The Irish Times EDITORIAL- Thursday, February 29, 1996
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.
Bishop's Saga Shows Church's Failure in Communication
The Irish Times - Thursday, February 29, 1996 by KEVIN HEGARTY
WHEN Bishop Brendan Comiskey spoke at the Humbert School in Ballina last August he exuded the confidence of a man who had successfully overcome a summer of trauma.
In June, his innocuous remarks that the Catholic Church might have to consider a change in the celibacy rule - in the light of a huge drop in priestly vocations - led to public controversy with Cardinal Daly and a peremptory summons to Rome to explain himself.
He participated robustly in the Humbert School Church State Forum and asserted that he would take a prominent role in the divorce debate.
His healthy appearance on that day obviously belied his actual state within weeks it was announced that he had gone to America for a period of rest and spiritual renewal which, it was later admitted, would include treatment for alcoholism.
In his absence, a deluge of allegations about his personal life, his use of diocesan finances and his conduct of clerical abuse cases was unleashed.
In an episcopal conference notable for its bland composition Bishop Comiskey had always been a larger than life character.
He had a tendency to generate scurrilous and unsubstantiated stories about his personal life, and some of the gossip which gathered around him over the years found its way into print. The constant flow of allegations must have damaged his credibility as a bishop.
Many conservatives in the church saw the barrage of unsavoury coverage, after his departure to the United States, as a another bloody skirmish in the bitter war between church and media in Ireland. And there is some validity in their position - some of the coverage was lurid, grossly intrusive and repetitive.
More realistically, it can be argued that the affair reveals a disturbing lacuna in the capacity of a hierarchical church to respond to allegations about one of its leaders. The most consistent response was that answers would have to await Bishop Comiskey's return.
But a bush telegraph mode of communication is of little use in the age of the Internet. If a senior minister received treatment for alcoholism and serious questions about his conduct in office arose in his absence, it is doubtful if we would have to wait five months for answers. Democracy has its own in built system of accountability.
Conservatives often rejoice that the church is not a democracy but they could reflect with profit on Winston Churchill's assertion that democracy is the worst form of government until you try another.
Why was it not possible to appoint an administrator who would have had the authority to investigate the allegations relating to the conduct of diocesan finances? Or, better still, could not a committee of independent lay and clerical people have been given the task?
Full answers would have had to await the return of Bishop Comiskey but the formation of such a committee would have helped allay concern and stemmed the flow of outlandish allegations.
Not for the first time, the male clerical world could learn from the example of its female counterpart.
While the Sisters of Mercy's response to the horrendous revelations about the Goldenbridge orphanages has not satisfied everyone, it is a model of openness and sensitivity, far in advance of anything originated by the hierarchy in regard to the many clerical scandals of recent years.
If a similar openness had prevailed at the early stage of Bishop Comiskey's difficulties it would. have eased the pain and confusion of the bishop, his diocese and hiss family.
As a result of the church's incapacity to deal with the revelations in Bishop Comiskey's absence, he faced a huge ordeal on his return, at a delicate stage in his recovery.,
Compared to what he experienced yesterday, his recent meetings with Cardinal Gantin in Rome must have seemed as easy as mingling at a garden party.
Any appraisal of his performance must be governed by the sensitivity he deserves as he seeks to reorient his life. Casting the first or indeed any stone is a vengeful start - in the telling words of Lord Runcie, former Archbishop of Canterbury: "In this earthly tabernacle there are many mansions and they are all made of glass".
I believe Bishop Comiskeys homily at St Aidan's Cathedral over a week ago was a good start.
It was an honest admission of past failures and brokenness. Listening on radio to his press conference yesterday I thought he made a convincing defence of his conduct of diocesan finances and his personal lifestyle.
By far the weakest part of his statement was his exposition of how he dealt with clerical sexual abuse cases. Compared to the other sections of that statement it lacked precision and detail. He did admit that he could have done better but questions linger disturbingly in the air.
Why, in the Monageer case, for example, did he place greater reliance on the advice of the psychiatrist to whom he referred the priest than on the Health Board report?
Bishop Comiskey, of course, is not alone in his poor handling of such cases. It has been the single most damning failure of Irish church leaders in recent years and has occasioned a great sense of betrayal, even among the most loyal Catholics.
The recent guidelines have gone some way to retrieve the situation, but much still remains to be done if confidence is to be restored.
Bishop Comiskey did not do enough yesterday.
The whole sorry affair of the past five months highlights a further deficiency in the hierarchical model of governance in the church - a model that is falling into increasing disrepute in recent years.
It encourages a cult of secrecy. There is a widespread impression that the church establishment is an exclusive and secretive male club, the members of which are embedded in each other's prejudices and indulge each other's foibles. This impression contains enough of the truth to be worrying.
