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Mass Goers Hear Angry Responses to "Lies"

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

ST AIDAN'S Cathedral in Enniscorthy, his own "parish church", was the setting for the return of the prodigal bishop.

First came a curate in an anorak, Father Peter O'Connor, to tell the crowded Saturday night Mass that the celebrant would be Bishop Comiskey.

Then the man himself appeared, looking fit and well, if a little thinner. His opening remarks could have been those of any Irish person returning from a painful exile: "It's good to be home. There were times I thought I would never be home. This is the happiest day of my life, I would imagine, as a priest."

After an introduction from the beautiful voices of the St Aidan's folk group, he went straight into his homily. He wandered frequently from his script, completed in a hurry only half an hour before the Mass started.

He started, like the Brendan Comiskey of old, on a humorous note. "Our God has a great sense of humour - I return to you on Temperance Sunday," he quipped.

He made it clear that he had chosen "a faith community" over a press conference to make his first public appearance.

He then talked of the letters, and particularly the cards and drawings of children, which had "lit up the lonely and bleak landscape of my life" in the US alcoholism clinic.

He mentioned one from Aoife, a little girl from Rathgarogue, outside New Ross, with a drawing of a "sad puppy" on the cover and the message "If I saw you now, I would give you my last Rolo" inside.

Having thanked the children, he then thanked the Protestants. Turning towards the Church of Ireland Bishop of Cashel and Ossory, Rt Rev Noel Willoughby, who was in the congregation, he thanked him and Bishop John Neill of Tuam for their "courageous and public support".

I pondered many a dark night on their love and courage," he went on, prophesying that "their response to my crisis will turn out to be a landmark in ecumenism in Ireland".

He also thanked the Catholics.

He started with his secretary, Father Tommy Brennan, who sat at his feet like a disciple through out the Mass. He and the diocese's administrator, Monsignor Richard Breen, had "remained loyal, loving, supportive and above all united with their bishop".

He mentioned his visit to Rome and his meeting with Cardinal Ganin, the Vatican's second most powerful man, who had assured him that "I return to my diocese with the blessings and prayers of the Holy Father".

Then came the apologies: firstly "for the suddenness and lack of communication on the occasion of my departure". He said he had been "unable to come straight out and state openly and publicly that I was going to seek treatment for alcoholism. I have come to learn through personal experience since then of the very powerful feelings of shame, guilt and denial which are part of the baggage of alcoholism. I learned the hard way that stating the truth about one's condition can alone make one free".

"I am now well and able," he declared, and for the second of half a dozen times during the homily, a part of the congregation broke into applause.

"If you continue clapping like that I'll be accused of getting all the 9 per cent who supported me into the cathedral," the bishop joked in a reference to the Wexford People opinion poll of the congregation, the quip had a hollow ring. Half the people around me were not clapping.

His next note - an angry one - was also characteristic of the old Brendan Comiskey. He dismissed the allegation that his treatment in the US was costing the diocese of Ferns £8,000 per month as "another example of sheer irresponsibility and shocking cruelty".

He was "not charged a single penny" for his stay at the treatment centre in the American mid west, where his therapists were themselves all recovering alcoholics.

He was similarly scathing about queries as to why he hadn't gone to an Irish centre. Pointing to his experience of being chased by journalists during his summer holidays in Kerry last year, he said: "When you are dealing with alcoholism, the last thing any patient needs is a journalist downstairs."

He noted pointedly that he "had never had any contact with any treatment centre in Florida".

This was not the time, "straight off the plane", to answer all the many questions and innuendoes which had been raised in his absence. "Can the latter ever be answered? Can you ever get your good name back?" he asked.

He needed time to prepare his answers. "But I will answer them. I will take pleasure in answering them."

However, his voice rose as he said there was one "lie" which he wanted to refute by his presence: the "lie", repeated as recently as last week on RTE, that he would never return to Ferns again. "Well, I'm back". Half the congregation around me applauded again.

There was one more "lie" which had been repeatedly stated which he wanted to address: that he "ran away from the diocese to escape the pain of confronting child abuse issues".

"No issue has caused me greater pain nor has taken up more of my time than this. Any pain or anguish, however, which I have experienced is miniscule compared with the awful hurt, pain, outrage and anger experienced by parents who, have brought a child into being.

He then spoke in general terms of the mistakes he had made in dealing with child abuse cases. He could not say he had acted "swiftly, prudently and without hesitation" when these were brought to his attention.

This was "because in some instances the information which I received was entrusted to me either as confessor or as confidential under a solemn promise not to be repeated. The conflict of judgment and the crisis of conscience which this created within me compounded my own inner turmoil, the net result of which I made mistakes. Let me repeat, without equivocation. I made mistakes."

"I now know that the enormity of the appalling crime of child abuse overrode all confidentiality whether it be of priest, parent or doctor, all confidentiality except the seal of confession."

However he stressed one thing: "I have never, ever put at risk a child's safety to protect any priest in my life.

He went on: "I have always acted in the utmost good faith and have never, ever, obstructed an investigation into the acts or omissions of any priest directly or indirectly under my authority or control. I have never in my life refused to be interviewed by a member of the Garda Siochana."

He could not do such a thing, he stressed, as the son of a man who had been a founding member of the force.

Then, departing from his script again, and with his voice rising angrily, he turned to the coverage of the allegations against him in some sections of the media.

The "total lies" that had been told about him would be "exposed". He wanted to hear those who had made "these wild and cruel statements" to repeat them under oath. His detractors could not "hide behind journalistic confidentiality"; the "callousness" of their allegations overrode all journalistic confidentiality.

