Dr Connell's retirement

 

Sixteen years of difficult and increasingly traumatic service as Archbishop of Dublin ended for Cardinal Desmond Connell when the resignation he had formally tendered in 2001 was finally accepted by Pope John Paul II on Monday.

Dr Connell will retain his status as Cardinal and his membership of several Vatican congregations for a further two years. And he will be entitled to vote in a Papal election. He has been succeeded as Archbishop of Dublin by 58-year-old Dr Diarmuid Martin.

Cardinal Connell has said he is greatly looking forward to retirement. And who could blame him? At the age of 78 years, he deserves some time for rest and reflection and a pause from the clerical sex abuse scandals that "devastated" the last years of his ministry. Archbishop Martin observed that, during his period in office, he had shown "how one loves, how one serves and how one suffers for the Church".

Cardinal Connell's nomination as Archbishop in 1988 was unexpected and unpopular in some quarters. He was relatively unknown and had practically no pastoral experience, having taught for 35 years at the Metaphysics Department of University College Dublin. And while his theology and conservatism may have recommended him to Pope John Paul II, the charge of being out of touch with the realities of family life in a rapidly changing Ireland never lost its potency. For liberal Catholics, he was aloof and autocratic, contributing to efforts to roll back the reforms of Vatican II.

The first years were largely uncontroversial. Cardinal Connell espoused causes of social justice and they became persistent themes in his ministry. Time and again he criticised governments for their failures on employment, the treatment of Travellers and, more recently, in relation to refugees. A shortage of social housing was also a consistent concern. Last month, he encouraged public indignation over the fact that 5,500 people are homeless in this State, while waiting lists for local authority housing are continuing to grow.

But it was his response to, and handling of, clerical sex abuse scandals that defined and, ultimately, blighted his years as Archbishop. On more than one occasion, he asked forgiveness from those who had suffered "unspeakable abuse" by priests and had not received due care.

Cardinal Connell was not alone within the Hierarchy in seeking to prevent this long-running scandal from erupting into public life and damaging the image of the Catholic Church. But, as disclosures followed in quick succession and defensive half-truths were exposed, there were unprecedented calls for his resignation.

Finally, the Government decided to hold a formal inquiry into clerical sex abuse. A Garda investigation is currently under way. And enabling legislation is expected in the autumn. In the circumstances, the appointment of a new Archbishop of Dublin will afford Cardinal Connell some much-needed relief while drawing a line under the abuses and mistakes of the past.