Struggling to lead in the face of a storm

Struggling to lead in the face of a storm The late Cardinal Desmond Connell
Greg Daly considers some aspects of Cardinal Connell’s handling of the abuse crisis

“He was criticised at times for being less than diplomatic,” said Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin in his homily during the funeral Mass for his predecessor Cardinal Desmond Connell, “just as I am criticised for being over diplomatic.”

It will have been an odd statement to those who recall the coverage of 2009’s report into how abuse allegations were handled in the Archdiocese of Dublin between 1975 and 2004. If there is one thing people remember about Cardinal Connell’s role in the Murphy Report, it’s that it inextricably linked him with the concept of ‘mental reservation’.

The report describes Marie Collins – one of the indisputable heroes of the abuse scandal through her courage and perseverance, even now – as having been angry with Church authorities having used mental reservation in dealing with her, and then relates how Cardinal Connell described the concept.

“Well, the general teaching about mental reservation is that you are not permitted to tell a lie,” he began. “On the other hand, you may be put in a position where you have to answer, and there may be circumstances in which you can use an ambiguous expression realising that the person who you are talking to will accept an untrue version of whatever it may be – permitting that to happen, not willing that it happened, that would be lying.

“It really is a matter of trying to deal with extraordinarily difficult matters that may arise in social relations where people may ask questions that you simply cannot answer,” he continued, “Everybody knows that this kind of thing is liable to happen. So, mental reservation is, in a sense, a way of answering without lying.”

The report went on to describe two instances where Mrs Collins and her fellow survivor Andrew Madden believed mental reservation had been in play; it is not clear, however, whether the cases cited were instances of mental reservation, or simply of straightforward legalese, where the cardinal said things or the archdiocese made statements that were true but that didn’t give the full truth.


It would, of course, be ludicrous to describe this as good or admirable, but that is not the same as to say they were instances of mental reservation in a technical sense. It’s striking, in this respect, that the commission does not record whether or not it asked Cardinal Connell whether he had engaged in mental reservation in his dealings with abuse survivors and gives him no opportunity of defending himself against this allegation.

“The exactness of his words did not gift him to deal with modern communications: mixed with the complexities of scrupulosity, he was not equipped for the world of soundbites, door-stepping, and media deadlines,” observed Bishop Eamonn Walsh in the pro-cathedral at the reception of the cardinal’s remains, continuing, “He preferred the pause button to the fast-forward. Being thrust from the world of academia into being the front person for the largest diocese in the country had him stepping on the occasional landmine.”

Obvious examples of such landmines abound, not least the crude description of President Mary McAleese taking communion in a Church of Ireland cathedral as a “sham” or his reference to the Church of Ireland’s then Archbishop of Dublin as not being a theological “high flier”, and of course in the context of the Murphy Report there was the extraordinary episode when, meeting Mrs Collins in December 1996, he told her that the Irish Church’s guidelines for tackling abuse allegations were simply that – guidelines – and that they were neither canonically nor civilly binding. Absolutely true, of course, but not the full truth: he had, after all, committed to implementing the document, something he could and surely should have said.

An awkward testimony to his scrupulosity hit the headlines in 2008, of course, when the retired archbishop had a well-publicised clash with his episcopal colleagues over the opening up of diocesan files containing statements received in confidence. In some respects, the cardinal’s actions seem a dreadful error of judgement, but to him it must have seemed unavoidable given commitments and understandings when evidence was given.

In summing up in his homily his predecessor’s handling of the abuse crisis in Dublin, Archbishop Martin paid due respect to both sides of the issue. Describing the cardinal as having become archbishop at a difficult time, he said, “Many comments in these days noted that he was slow to recognise the extent of the problem of child sexual abuse by priests,” rightly continuing, “It is not enough to make that comment now from a distance.

“It must be said that he found himself surrounded by a culture and at times by advisors who were slow and perhaps even unwilling to recognise both the extent of the problem and the enormous hurt that had been done to children, a hurt they still carry with them. That hurt has still to be fully recognised; that wound cannot be consigned to past history. For victims it still remains,” he said.

On the other hand, he observed: “It is also true that it was Cardinal Connell who was the one who finally began to realise the extent of the abuse and the extent of the damage done to children and with difficulty began to drag out information which some were still reluctant to share.

“He must be remembered as the one who established the child protection service in this diocese, which was the beginning of a new culture which has now, thank God, been widely accepted and welcomed,” he added, stressing that there can never be room for complacency on this issue.

