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Community Against Priest’s ‘Defrocking’

The Munster Express, , May 19th, 2006 by Michelle Clancy

Support remains strong in the parish of Dunhill/ Fenor for controversial parish priest Fr. Michael Kennedy, who risks being `defrocked’ from the priesthood by a Church court if he defies an ultimatum from the Bishop of Waterford and Lismore Dr. William Lee to stop saying Mass and vacate his Dunhill parish house.

The Offaly-born priest, who is in his 50s, made a surprise return to the pulpit in March having been suspended from his priestly duties in September 2003 pending a Church investigation into accusations of misconduct by an adult in a different parish prior to his move to Dunhill. Fr. Kennedy was not available for comment this week, though it is believed he may challenge the order by the Bishop and will take legal advice on his position. It is understood he was resident in Dunhill Parochial House until last weekend, at least.

Bishop Lee has declined to comment on the nature of the ecclesiastical investigation but said the actions he takes are guided by appropriate procedures, professional advice and all information at his disposal. The Church investigation into the allegation against Fr. Kennedy is on-going and is thought to involve Rome, though the Director of Public Prosections is understood to have examined a Gardai file in relation to the incident and decided not to proceed with charges.

Fr. Kennedy spent a considerable time in Canada following his suspension but is said to have become frustrated with the Church’s handling of the investigation and took legal advice before returning to Dunhill and resuming his ministry in March, against Church instructions. Since then, he has travelled between churches in the parish and said Mass locally, receiving overwhelming support from his parishioners and numerous standing ovations from mass-goers.

This is not the first time that Fr. Kennedy has been the subject of a church investigation. He was previously suspended but later cleared when he turned out to be the victim of a blackmail plot, after a Dungarvan man pleaded guilty to demanding money with menaces from Fr. Kennedy in May 2003 and threatening to say he was sexually assaulted by the priest if the money was not handed over.

Fr. Kennedy, a third cousin of assassinated US President JF Kennedy, has been the subject of significant media focus throughout his career. In 1995 he sparked an AIDS scare in the county when he took to the pulpit in St Mary’s Parish Church in Dungarvan and warned the shocked congregation that an ‘Angel of Death’ was in their midst: he described a 25-year-old London-born woman who had deliberately infected 5 men in the locality with the AIDS virus, adding that up to 80 others who had slept with her should consider themselves at risk. The story attracted the world’s press though Fr. Kennedy’s comments were quickly discredited by a Health Board report and the 80-plus men who may have contracted the virus remain undocumented, despite the fact that HIV is notifiable by law to the disease surveillance authorities.

Fr Kennedy continued to attract publicity, however. On the death of Princess Diana, he related to his parishioners how she had telephoned him “out of the blue” in the middle of the Dungarvan AIDS scare to empathise with the way the media was hounding him.

And in 1998 he punched an 81-year-old man in an apparent incident of road rage, when the man stepped in front of the priest’s car. Bishop Lee said at the time: “I know that Fr Kennedy is genuinely sorry for the incident.”

Fr Kennedy moved to a new parish, eventually settling in Dunhill. Two years ago, an allegation of misconduct was made against him by an adult parishioner. Asked about this allegation by The Munster Express, a diocese spokesman declined to comment beyond this statement: “The priest concerned agreed to stand aside from his duties as Parish Priest in October 2003 following receipt of a complaint against him. He returned to these duties recently. His decision to do so did not have the sanction of Bishop Lee. This matter continues to be under active discussion.’’

Fr. Kennedy remains a popular and well-liked figure with both young and old in the in the Dunhill/ Fenor parish, with a reputation for being particularly good to the sick and bereaved. One local source described him as a `friendly, kind man who does great work in the community’.

A third cousin of the late US President John F Kennedy, he retains close links to the Kennedy clan and administered last rites to Rose Kennedy – mother of John and Bobby – at the family home at Hyannisport outside Boston, just hours before she passed away. Fr Kennedy also celebrated Masses at the family home after John F Kennedy Jnr’s plane disappeared on July 16, 1999 and officiated at the funeral Mass of 39-year-old Robert F Kennedy, who was killed in a skiing accident in Colorado.