Breda O’Brien: Desmond Connell was a complicated man

Cardinal was seen as a good man in an ill-suited role, but the truth is more complex

‘Cardinal Desmond Connell championed the underdog at every opportunity.’

‘Cardinal Desmond Connell championed the underdog at every opportunity.’


When I heard of Cardinal Desmond Connell’s death this week, I felt sad, even though there were times during his term of office that I was deeply critical of him.

For example, when he explained his concept of mental reservation – that is, the idea that while one could not tell a direct lie, one was not obliged to tell the full truth – I was profoundly shocked.

To me, there was never any other option than telling the full truth when it came to issues such as whether the diocese had paid compensation to victims of clerical child abuse. I could see no reason to obscure the fact the priest Ivan Payne had been offered a loan.

At other times, his somewhat archaic turn of phrase turned statements into incendiary devices.

For example, with the advent of ever-more complex and troubling surrogacy cases, this statement by Desmond Connell does not look so controversial “. . .the child produced by the decision of the parents begins to look more and more like a technological product. 

This is clear in the case of in vitro fertilisation, surrogate motherhood, genetic engineering, cloning.” But then comes the kicker. “But it may not be altogether absent in the practice of family planning.”

Unintentionally, he managed to offend anyone who practised any means of spacing the arrival of children.

Friends who have undergone IVF have explained to me how mechanical the process can seem and what a strain it puts on their relationship with their husband or partner as their hormones and hopes teeter from one extreme to the other.

They might not use the term “technological product” but they would understand the idea that it can seem like an alienating, expensive, high-tech way to secure something that comes so easily to others.

But by suggesting that all family planning might make children somewhat like products, he failed completely to understand just how much some parents long to conceive.


It is true that the media had caricatured him from the beginning as someone with his head in the clouds and probably conversing at any given moment with angels, but he often did not help himself.

Still, for such an allegedly unworldly individual, he managed to pull the diocese out of crippling debt.

He also championed the underdog at every opportunity: Travellers, refugees, the unemployed.

There is also no doubt that while personally appalled at even the idea of a little child being abused by a person who had promised to give his life to God, he was not good at conveying this horror to victims.

People such as Ken Reilly, Andrew Madden and Marie Collins, who had been violated by priests as children, did an enormous amount to convey the reality of what they had experienced, and it affected Desmond Connell deeply.

For example, he travelled to Rome to ensure the defrocking of Tony Walsh, a notorious serial abuser who had assaulted Ken Reilly when Ken was one of his altar boys.

He also set up the Child Protection Office in 2003 in Dublin,  which was revolutionary at the time.

Last June, veteran New York Times reporter and columnist Peter Steinfels spoke at a Loyola Institute conference about how media reports in the US are the first draft of history but also are prone to omissions. (His speech can be found in the winter 2016 issue of Studies Irish Review.)

Steinfels fully acknowledges the important role played by the media in bringing the issue of sexual abuse of children by clergy to public attention, saying that “The church would have been far better served by more and earlier news reporting rather than by less.”

However, he sees difficulties. For example, a case dating from 1972 would be headlined or introduced by a reference to “mounting revelations about paedophile priests rocking the church in recent months”. 

A casual reader might infer that this news story was about a current issue, or that church practice had not advanced since 1972.

Dumped at his door

Certain aspects of Steinfels’s thesis are very applicable to the Irish church and to Cardinal Desmond Connell.

For example, the documentary Cardinal Secrets took 50 years of neglect of the issue of clerical sexual abuse of children by clergy and dumped it all at his door, and used it to demand his resignation.

The documentary ignored the fact he was the first archbishop even to attempt to come to terms with the shocking, distressing reality of abuse, or to try to do something concrete about it.

His age and generational values meant that he opposed the opening of diocesan files, not in a desire to hide damaging secrets but because he was horrified at the idea that people who had told their stories in confidence would be betrayed.

Nonetheless, Desmond Connell was greatly loved by his priests and by many of his former university students.

The general consensus is now that he was a good man trying his best in a role for which he was radically unsuited, but he was more complex and faced a more complex time than that simple summation suggests.

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