Gusty Performance by a Man under Huge Pressures
Irish Times, 29 February 1996 by ANDY POLLAK
IF the Enniscorthy cathedral appearance was strong, the St Peter's College press conference was stronger. Bishop Comiskey sat on his own in front of the 70 journalists with only a tense young curate, Father Peter O'Connor, to chair the proceedings.
He was calm, in total control of the material he had been collating for the past 10 days and, as the questions unfolded, increasingly relaxed and humorous. By any standards it was a gutsy performance from a man who was under the huge double pressure of fighting to win back a badly damaged reputation while recovering from alcoholism.
The diocesan finances were quickly dealt with in a flurry of facts and figures. Only one or two journalists had the expertise or in the case of Veronica Guerin the insider knowledge to query his answers.
He was quietly scathing about some newspapers' artificial doubling of the distance he had travelled to Thailand to make a good headline.
In one of the few really sharp moments of the whole press conference, he challenged the editor of the Wexford People to produce the evidence that he had denied knowledge of sex abuse allegations against the parish priest of Monageer.
In his lengthy opening statement he had mixed defiance and contrition when he talked about child abuse. "There has never been a single case of child abuse in this diocese which has been brought to my attention which I have failed to act upon," he declared.
A minute later, however, he was admitting that his "single greatest mistake" was his "failure to go immediately to those who were hurt and suffering I went to the lawyers and not to the children and their parents."
He particularly asked forgiveness from the parents, whom he admitted to having neglected, out of "ignorance and confusion, not ill will".
It was no accident that two thirds of the 80 minute question and answer session was given oven to how he had dealt with allegations of clerical child sex abuse. As the bishop said himself, it was "by far the most important point" he would be dealing with.
And because two cases involving his priests are currently before the courts and therefore he declined to take questions on them it was inevitable that most of the spotlight would fall on the allegations against Father Jim Grennan, the Monageer priest who died in 1994.
Ten girls said they were abused by Father Grennan during confirmation classes in 1988. Abuse was later validated by the South Eastern Health Board.
There is deep anger and division among people and priests in Wexford about why this case never came to court, and the Garda has set up an inquiry.
Bishop Comiskey said the "most hurtful" allegation of all those made during his five month absence was that he had obstructed justice in the Monageer case. He went into considerable detail and said he would do so again "under oath" before any tribunal to reject this charge.
However, he also admitted there remained "an air of mystery" about the case.
"Everything was being done by the book," his solicitor had told him. He was told to leave "everything to the statutory authorities. The health board was informed, the Garda Siochana were investigating the case, and I have no idea in the wide world, as God is my judge, why the case was dropped."
However, Father Grennan had always "vehemently denied" the allegations against him and the Dublin psychiatrist to whom Bishop Comiskey had sent him said the priest was "completely innocent", a belief certainly shared by most of the senior priests of the diocese.
He brushed aside a question as to whether he had accepted the psychiatrist's view over that of the health board, stressing that the key thing to bear in mind was that the gardai had investigated the allegations against the Monageer priest and had found them insufficient to charge him.
The bishop's emphasis, again and again, was on his total cooperation with the "statutory authorities" and his inability to use church law to move against Father Grennan when the Garda could not move against him in civil law.
It was a strong, logical argument. However many of those in Ferns most critical of his handling of the Monageer case will continue to ask whether it is an adequate one for a Catholic bishop, a spiritual and moral leader of his people.
This doubt was put most succinctly by the religious affairs correspondent of the Guardian, the only British journalist present. She noted that in the English Catholic bishops' guidelines (like those of their Irish counterparts), the paramount consideration was the safety and welfare of children.
He was allowing Father Grennan back to his parish after a bare three weeks away even if the Garda could not charge him the best way to protect the children of Monageer? Could Father Grennan not have been given a desk job away from children?
At that time, in 1988, Bishop Comiskey responded, it was regarded as very enlightened for the church and the statutory authorities to be working so closely together the law on reporting sex abuse was different in England and he could be laying himself open to a civil action by the priest concerned.
Again it was a full, detailed answer to a questioner benefiting from eight years of hindsight. But perhaps it had too much of the lawyer in it, and not enough of the Christian minister.
Law and logic appeared to win out again when he was asked if he regretted having brought Father Grennan, who would once again come under investigation for sex abuse before his death, back to the parish.
