BISHOP COMISKEY

 

Bishop Brendan Comiskey gave a robust account of himself yesterday at the press conference to answer allegations about his handling of diocesan finances and property, sex abuse cases and his personal lifestyle. He addressed most of the issues fairly and squarely, in a calm and authoritative fashion. He was able to refute or rebut many false or misleading media reports, particularly about the finances, and was not reluctant to assume responsibility for acknowledged misjudgments on the other matters. His performance yesterday could should make for a better, more credible and more accountable Catholic Church in Ireland, if it helps to relieve it of the secrecy which has burdened its practice and image for generations.

If the manner of his leaving the diocese and the country last September became a case study of media mismanagement, it has to be said that the manner of his return to face their criticisms could hardly so far be bettered. Much of the public dissatisfaction and resentment about Bishop Comiskey's accountability may now be turned on the media. There can be no doubt that several lurid lines of reporting have been exposed by him as lazy, inaccurate or downright mendacious; but it would be quite unfair so to generalise about the media as a whole. It would be quite wrong if the justifiable public anger over particular reports were to deflect attention from the grave communications failures that have contributed, in the first place, to public and media confusion about the way the Catholic Church is run.

Bishop Comiskey has given a convincing account of how he and his colleagues handled diocesan finances; but it must be admitted that not a great deal is known to the public, more particularly to members of the Catholic Church in Ireland, about its overall financing and how it is controlled. It is, therefore, necessary to take much of what he has to say at face value. It will take some time for it to be fully validated. A strange combination of hierarchy and autarchy characterises the Church's national and diocesan affairs not to mention its international ones, on financial and other more important issues. This makes it all the more important for the Hierarchy to learn the communications and public relations lessons of this affair.

Foremost among the issues addressed by Bishop Comiskey yesterday was the question of how he handled allegations of child sexual abuse brought against six priests in his diocese. He acknowledged that the record is uneven and unsatisfactory, judged by the guidelines that the Hierarchy have only recently adopted. These put three essential principles at the centre of its policy: that the welfare of the child must be paramount, that confidentiality could not be guaranteed and that allegations of abuse must be passed on without delay to the civil authorities. It is too early to say that these questions have been resolved by yesterday's press conference.

Bishop Comiskey's statements since his return to his diocese have dealt in a commendably frank and open fashion with the personal problems, notably alcoholism, that led to his departure. He has shown a rare courage in so doing. It is exemplary for the institution he serves and for many other authoritative institutions in Irish society as well.