‘I have listened, I have learned’

Following an extended sabbatical, Martin O’Brien meets a bishop unafraid to admit mistakes

In his Newry study Bishop John McAreavey of Dromore holds an A4 page containing nine key points from Pope Francis’ now famous interview with Antonio Spadaro, SJ, of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal.

It is heavily highlighted in different colours and the bishop would cite it again and again in the course of a lengthy interview with The Irish Catholic, the first he has given since his return from a seven month long sabbatical at the beginning of September.

The line that Bishop John would emphasise most would be “The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them.”

Bishop McAreavey announced last November that he had decided to take asabbatical in a statement explaining “In recent times, along with my family, I have experienced great sadness and tragedy. Having consulted with colleagues and friends, I have now decided to undertake this period of personal renewal.”

The break ran from February through to August and he returned home briefly on two occasions but the diocese was administered throughout by Monsignor Aidan Hamill, the Vicar General.

He spent 10 weeks in the Holy Land, mainly in a Benedictine monastery at Abu Ghosh, an Arab town near Jerusalem but also in Tabgha by the Sea of Galilee and in Jerusalem itself completing a course of Bible study.

It included two days of prayer in the Negev Desert where he recalls in biblical times people depended on the grace of God.  “In a sense the whole sabbatical was a time in the desert, away from the usual supports, routines and friendships.”  

The bishop then travelled to several places in China where he was a guest of the Columban Fathers and completed his break working in a parish in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for about a month this summer.


There was considerable sympathy for the bishop and some considered privately that given the pressure he was under, his absence might even be a prelude to early retirement, something he did not consider, he says. 

 He is the uncle of John McAreavey, the husband of Michaela (nee Harte) who was murdered on honeymoon in Mauritius just 11 days after the bishop had officiated at their marriage almost three years ago.

 Notwithstanding the genuine sympathy some eyebrows were raised by the length of the break. Whatever may happen in places like America such episcopal sabbaticals are rare if not unprecedented in this part of the world.


Bishop McAreavey, a former professor of canon law says that whatever the canonical provisions it was important that given the length of his proposed absence he was “seen to be subject to authority”.

So he discussed it with the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown “who brought it to Rome”  and received  “tremendous support” from the Pope’s right-hand man on bishops,  Cardinal Ouellet, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops.

Dr McAreavey had suggested he delay his departure until the end of the Confirmation season but word came back from Cardinal Ouellet, who was aware of the Michaela tragedy “what’s he waiting for? Go!”  He also discussed it with his Metropolitan, Cardinal Seán Brady. 

Elaborating publicly for the first on the reasons for the sabbatical Bishop John says he experienced “a demanding year and a degree of personal strain” relating to the death of Michaela in January 2011 and to the lengthy illness and subsequent death of his mother in August 2012.

He doesn’t know if he would have required a sabbatical had Michaela not been murdered as that is a “hypothetical question”.

He found that his “energy was not what it should be” and is pleased and grateful that all his energy has returned and he is “refreshed physically, emotionally and spiritually”.

Warm support

The bishop is “struck by the warm support” he received from “the people and priests” of the diocese for his decision to take the break and for the warmth of his welcome back to Dromore.

Asked about anyone who might think he had “swanned off on a long holiday” he hadn’t heard anything like that but is not naïve and realised some may say that while not sharing it with him directly.  

He points out there is a case for anyone with “high levels of responsibility” to take an extended break after 10 years, maybe not as long as his.

Some dioceses, he says, have provision for giving priests lengthy sabbaticals after 10 years and he has always considered such requests sympathetically “in fact priests have had a year off” in Dromore.

He is  grateful that he was able to get off for such a lengthy period pointing out few are so fortunate although some bishops overseas get such breaks – as do  the heads of religious orders when they move to a new post.  

Dr McAreavey (64) points out he has been bishop for 14 years which is more than half way than through his span “if the Lord spares me” until he retires at 75 in 2024.


Following an interview request from this newspaper Bishop McAreavey gave generously of his time. Such access and accountability is welcome and an example to others. 

