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Bishop on the Block

Bishop Magee Cartoon

Illustration: Peter Hanan

Irish Times, 10 January 2009 by PATSY McGARRY and PADDY AGNEW

He was private secretary to three popes, and was party to a 'white lie' concerning the death of Pope John Paul I, but now the Bishop of Cloyne faces serious allegations of non-compliance with child protection guidelines

THE MAN in the eye of the latest church child sex abuse storm, Bishop of Cloyne, John Magee, is no stranger to controversy and has a colourful life story, serving as private secretary to three popes.

The 72-year-old from Newry in Co Down was the focus of anger and calls for his resignation this week following disclosures that his diocese has not been compliant with either Catholic Church or State guidelines on child protection. The Minister for Children, Barry Andrews, said there was a "discrepancy" between the truth in relation to child protection practices in Cloyne and the account of them given by Bishop Magee.

The Bishop occupies a unique place in the annals of the Catholic Church. Between 1969 and 1987 he served as private secretary to three Popes - Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II - the only man to do so in Vatican history.

Born on September 24th, 1936, he was one of Charles and Angess Magee's seven children. His father owned a 360-acre dairy farm near Newry and had been president of the Ulster Farmers' Union, chairman of the Northern Ireland Hospitals' Board, and president of Newry Agricultural Society.

After attending St Colman's College in Newry, he entered the St Patrick's Missionary Society at Kiltegan in Co Wicklow in 1954 and during his first year there both his parents died. In 1955 he began attending UCC, from where he graduated with an honours philosophy degree three years later before going to study theology in Rome, where he was ordained on St Patrick's Day 1962.

He worked on the missions in Nigeria for almost six years before being appointed Procurator General of St Patrick's Society in Rome.

Then began his climb through the Vatican structures. In 1969 he was appointed secretary to the Vatican's Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, a position he held until he was appointed personal and private secretary to Pope Paul VI in 1975. He accompanied Pope John Paul II to Ireland on the 1979 papal visit and in 1981 visited Bobby Sands during the hunger strikes, at the Pope's request and in an unsuccessful attempt to bring them to an end.

In 1982 he was appointed the Pope's master of ceremonies, a position he held until his surprise appointment as Bishop of Cloyne. For many years he has been friendly with former Fianna Fáil senator Des Hanafin and his wife Mona, with whom he shares a devotion to St (Padre) Pio.

HIS VATICAN CAREER will most likely be remembered for a prolonged "white lie" which followed the death of Pope John Paul I in 1978. In the consternation prompted by the death of the new Pope, after just 33 days, the Vatican offered bewildering and contradictory accounts on who found the Pope, as well as the time and cause of his death.

It issued the statement: "This morning, September 29th, 1978, about 5.30am, the private secretary of the Pope, contrary to custom, not having found the Holy Father in the chapel of his private apartment, looked in his room and found him dead in bed with the light on . . .''

However, in an interview with The Irish Times in March 1987, when he was ordained in Rome as Bishop of Cloyne and on being asked if there was truth to the theory that a nun was the first person to find Pope John Paul I's body, Bishop Magee said, "No". He continued: "I found him and I will stand before any person and challenge him. These people who have written books have not given any proof. They say their sources are 'reserved', but their sources are not well-founded.''

But, a year later in the September 1988 issue of religious affairs magazine Trenta Giorni (30 Days), he had changed his mind, saying: "In the morning, around 5.30am, a sister woke me in a state of agitation - the pope is dead, she said. She had been worried about the fact that the pope had not yet drunk the coffee that she usually left for him at 4.30am in front of his door. Then she ran below and told me."

Most commentators now accept that the dead pope was found in his bedroom in the early morning by Sister Vincenza, a nun in the papal household. Senior Vatican figures felt it would be inappropriate to issue a press statement saying a nun had been in the pope's bedroom early in the morning. Thus it was that Bishop Magee was called on to tell his "white lie" and claim that he had been the first person to find the dead John Paul I.

Nevertheless he claimed consistency in his accounts of discovering the Pope's body in a 1990 interview with then RTÉ religious affairs correspondent Kieron Wood. He said: "I did find the body of His Holiness. I just didn't find it first."

