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His Orthodoxy Was Never Queried But His Style Was

The Irish Times - Monday, February 19, 1996 by Andy Pollak

THE Bishop of Ferns, like that other controversial fugitive prelate, Dr Eamonn Casey, was long seen as a rising star in the Hierarchy.

Both combined doctrinal orthodoxy with a liberal, worldly lifestyle. Both were straight talking, not overly pious, good managers, easy with money matters, and men who enjoyed the company of politicians, businessmen and journalists.

Both threw themselves into work which brought them into close contact with contemporary secular society: Dr Casey through campaigning on poverty and Third World issues; Dr Brendan Comiskey through his involvement with the media.

Both came from modest rural backgrounds. Dr Comiskey grew up on a small farm outside Clontibret, Co Monaghan, near the south Armagh border, the youngest of 10 children of a motor mechanic with a little land.

At St McCartan's College in Monaghan he was seen as a bright boy who would make a good priest. He was particularly close to his mother, who was to die tragically in 1972 when the family home burned down.

His early career in the priesthood was unusual, successful and full of variety.

He joined a small American order, the Sacred Heart Congregation, which had a house in nearby Cootehill, Co Cavan. He spent more than 12 years at various times with the order in the United States, studying at its seminary in New Hampshire and, alter ordination in Ireland in 1961, returning to teach at a Catholic high school in Los Angeles.

He studied theology in Rome and spent two more periods in the US, teaching moral theology in New Hampshire and Washington. While in the US, he took out

American citizenship.
In 1971, aged 36, he came back to Ireland to be superior of the Sacred Heart Congregation for Ireland and Britain. At 40 he was secretary general of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors (CMRS); at 44 he was an auxiliary bishop of Dublin, and in 1984, at the age of 48, he moved to Wexford to become Bishop of Ferns.

He must have believed he was due for further advancement although already senior prelates such as Archbishop Dermot Ryan of Dublin were known to have doubts about their high flying young colleague.

In the event the small southeastern diocese proved to be as far up the episcopal ladder as he was to rise.

In the first place it was not his theological orthodoxy which was suspect, but his style. He was seen by many of his fellow bishops, as well as senior Wexford priests, as a showman.

The young man from the Monaghan borderlands had discovered in the US that one could be both a priest and engage with and enjoy the world.

He loved the openness of the American way of life, the freedom of speech, the "can do" philosophy.

He also came to cherish the good company and conversation he found on American campuses and the atmosphere of good food and drink in which they flourished.

When he returned to Ireland it was to a narrower, more puritan society.

But his early years in Dublin were successful ones. His work as head of the CMRS, his gifts as a communicator and his accessibility to the media made him one of the country's best known churchmen.

Away from work, his gregariousness found a natural home in the busy world of the Dublin religious orders.

His interest in politics and fascination with the media, which had begun in the US, made him feel at home with politicians and journalists.

It appears that it was his move to a big house in Bray, Co Wicklow, on becoming an auxiliary bishop, which started to turn his social drinking into problem drinking.

It was the priest's classic escape. The most famous example before him was Bishop Jeremiah Newman - sent from the presidency of Maynooth, which he loved, to the isolation of the bishop's palace in Limerick.

When Dr Comiskey moved to Ferns his isolation increased. From the beginning many senior priests in his new diocese were suspicious of the flamboyant, media friendly "blow in" who had been sent to rule over them.

In an interview after the Bishop Casey affair he recalled how little personal support Dr Casey received from his fellow bishops.

As an outsider, an order priest who had never studied at Maynooth or the Irish College in Rome, he rarely felt at ease with senior members of the Hierarchy. The wariness was mutual; they made sure he never got the job his communications skills seemed to warrant - as the Hierarchy's spokesman.

Dr Comiskey also talked about how easy it was for a bishop to become a loner with few, if any, real friends. By all accounts, that is what happened in Ferns. His friends were a small number of business people in the area and a group of junior priests, whom some older priests dismissed as mere drinking companions.

