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Bishop Comiskey's Sermon in St. Aidan's Cathedral, Enniscorthy on 18 February 1996

Bishop says doctor insisted he leave for US immediately

The Irish Times - Monday, February 19, 1996

MY DEAR sisters and brothers in Jesus Christ, I have chosen a faith community, in the first instance, and St Aidan's Cathedral, the mother church of the diocese of Ferns and my own parish church, as the most appropriate place from which to speak this evening to you, the priests, religious and people of Ferns.

First of all, let me tell you how truly happy and joyful I am to be back among you and to be able to thank in person all who prayed for me, all who wrote to me and all who were supportive of me in any way.

In my darker moments - and they were many - I called to mind that bright day in the summer of 1984 when I first came among you and you took me to your heart. Christmas night, in particular, was a desolate one as I thought of this cathedral filled with light and love, the music and magic of Christmas, happy parents and hope filled children. I experienced fully, for the second time in my life, the anguish of exile.

At times like that, I survived by calling to mind the faces of those of you who loved and supported me. In particular, I turned over and over again to the letters, drawings and cards of the children of the diocese.

Tonight I say to all of those: your innocent, unpretentious but nevertheless genuine love and affection lit up the bleak and lonely landscape of my life.

But, in the midst of much suffering, there was always so much grace, so much to be grateful for. The courageous and public support of Bishop Noel Willoughby and Bishop John Neil, together with members, clerical and lay, of the Church of Ireland, I pondered in my heart on many a cold night like a miser counting his coins. I prophesy that their response to my crisis will turn out to be a landmark in ecumenism in Ireland.

A special word of thanks to all in my own church: Monsignor Breen who bravely steered our ship through some of its stormiest seas, to Father Tommy Brennan and others like him who remained loyal and loving and united with me throughout the darkest hours of my life.

I have been in Rome and have met with Cardinal Gantin, who is Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops and who is, after John Paul II, my father in God. The Cardinal has assured me that I return to my diocese with the blessings of the Holy Father. That to me means so very, very much.

To all I owe a heartfelt apology for the suddenness and lack of communication on the occasion of my departure. Apart altogether from the insistence of the doctor that I go, and go immediately, quite frankly I was not able to come straight out and state 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 also regret the confusion caused by my announcing two return dates and missing both these deadlines. This was caused by a combination of my great desire to return home as soon as possible - which any of you who have been in hospital will understand - and an equally strong insistence on the part of those who cared for me so well in treatment that I return only when I was ready.

And speaking of all who helped me in America, where I was ministered to by professionals, all of whom themselves are recovering alcoholics, I was not charged a single penny for my stay at their treatment centre.

I say this because of the wild and irresponsible statement that my stay was costing the diocese £8,000 per week or month, another example of sheer irresponsibility and shocking cruelty.

Also the suggestion that I wasn't satisfied with any treatment centre here in Ireland displays a lack of understanding and a total ignorance of the centrality of confidentiality in the treatment of alcoholism.

FAR FROM wanting to live it up in Florida or anywhere else - and I never had any contact with any treatment centre in Florida - I was also conscious of the need for privacy of other fellow people who might have been fellow patients with me in Ireland. When you are dealing with alcoholism the last thing any patient needs is a journalist downstairs.

I am keenly aware of the considerable pain caused to so many by what seems to have been an almost incessant interest by a few in the media in my life and in the affairs of the diocese.

Many questions were raised which could only be answered by me. That, for better or for worse, is because of the way in which our Church is structured. These questions must and will be answered by me as fully, as openly and as honestly as possible.

But you will understand that months of commentary can hardly be reviewed and responded to in a short period of time.

There is one untruth, and an extremely damaging one at that, which I refute by my presence here this evening, namely, the untrue and totally baseless story, repeated again and again, that I would never return to Ferns again.

This is not the time to answer in detail the many untruths and innuendos - if the latter can ever be answered! - cast about in my absence but I cannot wait another day before addressing one issue.

It is a lie to state - as has been done repeatedly - that I "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 minuscule compared with the awful hurt, pain, outrage and anger experienced by parents who have brought a child into being, who have been present at life's greatest miracle.

The wild, sensational and totally unfounded allegations that I would sacrifice the innocence of a child to protect some drinking buddy - or any other buddy - is particularly vicious, untrue, and cruel.

It would be so easy for me to blame my alcoholism and say it was the demon drink that caused me to make mistakes. The fact is however, that in dealing with child abuse cases, I was never more sober.

Child abuse is a very sobering reality. So I refuse to take the easy option of blaming anyone or anything, least of all alcoholism.

I would like to be able to tell you that at all times I acted swiftly, prudently and without hesitation when these matters were brought to my attention.

Regrettably I cannot, 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 stand accused because I now know how these cases - some of which go back to the 1970s - should be handled in 1996. I should have known that 15 years ago. If that be so, I am guilty. Hindsight is as wise as it is useless. One thing I can say, however, is this. I have never ever put a child's safety at risk to protect any priest.