In the 1989 book A Thief In The Night, written with Vatican approval and intended to discredit murder theories about John Paul I's death, John Cornwell concluded that all was "not well" in the papal household then, citing amongst other things the "rivalry and enmity" between John Magee and the Pope's Italian secretary, Don Diego Lorenzi.

In an interview, Don Lorenzi did little to hide this tension, suggesting that Magee had toed the Vatican line at the time, with his eye on a Bishop's hat:

" . . . We have never been told what to say after the Pope died . . . so I've always been open about it and talked to anybody. Magee has said nothing about Papa Luciani (Pope John Paul I). He has been scared, probably because his bishopric was just around the corner. When he was elected Bishop, he had nothing to fear for his own career. Do you get it? So, now he has no problem in saying the truth . . ."

Or so it was thought. This week, two reports were published revealing how Bishop Magee had been less than co-operative in providing relevant information about hitherto undisclosed allegations against two priests of Cloyne diocese to the Catholic Church's independent watchdog, the National Board for Safeguarding Children (NBSC).

According to one report, Ian Elliott, chief executive of the NBSC, in an e-mail to the HSE on May 9th, 2008, said he visited the diocese of Cloyne on February 20th and was given access to what he believed was a copy of the complete file papers. "This proved not to be the case and I have not been able to complete to my satisfaction an assessment of the issues raised by his [alleged abuse victim's] complaint."

HE HAD TO return to the diocese to get what he had thought he had already been given. In his report on Cloyne, completed in June 2008, Elliott found child protection practices there were "inadequate and in some respects dangerous".

Then, last Wednesday, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Barry Andrews, disclosed that in 2005 and 2007 Bishop Magee deliberately misled the State when he said Cloyne diocese complied with church and State guidelines on child protection.

He did so in a letter to then Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Brian Lenihan on November 23rd, 2005. As Andrews noted of then, "the HSE investigation corroborates the NBSC finding that the diocese did not adhere to either church or State . . . guidelines for notifying the Garda and the HSE of allegations of . . . sexual abuse."

The second instance concerned the HSE audit questionnaire, sent to all bishops in October 2006. Completed by Bishop Magee, it was received from him by the HSE on January 3rd, 2007. He had given another assurance that Cloyne complied with required child protection practices. But, as the Minister put it on Wednesday, "The HSE records provide evidence that at a time that the audit questionnaire was completed, the diocese was in fact handling a complaint in relation to child abuse, which it had failed to notify to the HSE."

Andrews said he believes that there is evidence that suggests Bishop Magee, as the responsible person, "did not faithfully report actual compliance with child protection procedures and the manner in which clerical sexual abuse allegations have been dealt with".

He added that, in a post-Ferns inquiry environment, it is "unacceptable" that full and faithful reporting of child sexual abuse allegations should not take place.

The Minister said he was referring Cloyne to the Dublin Commission, which is investigating complaints of abuse at the Dublin Archdiocese, because of "discrepancy between stated policies and procedures [there] and the validation of these policies and practices". The commission is to report on Cloyne by July 7th next.

Despite all of this, and a tsunami of calls for his resignation, Bishop Magee remains determined that he will not stand down. With three years to go before he is to retire, he seems not for turning.

But history is likely to remember him less for that, or even for his misleading of church and State in Ireland when it came to implementation of child protection practices in Cloyne. In a homily at St John's Cathedral, Limerick on June 18th 1995, he said of clerical child sex abuse: "The infidelities of some of our brothers in this regards have become so highlighted in these times, and the sacred trust that has been placed in them has become so damaged, that our faithful may begin to wonder what is happening to the church and to the priesthood."


Who is he ? Bishop of Cloyne since 1987.
Why is he in the news? Child protection practices in his diocese have been found seriously inadequate by church and State reports.
Most appealing characteristic: Colourful life story as private secretary to three popes.
Least appealing characteristic: Prone to "discrepancy".
Most likely to say: "Resignation? That is out!"
Least likely to say: "Thank you Mr Elliott. Thank you Mr Andrews."