"I could do nothing else at the time," he said, stressing again his satisfaction at his close co operation with the gardai and the health board and his belief in such circumstances, in the adequacy of his response.
He moved on to another repeated theme of the press conference his call on the State to make it mandatory to report child sex abuse allegations to the Garda and other statutory authorities.
To this reporter, with his limited knowledge of the bishop's financial affairs and history of long distance travel, Dr Comiskey dealt with most of the other awkward questions stylishly and with apparent candour.
He admitted he would be amazed that any parent would want him to confirm their children after all the scurrilous allegations against him.
He had never drank, or gone on holidays with, any priests accused of child abuse. He talked about his 30 year love affair with Thailand his admiration for the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton, who died there his study of Buddhism his enjoyment of his holidays there which, as "a workaholic as well as an alcoholic", were his only hobby.
Bishop Declares He Co operated Fully in Sex Abuse Case
The Irish Times - Thursday, February 29, 1996 By ALISON O'CONNOR
THE investigation into allegations of child sex abuse by a Catholic priest in Monageer, Co Wexford, "was done by the book", Dr Comiskey claimed.
He said he had worked with the Garda and the health board during the investigation.
"I did not obstruct justice, I cooperated as completely as I could with the statutory authorities," he said.
Dr Comiskey confirmed that at no stage had he spoken to any of the girls who had been abused or their parents, and said he "regretted it absolutely".
At the time, Dr Comiskey advised the priest, Father Jim Grennan, to speak to a solicitor. He also referred him to a "very eminent" psychiatrist, who said, in a written report, that as far as he was concerned the priest was completely innocent.
The bishop confirmed that he was aware of the accusations at the time of the confirmation ceremony for the 11 year old girls who were allegedly abused by Father Grennan. Some parents walked out of the church in protest when they saw Bishop Comiskey arrive with Father Grennan behind him.
Dr Comiskey said he had sought legal advice on several occasions about the case involving Father Grennan, who died in 1994, and was told by his solicitor to await the outcome of the Garda investigation. Under no circumstances, his solicitor had advised, was he to get involved, "lest it be interpreted as some kind of cover up".
Dr Comiskey said his solicitor told him he was happy that "everything was being done by the book" and that the statutory bodies were involved in the investigation.
"I have no idea in the wide world, as God is my judge, why that investigation was stopped Dr Comiskey told the press conference. It was a mystery, he added.
Asked if he felt that he had any responsibility for the fact that no prosecution was brought, the bishop replied "If the gardai could not make the evidence stick, I don't know what I could do."
Dr Comiskey said that he had spoken to Chief Supt Jim Doyle about the case. "He asked me would I pastorally, more or less, without any threats, remove the priest for a period to allow the investigation to take place because emotions were running high. He certainly did not give me the impression they were going to lift him or arrest him.
If he attempted to remove the priest forcibly the priest could have appealed to canon law and the process would have taken a long time. Father Grennan had asked if he would be back in time for confirmation. Dr Comiskey said he was under the impression that the investigation would be completed by then.
The chief superintendent had told him they feared that the priest might take his own life so they kept watch on the house. Dr Comiskey then asked the priest if he would go away in accordance with the wishes of the Garda. The priest went to Spain with a friend for three weeks.
He denied that Father Grennan had left the parish on the instructions of the Garda, that the Garda had told the priest that if he did not leave he was going to face arrest and possible charges. "I was not aware of that and I believe it is inaccurate."
Dr Comiskey said that in May 1988, after the abuse was validated by the South Eastern Health Board, the board's director of community care had sought a meeting with the vicar general of the diocese of Ferns because the bishop was absent at the time.
The director of community care Dr Paddy Judge now retired, informed the vicar general that very serious charges were made against the parish priest of Monageer. He asked that the priest be removed. He said he had a programme of treatment for the priest already lined up. The vicar general said he would need to speak with the priest to hear his side of the story.
Afterwards Father Grennan had a meeting with Dr Judge, which Bishop Comiskey described as a "very, very, very stormy and angry meeting". Father Grennan said he had "not been heard".
Another vicar general in the diocese had been informed by the health board, which meant that at least three senior priests knew before Bishop Comiskey did of the allegations.
On his return to the diocese he was given the information by the vicar general. In the last week of May, Chief Supt Doyle visited the bishop and informed him that the investigation was under way.