As Bishop Comiskey recognised in his Enniscorthy homily, it places people on lonely pedestals. It lacks a system of accountability that is credible in a democracy.
While the Second Vatican Council did not see the church developing into a formal democracy in the document Lumen Gentium, it pointed towards an ethos of democracy.
It envisaged the enactment of norms of consultation, collaboration, accountability and due process, even in the absence of a mechanism of elections.
Some efforts have been made in this direction but they lack vitality. And in recent years there has been a profound and disturbing regression from the spirit of Vatican II.
The confusion of the past few months can be of value to the church. In Ireland the mystique of the omnipotent hierarchy was finally shattered on that fateful May day in 1992 when Bishop Casey's affair with Annie Murphy was revealed.
Not even the most extensive resources of the hierarchical church can put that particular Humpty Dumpty together again in an age of diversity and dialogue.
Can our church leaders recognise this and act on it? Or will it be said of them, as it was of the Bourbon Kings of France, that they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing?
Handling of Sex Abuse Cases Main Difficulty Left for Bishop
The Irish Times - Saturday, March 2, 1996 By ANDY POLLAK
AT his press conference on Wednesday, the Bishop of Ferns, Dr Brendan Comiskey, said he had become aware of allegations of child sex abuse against priests "almost immediately" after he arrived in Ferns in 1984.
There were, in fact, already complaints on file in the bishop's house.
Eighteen months earlier, in October 1982, the professor of psychology at University College, Dublin, Father Fechim O'Docherty, had written to Dr Comiskey's predecessor, Dr Donal Herlihy, recommending that Father James Doyle a Wexford curate who eight years later would be convicted of indecent assault on a teenage boy should be kept away from young people.
Father O'Docherty wrote that Father Doyle, whom he had interviewed, was "a clear example of mollifies, which my dictionary says means, in a bad sense, weakness, effeminacy.
He said Father Doyle had a history of "auto eroticism and both homosexual and heterosexual behaviour". He "did not face up to celibacy in any realistic sense".
It was "desirable that he should have a change of role, away from working with young people", concluded the psychologist.
Around the same time a Wexford parish priest, worried about an alleged incident involving improper behaviour by Father Doyle towards an altar boy, communicated his concern to Dr Herlihy.
In June 1990 Dr Comiskey was informed that Father Doyle, then a curate in Clonard parish in Wexford town, was being charged with indecent assault against a boy in his early teens, an offence committed the previous April.
The bishop relieved him of his pastoral duties and he went to a specialised clinic in England for treatment.
He pleaded guilty and received a suspended sentence the following November.
Asked on Wednesday if the diocese had any prior information or professional advice about the risk Father Doyle might pose to young people, and if any priest had warned him about such a risk, Dr Comiskey said there bad been "a letter from a counsellor" but his recollection was that it did not mention risk to children.
He could not remember any warning from a priest, but asked to be allowed to check his records before giving a definitive answer.
A source close to the bishop said later that Father O'Docherty's letter appeared to have been stolen, and in any case it had warned about a different problem, not connected in any way with paedophilia.
A SECOND area of uncertainty arising from the press conference was the conflicting versions of the 1988 Garda investigation into the late Father Jim Grennan, then parish priest of Monageer.
Dr Comiskey himself admitted to being mystified at why that investigation had been stopped.
More specifically, the bishop said the then Garda Chief Superintendent, Mr Jim Doyle (no relation to the priest), had come to him in the last week of May 1988 and asked him to remove Father Grennan temporarily from the parish while allegations of abuse against 10 young girls were investigated.
In the event the priest was sent on holiday for three weeks and was back in time to confirm the children of Monageer, including the girls he was alleged to have abused.
Dr Comiskey also said the chief superintendent had told him gardai feared Father Grennan might take his own life and were keeping a watch on his house.
The former chief superintendent remembers none of this.
He recalls only that Supt Vincent Smyth of Enniscorthy had come to him to report "verbal complaints from parents" about Father Grennan abusing their daughters, and to say the parent's, were anxious that the priest "should not appear with the bishop at confirmation".
He had asked Chief Supt Doyle to inform Dr Comiskey of this.
The former Chief superintendent insists that all he did at his meeting with the bishop was to pass on this message from Supt", Smyth.
He says it was "not correct from my point of view" for the bishop to say the chief superintendent had asked him to remove the priest or had said Father Grennan's house was being watched.
Former Supt Smyth declined to answer questions on his role this week.
Sources close to Dr Comiskey quoted from a note of the May 1988 meeting between the two men which had them agreeing that there must be "no cover up" of the Monageer allegations, and Chief Supt Doyle saying that gardai were watching Father Grennan's house for fear of him committing suicide.
In Wexford, outstanding questions about what happened at Monageer remain one of the areas of concern following the bishop's press conference.
