Brave priest the bishops silenced on sex abuse

The Catholic Church was warned about the clerical sex abuse time bomb in its midst - by one of its own

The Catholic Church was warned about the clerical sex abuse time bomb in its midst - by one of its own. As the bishops meet to discuss the situation, Patsy McGarry recalls their treatment of Father Kevin Hegarty.

Kevin Hegarty said the funeral Mass last Thursday for Garda Michael Padden at Shanaghy in Co Mayo. Father Hegarty was appointed there in 1994, a parish so far west you must watch your footing to avoid falling into the Atlantic.

He is happy there, though that may not necessarily have been the intention of those who banished him to what they perceived as the ends of Irish earth. He had sinned most grievously. In 1993 he had challenged Ireland's Catholic bishops to do something about clerical child sex abuse, six months before anything emerged about Father Brendan Smyth.

In 1991 Father Hegarty was appointed editor of Intercom, a pastoral and liturgical journal published under the auspices of the Bishop's Commission on Communications. The magazine is something of an in-house journal for Ireland's Catholic priests.

Father Hegarty made his mark quickly. He turned what the President, Mrs McAleese, described in 1995 as "a semi-comatose journal into an essential forum for debate within the ranks where debate is most needed".

In 1993 bishops criticised an article on women priests in the magazine by Mrs McAleese, as well another on the deployment of priests by Father Brendan Hoban, parish priest of Kilmore in Co Mayo. And there was an article in the December 1993 issue which posed 20 tough questions to the bishops on their handling of clerical child sex abuse. It was written by Philip Mortell, a former priest and senior social worker with the Mid-Western Health Board.

Here is how Father Hegarty recalled what happened after that, from a letter to The Irish Times in January 1995: "Shortly after the appearance of the clerical sexual abuse article, a senior Northern bishop offered to 'mark' my 'card' - presumably to ensure that such an article did not appear again."

The bishops decided an editorial board must be set up to oversee Father Hegarty's work. It included none of Father Hegarty's nominees.

Early in 1994, Father Hegarty recalled, "an unsolicited homily from a senior Southern bishop was sent to me for publication . . . I decided to include an edited version. The bishop took strident exception to my decision. He used the occasion to launch an attack on Intercom's focus and particularly its columnists. Charity persuades me not to elaborate further, except to say that the implication of his parting words were absolutely clear."

In March 1994 Bishop Eamonn Walsh, recently appointed to Ferns, was appointed by the bishops "to survey the members of the Hierarchy regarding the focus of Intercom", as Father Hegarty put it in his letter.

In July 1994 the priest's bishop, Dr Thomas Finnegan of Killala, told Father Hegarty he was appointing him to a full-time curacy at Shanaghy. Up to then the priest was chaplain at a school in Belmullet while attending Dublin monthly to edit Intercom. Bishop Finnegan told Father Hegarty he could continue to edit the magazine but his new curacy must take priority. "There were alternative pastoral situations in the diocese that might have allowed me to cope with the two jobs, but I was not offered one," Father Hegarty recalled.

He had been made an offer he couldn't refuse. "In the circumstances I felt I had no choice but to let go of Intercom."

The chairman of the bishops' Commission on Communications, which was ultimately responsible for Intercom, was Bishop Brendan Comiskey. He criticised the priest's friends for writing to the papers on his behalf. "They have an obligation to the truth and they have only half served it. They are doing the truth, the church and ultimately Father Kevin Hegarty a disservice," he said. "It is our reaction to events which will determine our future," he remarked in an article in The Irish Times.

Would that he had listened to his own advice. Would that his fellow bishops had done so. Would that they had taken on board those Twenty Questions for the Bishops in Intercom's December 1993 edition, instead of "shooting" the man who had the courage to publish them.

An article introducing the questions observed: "The issue of sexual abuse by clergy is now surfacing in Ireland as it has done already in Canada, the United States and Britain. In developing open strategies to deal with it, Ireland is several years behind, but it can learn from the experience of the churches in other countries."

It went on to refer to the resignation of Archbishop Penney of St John's, Newfoundland, on July 18th, 1990. "In the preceding three years the archbishop had chosen silence and inaction as his legal and moral strategies in the face of escalating allegations of clerical sexual abuse. He had come, belatedly, to recognise that these tactics had cost his church dearly in terms of credibility and authority . . . we have not yet reached such a pass in Ireland."

Among the 20 questions posed by Mr Mortell, were: "Will they (bishops) eschew silence as the preferred legal and moral strategy in the face of future allegations? Will they publish information about the nature and frequency of sexual abuse by clerical and religious persons?"

They didn't.

As Mrs McAleese put it in a letter to this newspaper in January 1995, during the Intercom controversy, "what is truly depressing about this episode, though, is the contrast between the energy and determination which went into sorting out a perceived problem with the editorial tone of Intercom, and the sheer breath-taking ineptitude of church handling of matters relating to child abuse by clergy. It is truly ironic that Father Kevin Hegarty raised the issue openly in Intercom long before the Father Brendan Smyth affair, and in so doing incurred the wrath of those so anxious now to reassure us of their clean hands and bona fides in this squalid business. Well, so be it. The script is all too familiar. Another resounding triumph for fear-filled mediocrity. Whatever happened to the Good News?"

Maybe at their meeting in Maynooth today the bishops will consider apologising to Father Hegarty and all others in the church who tried to save them from the avoidable debacle with which they are now dealing.

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times