Everything was on the record and quite understandably the only area Dr McAreavey expressed a reluctance to go into very much was the tragedy around Michaela.

“Part of my reluctance is because I don’t want to give the impression that I am a central person in that whole event. The impact of Michaela’s death was felt primarily by [my nephew] John, by Michaela’s parents, brothers and their family circle and by John’s family and friends. They carry the impact of this more than I do. I don’t like to overstate the impact on myself.”

Asked for his thoughts on Michaela’s murder he pauses for a long time choosing his words carefully between further pauses: “The thing that has struck me most is that what has happened has happened. The impact of it continues to hurt. The pain, the loss of Michaela, the particular circumstances of it, it doesn’t go away.” 

One can see why he is not comfortable talking about it and he adds: “Sometimes people speak to you and you don’t want to talk about it. It’s hard to get [such] things right.”

Bishop McAreavey is much more at ease reflecting on the lessons of the child abuse scandals in the Irish Church and a big part of the reason for that is his own long journey to a place where he can empathise with victims and survivors in so far as that is possible.

He accepts that he has been “on a long learning curve”.

Asked directly was there a time when his primary response was to protect the Church rather than the plight of the victim or survivor he replies: “There is no question of that. Yes. A number of times in the past year friends of mine have quoted back things to me I have said 10 or 15 years ago that they remember that I have forgotten. It is no pride to me that I have made a long and difficult journey.  I just didn’t see this whole thing from the perspective of the victims.”

He thinks “instinctively” from the point of view of the victim and survivor. “That has happened because I have listened to people in this chair talk about their own experience and whatever it was they wanted to say. I have listened and I have heard.”

Abuse crisis

He sees a danger in a priest or bishop saying the whole child abuse crisis has been traumatic and painful for the Church because “that is not the central point”.

“The central reason why the child abuse situation is so painful is because it caused so much hurt to those who were abused. There are the men and women who carry the effects of abuse in their minds, in their emotions, in the psyche, in their memory and in their souls in the sense that some of them find it hard to pray or to walk into the Catholic Church for a funeral, or bring their babies for baptism.

“And when you start from that position from where people suffered, the effect on the Church is a secondary thing. It’s an important thing but it’s a secondary thing.

“If there is any grace in the child abuse crisis it is that people in leadership [in the Church] have had to make that painful journey from an attitude they did not realise at the time was limited, to recognising that we walk with the victims, what Francis calls ‘walk through the dark night’”.

Asked if he is disappointed that Pope Francis has said very little about the clerical sex abuse scandals and appears to have got away with it, he appears surprised and says that the Pope’s  reference to “the dark night” clearly includes the trauma of child abuse and “the bottomless pit of suffering” endured by people in so many situations.

Murphy Report

Questioned if fellow bishops ever took him to task for his statement on BBC Sunday Sequence that Bishop Donal Murray had questions to answer over the Murphy Report into the Dublin archdiocese four years ago he just replies: “I just look back on that as a desperately painful time.” His comments made front page and Bishop Murray resigned less than three weeks later.  

Bishop McAreavey was in the Ecce Homo Institute in Rome doing his Bible study course when he watched on television Pope Francis emerge onto the balcony of St Peter’s on the evening of March 13.

He was not to know that an unprecedented interview the new Pope would give in September to a Jesuit journal frankly admitting his past failings as a Jesuit Provincial in Argentina would prompt him to bear his own soul to some extent to The Irish Catholic today. 

Pope Francis

He had met Pope Francis briefly in Rome a few days before during a three day visit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the International Commission for English in the Liturgy.

There were about 30 present and he found the Pope “had a low key presence, a man with a welcoming smile who listens carefully and actually looks dour when he is not smiling.”

He commends the Pope’s emphasis on simplicity and austerity and does not think any Irish bishop lives to excess or remotely like a prince unlike the German bishop suspended by Francis last week.

In a statement on his return to Dromore, a diocese of 22 parishes and 32 priests, Bishop John said that he would be meeting all his priests individually without delay.

Asked about how that was going he said he had met almost all of them.