I can tell you, most solemnly, that 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. Further, I co operated fully and diligently with any investigation in so far as I was able to so do.

Despite what has been said or written elsewhere, I have always and will continue to co operate with the authorities to ensure that those guilty are brought to trial and most important, those hurt are comforted and healed.

I will continue to pursue these objectives, and will play a pivotal and forefront role as bishop of this diocese in giving any evidence that I am able to, and provide and furnish any papers or information to the Garda or the DPP in the prosecution of these unspeakable crimes.

Finally, a look towards the future. The story is told of old pals of St Augustine, back in his hometown after a long absence during which he had undergone his own form of renewal, shouting after him to join them again in the ways of old. Augustine finally turned on them and shouted, "leave me alone! I'm not the man you think I am!" He then went on to build a new circle of friends around him, a support structure, if you will, to help him live a healthier, better life.

I return to Ferns not as some kind of Father Mathew, raging against alcohol. I have no intention of forgetting many a happy night (and morning!) with family and friends when I could use - rather than have to use - drink, one of God's creations after all, wisely and well.

I come back as a kind of Augustine, with a heartfelt awareness that my particular illness stems more from my desperate need for genuine love and affection and the support of a community or communities.

One or two have suggested unkindly that I was under the influence of alcohol when I said what I said last summer about priestly celibacy.

I wasn't! I was under the influence of the reality of what it is for me - and I suspect many priests to live genuinely and authentically what is for many of us a lonely life.

Pedestals are the loneliest places in Ireland, great breeding grounds for present and future alcoholics. It's far from pedestals I was born 60 years ago.

I never asked for one. 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 up there again.

St Paul, experiencing his brokenness, cried out to Christ to be delivered from his "thorn in the flesh", some kind of brokenness, but Christ told him that he had enough grace to be going on with, and that, besides, God's power is made all the more evident when it comes through broken vessels. Perfect containers run the risk of calling attention to themselves rather than what they contain.

Perfect people - not that such a human being exists - run the risk of thinking that they are God's gift to the community rather than channels of that gift.

God's power becomes apparent, Paul was told on the occasion I mentioned, when it is mediated by broken people, and the great Apostle went on to proclaim, "Gladly now will I boast, but this time I shall boast of weaknesses!"

It is in that sense that I take up my ministry among you once again, a great disappointment to those looking for the perfect and even more so for those who think that they themselves have already arrived at some state of perfection. They don't need me, and I, certainly don't need them!

So it is a "wounded healer" that I return, as much in need of your ministry of support as you are in need of mine.

Cardinal Hume liked to see all the world's a huge hospital; it's just a matter of those who are less sick today looking after those who are more sick.

Tomorrow the roles may and twill be reversed. A conversion which allowed me to see myself as sick must find a way for me to touch - and be touched by other people who have come to terms with their own brokenness.

During the past five months I had the grace and opportunity to see people from the perspective of Christ on Calvary. I have asked the Christ crucified to make me more compassionate like him; I have been touched by his power, cried about his love. I have asked Him to get inside my head, but more importantly my heart, and come to know and speak and love all God's creatures.

I HOPE I shall always be able to see all God's people as Christ saw them on that awful Friday, and be for them, however brokenly and imperfectly, the compassion of Christ. I hope I shall always speak the truth with the realisation that if it is not spoken in love it is not Christ's truth.

I hope that I shall always speak the Gospel truth about abortion, for example, or divorce, or homosexuality, but that whatever I have to say is spoken with compassion, as one sinner to another, and not as something from one up here to someone down there". I am not a fool.

Christ had many a "hard saying" after which the majority. of people no longer walked with Him. I know that the disciple is not greater than the Master, but if people no longer walk with us, I am going to do my best to see to it chat it is the sublimity of the message rather that the boorishness and self righteousness of this messenger that drives people to make that sad decision.

I want to be a loyal son of the church, I want to be a true teacher of the truth, but I want above all to light new fires of love and hope and enthusiasm in strange new places in Ireland; I want to make people passionate by becoming God's story teller, weaving tales of a God made quite mad with love and passion for all his people.

I want to find a new way of speaking, living, being. There must be a better way of communicating God's truth to all, not as "blunted reeds rammed into our ears - not shaken by the wind but rattled in an angry hand that knows no gentle touch", of communicating to those who are leaving our Church because they find us harsh and abrasive.

After all, when Christ could make Mary Magdalene the first apostle of the Resurrection, and could choose a woman married to four or five men, with whom to discuss the central mystery of the Eucharist, without being blamed for being soft on sexual morality or undermining married life, there must be a better way, more compassionate way of preaching the truth.

Or was his being hanged from a tree on the town dump, dying in total disgrace in the eyes of the world, the price he - and consequently those who would follow him - pay for being compassionate, and ultimately for the Resurrection.

lam sobered by Christ's warning that the disciple will never be greater than the Master.