But anger turned to sadness, as he described the isolation and loneliness which had driven him to drink. His kind of alcoholism was called "isolating alcoholism" - "when I was lonely and down I would drink in my room". His addiction arose "from an absence of friends."

The "pedestals" priests are on are "the loneliest places in Ireland and a fantastic breeding ground for present and future alcoholics. I was born in a little house in the middle of nowhere and I never asked for a pedestal.

"I was put up there. By the grace of God, I'm down on the ground again and it feels great, powerful, wonderful, magnificent. And no one, not all the king's horses and all the king's men, are not going to put this Humpty Dumpty back out there again.

From now on, he said, quoting St Paul, he would "shout and boast of my weaknesses. It is in that spirit that I take up my ministry among you once again".

He said he "identified with the man at the back of the church crying out for compassion and mercy" rather than "the priest at the front boasting of all he has done for the Lord. Perfect people don't need me, and I don't need them".

He said he had "found more love among a bunch of drunks in a smoky basement" in his US clinic than in "many of our churches with all their liturgy and finery".

He had "broken down at times when he thought "how hard my father and mother worked for their good name".

For the only time in the strongly delivered homily, emotion overcame him, and for a few seconds he could not go on. "That good name could be dragged through the muck and mire of Ireland for motives which will be one day exposed."

However he believed he was coming back to "the happiest, freest period of my ministry". The adrenalin seemed to take over and the bishop became almost messianic. "I want above all to light new fires of love and hope and enthusiasm in strange new places in Ireland; I want to become God's story teller, weaving tales of a God made quite mad with love and passion for his people."

For a moment he was dangerously close to comparing himself to Christ. "During the past five months I had the grace and opportunity to see people from the perspective of Christ on Calvary."

The Wexford People poll was still in his mind. "Even 9 per cent constituted more than Jesus was left with before Calvary," he said.

An hour into the Mass, there was some shuffling in the church now and a few children's impatient small voices.

Communion was still to come and the Saturday night pubs and television screens were beckoning. Bishop Comiskey apologised for the length of his homily and brought it to a close.

It was a bravura performance, even by the high standards of the Hierarchy's finest communicator. Signalling to the television cameras to stop filming, the cathedral's administrator, Father John Sweet man, began the communion ceremony.



Shorter Sermon Falls Short of Captivating Wexford Faithful

The Irish Times - Monday, February 19, 1996 by Catherine Cleary

AS HE stepped down from the altar in Rowe Street Church in Wexford yesterday afternoon, the Bishop of Ferns was on his own. The wave of welcome that had swept Dr Brendan Comiskey to the porch in Enniscorthy cathedral the previous night had turned into a few outstretched hands.

Most people stood stiffly at their seats to watch their bishop's second public appearance.

At the last row in the Wexford town church, they gathered around.

The greetings were more muted. So was the applause that followed his second reading of the five page homily he had delivered the night before. It was a shortened version, he said, but the original was available on the way out.

The voice had cracked in the same place as it had on Saturday night when he mentioned his family. "We had very little in Tasson, where we were brought up but we had our good name... where do I go to get that back?" The question hung in the silence.

At the end, the congregation filed past him in the porch but some used the side doors. One woman stopped to say: "I don't want him back. I don't think he's a very good role model." Another felt the opposite. "He's a great man," she told her friend. "And isn't he looking well?"

Dr Comiskey arrived minutes before the Mass was due to start, pausing for the cameras on the steps. One man walked away from the buzz of the vestry in silence.

"I normally read at 12.30 p.m. Mass," he said. "Today I'm not. I feel let down by the man's actions. He ran away when things got hot leaving a lot of bewildered old people behind. We've good clergy here and we got on well enough for five months without him."

During the Mass, Dr Comiskey laced the 300 or so pairs of eyes fixed on him and said: "I have my weaknesses, but running away has never been one of them."

But the cooler reception he received yesterday did not go unremarked. "You must be one of the 9 per cent," he said to a well wisher, referring to last week's poll in the Wexford People. Out of 309 people polled, 9 per cent said they had a great deal of confidence in him.

Compared to the master performance of the previous night, yesterday was a comedown.

The congregation of St Aidan's in Enniscorthy feted him on Saturday night as the hero who had conquered the twin evils of alcoholism and journalism. "Did you miss me?" he asked them. "I did," said the young woman in the last row.

"You should'a said I didn't know you were away," said the bishop. Laughter all round.

And later, "I'm feeling great. In fact I've no excuse now for doing no work ... I hope you didn't get those gaunt pictures of me."

The peoples' bishop had returned and the people were there in his cathedral to shake his hand, kiss his cheek and be enfolded in his green robes.

"This'll create another scandal," he joked, as he hugged a white haired woman. He greeted his brother, Paddy, and wisecracked about his days in Trinity College Dublin, doing his master's degree in management. "They were the best of times and the worst of times."

The Church of Ireland bishop, Dr Noel Willoughby, was "delighted to be here and to be able to welcome him home, and by being here identify with him and wish him well". Dr Comiskey, he said, was "a great friend".

As Dr Comiskey sat in his cathedral among his people on Saturday night, he faced his own name in gold letters at the base of the alter arch.

Every bishop back to St Aidanus in the seventh century is listed. There is little room for his successor's name.

In the vestry a single cigarette butt, still damp, lay on the sink of the vestment room. Outside a slightly crumpled piece of card with an anonymous note. "Well done! Excellent!!" it said. "As you finish and give your blessing, apologise for delaying people and say you'll be available to meet the congregation (underlined) after Mass."