The Pope had stressed in his interview that the people want pastors and in his view as a bishop “what the priests want from their bishop is a pastor”.

Citing the Pope’s call for a Church of “nearness and proximity” Dr McAreavey said his priests  “want a bishop who is near them” and he was determined to do more than just say “my door is always open which it is in times of crisis”.

“You still have to find ways of engaging with priests as regularly and as often as possible on their terms and in their patch.”

Asked if during his 14 years as bishop he had ever failed his priests he replied: “Absolutely. Oh yes. It’s a very painful thing which happened in terms of communication.

“In terms of communication the worst way to communicate is to write. At times I have written to priests either with a decision or a reaction to something and at times I have known later it was the worst thing to have done.”

He admits there were times when he wrote letters – which he believed to be well-based and accurate – which would have been better unwritten.

“I should have first sat down with the priests and said this is how I feel about this and given them a chance to have their say.

“There have been times when I have hurt priests. I realised afterwards it would have been far better and more prudent to have talked and listened more.”

He also admits to have “made assumptions” and “acting on information that was not necessarily wrong” [but incomplete].

“Obviously where this has happened I have apologised and I have gone to priests personally and said look, I have got that wrong and I am really sorry to have upset you.”


He added: “The issue is about learning how to exercise authority in a way that is sensitive and respectful and I think you learn obviously from your mistakes.

“The unfortunate thing is that sometimes you learn from mistakes when you have hurt someone else but I think also in those instances I have made friends.”

Asked how often he had to apologise after writing a letter he said “Not often, I think.

“Often enough to trouble you?” I persist.

 “Oh yes. And often enough for me to have learned that you can make the same mistake again. One of the things that you have to learn when you are in a position of authority is the impact of what you do, what you say, what you write.

“It’s a very different thing from being an academic professor at a university. When you are in a position of responsibility you are less free and the impact of what you say or do or don’t do on occasions is really something I have struggled to grasp.

“And I think I have grasped it better when I read about the Pope talking about mistakes he had made in terms of the exercise of authority and that’s precisely what he is saying.

The Pope was not talking about things he did as an individual but about how he “acted badly in the use of authority” and he had taken “some comfort” from that.

Asked if he would be speaking so publicly to The Irish Catholic about this had the Pope not been so upfront about his past mistakes Bishop McAreavey said: “I don’t know. I have made no secret of this with the priests of the diocese and they would know.”

Questioned if he had confessed this in the Sacrament of Reconciliation he said that  he had. “The basic things that most of us confess are failures in charity and where you fail someone and cause hurt.”

He stressed he had “never intentionally written to anyone to hurt them” but his “style in doing something or by reacting more quickly” than he would have subsequently wished had meant “failures in charity”.

Pressed how often if this had happened, half a dozen times or a dozen times, he replied: “I don’t know. The times I am aware of are not that many. You can be sure if there are instances where you are aware of it there are other instances that you haven’t become aware of.

“The number of instances where I have actually had to sit down and be reconciled with someone thankfully is small enough but it’s a very painful lesson. But it is also encouraging too that I have learned to be humble enough to say to people I know I got that wrong and I shouldn’t have done that.”


“When you are in authority things that you do or say have an impact so the fact that you can admit that you are wrong is also important.”

He finds owning up to his failings “painful”.

“Maybe that’s just me as a person…. I am not thick-skinned, if I know I have done something wrong it lies on my stomach practically until I have dealt with it. And then I go and deal with it.”

Asked what sort of issues had given rise to this behaviour he would not be drawn: “Just say dealing with parish issues. Stating a view or whatever.”

Had he ever thought of tendering his resignation?

“I don’t think so. When you go into the desert, I call it, you have to allow yourself to be led by the Spirit. I suppose I have still that sense of vocation, that God has given me a particular role to be a pastor to the priests and people of this diocese.”

Bishop John McAreavey’s humility and honesty is evident throughout what cannot have been the easiest of mornings.

“I hope notwithstanding so many mistakes and limitations that I know I have, I hope that I can still bring something to that role. I think I am learning all the time how to do that.”