"I know it has been claimed, in an extraordinary litany of things, that I obstructed justice that I assured the director of community care at the time that I would handle the case myself. That there was no need for Garda involvement. And that the director of community care said, `That's all right but you need to write a letter to the health board.' That I was supposed to have written him a letter. This is all complete fantasy which has, thank God, been verified by both the Garda Siochana and the director of community care," Dr Comiskey said.
He added that he had never in fact met that director of community care at any time in 1988. "This is certainly the most outrageous and hurtful part of all the allegations."
Bishop Denies Blocking Inquiries
The Irish Times - Thursday, February 29, 1996 by ANDY POLLAK and ALISON O'CONNOR
BISHOP Brendan Comiskey has forcefully denied obstructing any Garda, health board or other investigation of child sex abuse. He was speaking yesterday at a press conference in Wexford 12 days after his return from five months of alcoholism treatment, and a rest period, in the US.
He said he had never refused to be interviewed by the Garda, and had communicated with gardai in relation to only two complaints of sexual misconduct by priests.
"Not a single penny of diocesan funds or any other funds, such as bequests, under my care is missing," he went on.
He said six cases of clerical child sex abuse had come to his attention since he became Bishop of Ferns in 1984. He admitted he had failed to pass one of these to the Garda.
The investigation into allegations against the late parish priest of Monageer, Father Jim Grennan, in 1988, were handled "by the book" and he had co operated fully with the statutory authorities, he said. It was "a mystery" that the case was not proceeded with.
Last night there appeared to be a contradiction between the accounts by Dr Comiskey and by the then local chief superintendent, Mr James Doyle, of the Garda investigation into the Monageer case.
Mr Doyle, now retired, said he had only one conversation with the bishop to inform him that verbal complaints had been made about Father Grenaan. He insisted, however, that he had nothing more to do with the investigation. Dr Comiskey had said the chief superintendent was fully aware of the details of the investigation.
Mr Garry O'Halloran of the South Eastern Health Board, who has strongly criticised Dr Comiskey for his handling of sex abuse allegations, said yesterday it seemed that "just about every appropriate person in authority in Wexford" had been aware of the Monageer allegations, and that they had been substantiated, yet nothing had been done about them.
A Glimpse Once Again Of the Old Comiskey
The Irish Times - Thursday, February 29, 1996 by ALISON O'CONNOR
NEVER shaken or visibly stirred, the Bishop of Ferns, Dr Brendan Comiskey, gave an assured and suave performance at his official encounter with the media in St Peter's College, Wexford, yesterday.
For 10 days at the Bishop's Palace, he had been preparing his answers to allegations about the handling of diocesan funds and sex abuse allegations and about his holidays in Bangkok a cocktail of accusations which had built up over his five month absence in the US.
The press conference was a very carefully orchestrated event which, for the most part, ran smoothly. After being ushered in, journalists took their seats and awaited the bishop. From the front of the room at a table, with seven microphones placed in front of him, the bishop read his statement, detailing his defence without interruption.
The press conference was opened by Enniscorthy curate Father Peter O'Connor, who, the bishop said, was chairing his first press conference. Behind him sat Ms Barbara Wallace, occasionally beckoning to the priest to whisper in his ear.
There was no sign of Father Walter Forde, the man who spoke for the bishop during his five month absence he was in Gorey saying Mass at the funeral of IRA bomber Ed O'Brien.
The other members of the bishop's team were his doctor, Dr Paddy McKiernan, diocesan accountant Mr Liam Gaynor, diocesan secretary Father Tommy Brennan, and solicitor Mr Noel Smyth.
Some cynics might say that the press conference had been "perfectly" timed. It was held on the day after the local newspapers had already printed and it competed for coverage with the O'Brien funeral and the Anglo Irish summit.
The first questioner asked if the bishop intended suing those publications which had made allegations and from there the ball began rolling.
The bishop was calm, answered with authority and never came close to closing his temper. At times he even joked, giving a glimpse of the Bishop Comiskey of old.
When Sunday Independent journalist Veronica Guerin mentioned a solicitor also named Brendan Comiskey who had handled the purchase of his Donnybrook apartment, the bishop suggested she might give him a plug since the solicitor Comiskey had set up his own practice. He told the Cork Examiner journalist, T.P. O'Mahony, that he would "have him around for a party again soon" and that he had absolutely no intention of retiring from his position. Star journalist Senan Maloney had travelled to Bangkok to investigate the bishop's trips and Dr Comiskey asked him if he had enjoyed the trip.
