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Embattled Bishop Still Has Support in Cloyne

Sunday Business Post, January 11, 2009 - by Kieran Wood

John Magee was marked out as a high flier from the time the 18-year-old Newry teenager joined the Kiltegan Fathers in 1954.

Ordained in Rome on St Patrick’s Day 1962,Magee spent six years in Nigeria before returning to Rome as Procurator General of the Kiltegan Fathers and, from 1969 to 1975, as an official of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith.

Recognising Magee’s talents, Pope Paul VI asked him to become his private secretary. When Pope Paul died, Magee remained as private secretary to Pope John Paul I, and then to Pope John Paul II.

He also acted as chaplain to the Vatican’s Swiss Guard. His decades spent at the centre of Catholic Church power in Rome have left an unmistakable Italian mark on his original Northern accent.

Magee sprang to public prominence when Pope John Paul I died after just a month in office. He was said to have found the pope dead in bed on the morning of September 28 1978, although subsequent reports suggested that the body had been found by a nun. In a radio interview in 1990,Magee told RTE that he had found the Pope’s body - he just hadn’t found it first.

Last September, in an interview with the Italian weekly Diva e Donna, Magee claimed that John Paul I had died of exhaustion brought on by the stress of his election. Magee said he had been suspected of poisoning the pope, and was interviewed by Interpol. ‘‘I had a terrible time, and it was Wojtyla [John Paul II] who saved me: he had confidence in me and named me a bishop,” he said.

In 1987, Magee was appointed Bishop of Cloyne. After being consecrated by Pope John Paul II on St Patrick’s Day 1987 at St Peter’s in Rome, he returned to Ireland to assume the pastoral care of 120,000 people in a diocese of 46 parishes centred on the east Cork harbour town of Cobh.

Vatican-watchers speculated that Magee was being earmarked for a return to his native province, as a future Archbishop of Armagh, but soon after his return, things began to go wrong.

Unfounded rumours about Magee’s behaviour began to circulate. It seemed that his accusers had mixed him up with Monsignor Micheál Ledwith, the head of the national seminary who has since been laicised.

More baseless rumours were spread by TV and newspapers after a lay diocesan official took an action for unfair dismissal. Magee threatened legal action against TV3, saying he had been ‘‘deeply hurt’’ by the ‘‘false and malicious’’ claims. The television station later apologised.

Initially, Magee’s popular pastoral strategy was highly successful, resulting in substantial numbers of priestly vocations. But the number of seminarians in Cloyne has since dropped steadily, from 46 to just three - two studying in Maynooth and one in London.

Magee did himself no favours among his supporters in Cobh with his plans to ‘‘re-order’’ the interior of his Pugin designed cathedral, described as ‘‘one of the finest gems of neo-gothic architecture in Ireland’’.

In 2006, An Bord Pleanála directed Cobh Town Council to refuse the bishop’s application and Magee said he would not challenge the decision in the courts, reportedly because of his desire to avoid a Church-state clash.

The 2006 edition of Who’s Who in Ireland said many ecclestiastical observers had expected Magee to ‘‘return to Vatican City by now’’, noting that the ‘‘red hat [of a cardinal] still eludes him’’. Last April, the French leftwing clerical review, Golias, reported that Magee was in the running to take the reins as head of the Congregation for Divine Worship, a post which would probably have earned him the red hat.

It reported that Magee lacked personal ambition and was not seeking a Vatican career.

However, even though Magee served as a member of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops from 1992 to 1997, the suggestion that he might end his career in the Vatican is not taken seriously by insiders. The issue of child abuse has been a regular concern for Magee.

In a pastoral letter in April 2002, he said clerical abuse of children had caused ‘‘great pain and shame to the whole Church in Ireland. A sacred trust has been betrayed and innocent young people have been hurt and violated in a most heinous way by priests who were ordained to [be] ministers of Jesus Christ’’.

He said the process of healing could only be effective ‘‘when the full truth is told’’. He ‘‘fully endorsed’’ the decision of the Irish bishops to order an independent audit of all diocesan files ‘‘to establish the full truth about how complaints of child sexual abuse have been dealt with’’.

In January 2005, he told the new diocesan Council of Priests that he had appointed a full-time coordinator within the diocesan child protection committee, to train everyone involved in ministry with children. More than 150 priests, religious and laity had already been trained, and he looked forward to ‘‘a much healthier and more secure environment in Church-related activities’’.

His letter on child protection, read at Masses in October 2005 after publication of the Ferns Report, said: ‘‘Words of apology appear very weak and inadequate, and yet cannot be left unspoken. Our first concern must be to reach out to victims and to ensure that what has happened will never happen again.”

Despite calls for his resignation, diocesan sources say Magee has the support of most of the clergy and lay people in the diocese. ‘‘The vast majority are standing behind the bishop and have rallied round him,” said one priest.

Magee presented his five yearly diocesan report to Pope Benedict XVI during what was probably his last adlimina visit to the Vatican in October 2006.

The next visit by the Irish bishops is due almost a year after Magee’s 75th birthday, when canon law requires him to offer his resignation. In the meantime, Magee has been the focus of subtle sniping by some of his episcopal colleagues.

But archbishops - or even cardinals - do not have the authority to force a bishop to resign from his own diocese.

Last week, a 71-year-old priest, Fr Michael Mernagh, arrived in Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral after walking for eight days from Cobh Cathedral to atone for the sin of clerical sex abuse. After being greeted by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Mernagh repeated his call to Magee to resign.

‘‘He’s a man of principle,” said Martin. ‘‘I respect anybody like that.” The Archbishop was not referring to Magee.