All except one of the dozen local people contacted by The Irish Times none of whom this reporter had ever previously spoken to, thought he had done well on Wednesday.
However all except one also thought he still had questions to answer on his handling of child sex abuse allegations.
"If there are still questions, many people will say he should be given the benefit of the doubt and let get on with things," said an Enniscorthy doctor.
A NEW ROSS farmer said his neighbours were still divided between those who felt Dr Comiskey's ability to give a spiritual and moral lead had been irrevocably damaged and those who thought that he had acquitted himself well and the past should be laid to rest.
A businessman from the same area felt that he had answered the questions on lifestyle, travel and diocesan finances "very well".
On child sex abuse he would be one of those waiting to see what, came out of future journalistic investigations, the Garda inquiry into Monageer and the forthcoming court cases involving local priests.
A Wexford solicitor thought he had handled the media well and put those journalists who had treated him badly in their place but questions about diocesan finances and land sales had not been fully answered.
She also felt there had been a cover up at Monageer, although probably "with the best of intentions in the belief that it could be sorted out within the church".
A priest from a parish near Wexford town said the Wexford People poll, showing 47 per cent of people thinking that Dr Comiskey should resign, had been valid when it was taken, before the bishop had returned and at a time of deep uncertainty and rumours that he would not come back at all.
It had been consistent with the feedback he had been getting at the time in his parish.
However, the moment Dr Comiskey arrived back, that feedback had showed "a considerable swing" towards support for him. He believed the press conference would have again increased "the groundswell of reaction in his favour".
Hard Pressed Newspapers Take a Lead from British tabloids
The Irish Times - Saturday, March 2, 1996 By MICHAEL FOLEY
If Bishop Brendan Comiskey's press conference at St Peter's College, Wexford on Wednesday had been a football match, the score would have been Bishop Comiskey 3, the media 1.
It was felt that Bishop Comiskey failed to answer adequately questions about the handling of clerical child abuse in his diocese.
However, this was overshadowed by the media's own failures and the number of inaccuracies he listed during the press conference. Bishop Comiskey handled the press conference with confidence.
He had answers to most of the criticisms, including those about his holidays in Thailand, dismissing the innuendoes contained in the Thailand stories. Even the facts of where he had received his treatment for alcoholism were corrected not the exclusive Hazelden Clinic in Florida but a centre 1,000 miles away in Rochester, Minnesota.
Within two hours of Bishop Comiskey's going off the air, RTE's Liveline started receiving media bashing phone calls.
Des Cahill, filling in for Marian Finucane, commented at one stage that the media was really "getting a lash".
Even this week the Star published a photograph of Pattaya Beach, a notorious centre of the Thai sex trade, with the caption "A favourite spot", without actually saying whose favourite spot.
The Sun published a headline, saying "I didn't Bang in Bangkok," adding a quote from Bishop Comiskey "I did not set out to consort with prostitutes."
Inside the newspaper was a photograph of a Thai bar, with young prostitutes. "What the Bishop missed in Thailand ... hookers mingle with clients in one of the many sleazy bars," said the caption.
There are a number of factors which led to the sort of treatment received by Bishop Comiskey.
There is the Irish tradition of rumour and gossip, and also there are forces pushing Irish media towards something that increasingly resembles British tabloids. In the past few years a major change has taken price, with increasing sales of British newspapers and the development of more Irish editions.
This leaves the Star competing head on with the Sun every day and the Sunday Independent with the Sunday Times. There is increased pressure to get any Irish story first, so as not to give British newspapers a boost in circulation.
Irish newspapers are trying to compete for circulation with media groups which have vastly greater resources. Such pressure carries the risk of greater inaccuracy.
But the attitudes and policy of the Catholic Church with its obsessive secrecy are also an important element. And there is the belief among many within the church that there is an anti Catholic conspiracy within the media.
If someone had simply answered a few straight questions six months ago, Bishop Comiskey might not have had to answer so many questions last week and might enjoy more of the kind of privacy in his life that he said he so much wanted.
The Irish Times - Friday, March 22, 1996 Letter from FRANCIS XAVIER CARTY, MPRII
Sir, - It has been stated by some journalists and implied by bothers (not from your paper) that our member, Barbara Wallace, acted unprofessionally in her consultancy work for Bishop Brendan Comiskey. They have instanced a "happy confluence", if not direct conflict, of interests because of her work for another client. They have also accused her of favouring some journalists and excluding others on the occasion of the bishop's return to his diocese.
Barbara Wallace has been in public relations practice for 21 years and is a past president of the Public Relations Institute of Ireland. She has won international awards for the excellence of her work. She has always promoted the highest standards of practice and has followed the letter and the spirit of our strict codes of professional ethics. This institute is happy that she had acted professionally and correctly. - Yours, etc.,
Public Relations Institute of Ireland,
78 Merrion Square,