations. No clerical child sex abuser was ever exiled from Ireland by the church, though some were moved abroad to protect the church.

Rural parish

When Bishop Casey was allowed back to Ireland it was to a rural parish in east Galway. However, he was never allowed to return to public ministry or say Mass in public again in Ireland.

It might be said that, but for circumstances, he may have meted out similar treatment to an errant colleague. He treated the then senior dean at Maynooth, Fr Gerard McGinnity, harshly in the early 1980s when McGinnity tried to alert bishops to the alleged activities of seminary president Msgr Micheál Ledwith. And he was said to have been hard on his priests in Kerry and Galway.

On the positive side, he was actively concerned about the emigrant Irish and set up agencies to help them in Britain and the US. He set up Trócaire which, through his gregarious personality, became one of the most successful and best-known charities in Ireland.

His radical concern for Central America led to his refusal, along with Michael D Higgins, to meet Ronald Reagan when the US president visited Galway in 1984.

He was a frequent visitor to Central Amerca and might have died there when representing the Irish bishops at the murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero’s funeral in 1980. Sixty-five people were shot dead during the funeral Mass when the cathedral was attacked by the Nicaraguan military.

Driven activist

In the west of Ireland he and Bishop of Clonfert John Kirby helped to set up the Western Development Commission.

The other side of that driven activist was a sometimes loud personality with a taste for fast cars, diverting company and good cheer. He did not endear himself to all, not least to some brother bishops whose style would have been to step back where he would plunge on and who would have regarded singing on The Late Late Show as vulgar.

However, the extent of his pastoral work and his experience among ordinary people set him apart from them also.

In recent years he had been in a nursing home in Co Clare suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. One of his last public appearances was at the Dublin launch in May 2010 of The Search for Justice: Trócaire – a History by Brian Maye.

Asked by The Irish Times then how he was generally, he replied: “I’ve never been discontent in my life and I never will be, no matter what impositions are put on me or what I’m not allowed to do. I don’t care. I am all right with God.”