Abuse crisis

That the late cardinal should have been slow to realise the scale and nature of the abuse crisis, and the sheer damage it did to individuals can even now seem surprising in light of how his sense of justice and indeed scrupulosity have been testified to by people who knew him over the years, not least through his decades in University College Dublin.

One UCD colleague, Prof. Fran O’Rourke, tells how on the Friday afternoon of an early 1980s June bank holiday weekend, the future archbishop – then a professor of philosophy – spotted a mistake in how a first year student’s exam mark had been calculated.

“He was quite upset by this discovery, remarking that the error could have serious consequences for the student’s future,” observed Prof. O’Rourke, noting his colleague’s concern that similar errors might have been made with other students. “So while his colleagues enjoyed the extended weekend, a particularly sunny one, Prof. Connell went through all of the figures: 500 students, three papers, four questions: 6,000 marks which he checked,” he said.

It may seem a small detail, but such details can be telling, making the archbishop’s apparent slowness to appreciate the reality of the abuse crisis all the more startling. Part of the problem, surely, must have been that he was the product of a clericalised culture in which he automatically thought his brother priests essentially trustworthy. By a 2002 press conference it was clear that he had learned his lesson, saying of abusers, “they lie through their teeth. They are the most extraordinarily devious people.”

In that same conference, he said he had “suffered greatly” through the crisis, which had, he said, “devastated [his] period of office”, and that he had “gone through agonies” over it.

Among his troubles were – by the late 1990s – struggles with the Vatican to bring home the nature of the crisis. In the 1990s, it’s now generally recognised, the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy was marked by a profoundly clericalist culture that made it almost blind to the seriousness of the abuse crisis. Indeed, just a couple of years after pleading with the Pope to dismiss serial abuser Tony Walsh from the clerical state, the then Archbishop Connell had at least one famous clash with the head of the congregation in 1998: at a meeting in Rosses Point the normally reserved prelate banged his fist with fury on the table in an attempt to get Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos to understand the realities of dealing with abusive clergy.

His efforts had little impact on the curial cardinal, however, who the following year told the Irish bishops, in Rome on their ad limina visit, that they were called to be “fathers to [their] priests, not policemen”. That meeting reportedly ended in uproar.


The newly-appointed Cardinal Connell was surely pleased, then, when in April 2001 St John Paul II ruled that henceforth all child sexual abuse cases were to go through the then Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Before this, the CDF only ever dealt with such issues insofar as they were sometimes connected with an abuse of the sacrament of Confession, and in practice it received very few complaints; Malta’s Archbishop Charles Scicluna told The Tablet in 2010 that between 1975 and 1983 the CDF received no abuse reports from anywhere in the world, and not one of the 86 cases considered in the three Irish reports into abuse allegations in Ferns, Dublin, and Cloyne was reported to Rome prior to 2003.

Even the case of the notorious Tony Walsh stayed off Roman desks until he appealed in 1993 against Dublin’s canonical decision to laicise him, and when it went to Rome it went to the Roman Rota, not the CDF. The judicial body commuted the original sentence, directing that the then Fr Walsh should instead spend 10 years in a monastery, but Dr Connell challenged this, eventually pleading with the Pope via “a senior curial official” to have the abuser laicised, and in 1996, the then Cardinal Ratzinger issued a decree saying that the Pope had dismissed Walsh from the clerical state.

One of the first in Rome to realise the reality of the crisis, the then Cardinal Ratzinger would push for the CDF to be given the lead in tackling the issue, and under his leadership, whether as CDF chief or Pope, 848 priests were laicised and 2,572 otherwise sanctioned in the decade from 2004.

In hindsight, it is hardly surprising that Cardinal Connell was in 2005, it has been claimed, one of the loudest voices calling for Cardinal Ratzinger to succeed St John Paul as Pope, maintaining that he was the only man among the gathered cardinals with all the qualities needed for the task ahead.

An astonishingly clear thinker, according to his onetime colleagues, Cardinal Connell was a shy, theoretical and formal man with a precise mind that was ill-equipped to deal with a society increasingly inclined to wear its heart on its sleeve, lacking as he was in a perception of words’ emotional impact.

Even as he encountered abuse survivors who had lost their faith, and came to understand the horrible destruction of self that abuse can perpetrate, he lacked the skills necessary to deal with those bearing the wounds inflicted by those commissioned to heal and serve as representatives of the Church.

That said, the cardinal was not a man wholly lacking in sensitivity by any means, or a man given to easy pat answers. Prof. O’Rourke notes how, when a colleague was in tears over the sudden death of a close friend, he asked whether the then Prof. Connell could make sense of it.

“I don’t have an answer,” he said, “except that Christ became one of us to share in the suffering of death.”