These older priests saw no reason to change their first impression of him as the years wore on. To them, he seemed more interested in national and media affairs than in the everyday pastoral demands of the diocese. They were critical when he did not turn up to parish celebrations or nun's professions of vows because of pressure of business elsewhere.

Against this he brought openness and dynamism to the diocese. His predecessor, Dr Herlihy had been a distant, if respected figure. In contrast, the new bishop was on local radio every Saturday morning, taking questions and arguing his corner. He also encouraged the younger priests to develop their talents.

He had always been interested in business, having done a master's degree in management at TCD in between his CMRS duties in the late 1970s. He took over most of the running of the diocese's investments. Throughout the late 1980s he monitored the diocesan funds managed by Woodchester Investment Brokers. In the 1980s Woodchester constantly outperformed the market, and Dublin financial sources have told The Irish Times that the firm "made money for the bishop every year".

However, his finance council chairman, Father John McCabe has told journalists that the diocese did lose money on Black Monday" in 1987. In 1990, saying he wanted to become more directly involved in the stock market, Dr Comiskey moved the funds' management from Woodchester to BCP, a small but aggressive Dublin stockbroking firm run by Mr David Cullen.

Financial sources have estimated the value of the funds at around £3 million at that time. His keen interest in local radio and belief that it could be a tool for evangelisation as the new century approached, led him to found the Christian Media Trust, which took a 29 per cent stake in Wexford's South East Radio and built studios in St Peter's diocesan college.

The trust - onto whose board he invited local representatives of the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian and Methodist churches - was an example of the bishop's ecumenical commitment.

On the vexed issue of mixed marriages he was a courageous innovator, sending his priests to assist at Protestant marriages and initiating a Catholic/Church of Ireland committee in Ferns to produce guidelines which have become a model for many other dioceses.

His dynamism was also evident in the widely praised £1 million refurbishment of St Aidan's Cathedral in Enniscorthy, reopened in December 1994.

Three months later the first signs of the chaos which was soon to envelop him began to show.

That March came the news that a Ferns curate was being investigated for child sex abuse; he has since been charged with more than 60 offences.

In June Dr Comiskey told the Sunday Tribune that the debate on priestly celibacy should remain open and then clashed in The Irish Times with Cardinal Daly over whether he had the episcopal authority to say this.

He spent the rest of the summer waiting for a summons to Rome and trying to avoid the media which he had once so successfully courted.

Then in the third week of September he disappeared suddenly and without warning to the US. His hard pressed spokesman, Father Walter Forde, said at first that he was exhausted because of the summer long controversy.

A fortnight later he admitted that the bishop had gone to America to be treated for alcoholism.

But there are some priests and people in Wexford who continue to think that both the celibacy controversy and the flight to the US were an attempt to escape more worrying problems.

Certainly his departure was followed by a wave of speculation about those problems with new paper claims - notably in the Sunday Independent - that he had refused three Garda requests to answer questions in connection with a child sex abuse investigation into one of his priests; that five separate cases of alleged sex abuse - four involving priests - had been brought to his attention; that he had been detained at Bangkok airport drunk and without identification; and that he had handled large amounts of diocesan money in a less than accountable fashion.

For the past five months those allegations have hung in the air, with diocesan spokesmen assuring journalists that all will be revealed on the bishop's return.

As last week's Wexford People poll showed, this has helped to undermine much of his credibility with his own people, many of whom are angry about the question marks which continue to hang over his handling of child sex abuse allegations against priests.

This weekend in Wexford people were still divided down the middle about their bishop. One priest pointed out that there were no neutrals on Brendan Comiskey: even before the controversy local people either loved or hated him.

In his interview after the Casey affair, Dr Comiskey suggested Eamonn Casey had become "manic" in the sense that he was "on the run" from his secret relationship with Annie Murphy and their son.

In recent months, Dr Comiskey too has given the impression of a man "on the run" from the growing barrage of questions the priests and people of Wexford - and not just the Irish media which he has had a love hate relationship with for so long - want to put to him.