Much of the press conference was taken up with questions about sex abuse, particularly the Monageer case. It was the one aspect of allegations which the bishop had not covered in detail in his statement and, instead, took questions on it.
Yesterday was Bishop Comiskey's day but it remains to be seen if his answers will satisfy the clergy and the people of Wexford who had many, many questions for their bishop.
Bishop Denies Consorting with Prostitutes
The Irish Times - Thursday, February 29, 1996 by ANDY POLLAK
BISHOP Comiskey said he had made only three trips to Thailand in the early 1990s, and not the six reported in some newspapers. He had been there about six times in the past 35 years, including some "long before I became a bishop".
On one occasion he had stayed "practically on top of a mountain with another Irish bishop". On another he was on the way to give a mission in Japan where he had always dreamed of going as a missionary. Two further trips were with his diocesan secretary, Father Tommy Brennan.
He had never stayed in a hotel costing £800 per night. That price for two weeks, plus a £4,300 first class return flight to Bangkok, represented two years' salary for him.
He said an Irish travel agency was running bargains at that time for £1.200 for a fortnight's holiday, and he had paid a couple of hundred pounds extra for a single room.
Thousands of Irish people had gone to Thailand at such prices. He had met 50 Irish people in the Royal Cliff Hotel at East Coast Siam and not nearby Pattaya or Bangkok including 19 from Wexford. He hoped that the Clare hurling team, which had holidayed in Thailand, would not be accused as he had been.
He responded to another questioner "If you're asking was I out consorting with prostitutes, I was not."
He said that he was never arrested and jailed at Bangkok airport. He had not been allowed "through the immigration" there having lost his passport, and had had to wait two days because it was a bank holiday in Ireland.
In the end, he was given a US passport after ringing the papal nuncio in Bangkok.
He did not think such holidays were an extravagance. They were his only hobby and he felt he was entitled to use gifts from friends to finance them.
But "seeing that such a big issue has been made of it, it would destroy any further holidays I would intend to have in Thailand," he added.
Bishop Comiskey began the question and answer session of the press conference by saying he had handed the file containing the newspaper allegations, made against him in his absence, to his solicitor.
He was not doing this out of any sense of revenge but, referring to the libel case taken by Marian Finucane of RTE, he added "I think you'll agree that my good name and my good character is also essential to my office as bishop."
He admitted that he did not always act in accordance with the 1987 Department of Health guidelines on reporting child sex abuse. In one case he had sent an accuser and an accused to their respective doctors, telling the doctors to look up the guidelines. The doctors sent them back, saying they did not know what the bishop was talking about.
He said there was at least one case, "an old case", which he did not report to the Garda, thinking that it could be handled by removing the priest and treating him. Even as late as last year he had had "a very vigorous argument" with one priest who said he would never report or "inform" on another priest.
Bishop Comiskey said that there had been six cases of allegations against named priests in his diocese.
He had removed one priest to allow an investigation to take place. After "vigorous representation" from his therapist, however, he had reappointed him alter two years. He would not have done that today.
In another, he had removed a priest but the Human Life Institute in Connecticut, "supposed to be one of the best treatment centres in the world", strongly recommended that this priest "must be given back his post". He had refused and had come in for "considerable abuse".
Asked whether he had ever been warned before Father Jim Doyle's conviction for child sex abuse in 1990 that he was a risk to children, Dr Comiskey said he was not to the best of his recollection, but he asked to be able to check his records before he gave a definitive response.
Asked why he had used his nephew a Dublin solicitor also called Brendan Comiskey to buy an apartment in Donnybrook in 1988, he said it was because it was "a personal purchase" using his own money the diocesan solicitor had, however, been kept informed.
He said £18,000 had been his own money and the 75 per cent balance had been a Bank of Ireland loan. In those days, before he started to receive a separate salary of £20,000 per year, he would have been paid out of the diocese's Central Fund, and the cheques would have been drawn on that fund.
Asked why the diocesan debt had risen sharply in 1992 and 1993, Bishop Comiskey said one of the principal reasons was that there had been "a huge bill" for seminarians' fees, which had risen from around £200 per year in the 1970s to £4,000 per year in the 1990s.