Desmond Connell was ill-suited to deal with avalanche of child abuse

When Pope John Paul II elevated Desmond Connell to the archdiocese of Dublin in January 1988, he was far from being the first choice.

Desmond Connell was ill-suited to deal with avalanche of child abuse

In fact, it took nine months between the death in April 1987 of his predecessor, Archbishop Kevin McNamara, and his appointment.

During that time, at least four others were considered before Dr Connell got the nod. His appointment would not have been possible without the all-important approval of the then papal nuncio, Dr Gaetano Alibrandi, the most powerful figure in the Catholic Church in Ireland since the dreaded Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, who had ordained Dr Connell in 1951.

Dr Alibrandi didn’t want an archbishop who was too liberal, too well liked by diocesan priests, or overly friendly with parishioners.

Dr Connell ticked all those boxes. Relatively unknown, he had served as professor of general metaphysics at UCD and in 1983 became the dean of the Faculty of Philosophy and Sociology at the university.

What finally swung the deal in his favour for Dr Alibrandi was Dr Connell’s extreme conservatism, taking orthodox stances on divorce, homosexuality, women priests, birth control, reproductive technology, and abortion.

Desmond Connell celebrates Mass on April 7, 2002
Desmond Connell celebrates Mass on April 7, 2002

Born on March 24, 1926 in Phibsboro, Dublin, he received a Jesuit education at Belvedere College, was ordained for the archdiocese of Dublin on May 19, 1951, and held a doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. He was appointed archbishop of Dublin in 1988 and created Cardinal by Pope John Paul II at the Consistory in Rome on February 21, 2001.

Shortly after becoming archbishop, he surprised many by speaking out on social issues, expressing concern for Travellers, the unemployed, and refugees and asylum seekers. He established the Parish of the Travelling People in order to respond to the pastoral needs of that community.

Sympathy for the disadvantaged was a central theme of his early years as archbishop but he failed to bring that sense of social engagement to bear when he later met with the victims of paedophile priests.

Unlike his boss, Pope John Paul II, Dr Connell was not possessed of an easy charm, nor did he have any pastoral experience, save for six months as a chaplain to the Mater Hospital in the 1950s.

He exhibited few diplomatic skills either, as evidenced by his public rebuke of president Mary McAleese for taking communion at Christ Church Cathedral and his insulting description of his Church of Ireland counterpart, Archbishop Walton Empey, as not one of that faith’s “high flyers”.

He was particularly ill-suited to deal with an avalanche of child abuse when it came his way. Even before his appointment, the extent of clerical abuse was beginning to emerge to the extent that in 1986 Catholic dioceses around the country began to take out insurance to cover them against responsibility.

In 1994, the full horror began to emerge when Fr Brendan Smyth was sentenced to four years in prison for abuse of children in the North. Archbishop Connell’s inability to confront the full extent of the scandal emerged the following year when Andrew Madden became the first victim of clerical child sex abuse to go public, saying that he had received a compensation payment in respect of his abuse as a child.

Archbishop of Dublin Desmond Connell with President Mary McAleese and Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin Walton Empey in 2000, both of whom he criticised. Picture: Marc O’Sullivan
Archbishop of Dublin Desmond Connell with President Mary McAleese and Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin Walton Empey in 2000, both of whom he criticised. Picture: Marc O’Sullivan

In response, Dr Connell said that the archdiocese had never paid compensation to any victim of clerical child abuse, explaining that the money was a “loan” from the archdiocese to his abuser, Ivan Payne. But not even his fellow bishops were convinced.

The most devastating critique of Dr Connell’s failings emerged on RTÉ in October 2002, when Prime Time broadcast a special report entitled ‘Cardinal Secrets’ containing accounts of children abused by Catholic priests serving in the archdiocese of Dublin, where complaints had been made at higher levels and effectively ignored, both by the Church and by the gardaí.

Although created a cardinal the year before, it was not long before his inability to adequately address the abuse scandals in Dublin led the Vatican to parachute Archbishop Martin as his replacement in 2004. But he remained a Prince of the Church and continued to enrage abuse survivors.

In 2008, he caused outrage when he mounted a High Court challenge to try to block an inquiry led by Judge Yvonne Murphy from gaining access to 5,500 files on priests and abuse allegations. He claimed legal privilege and secured a temporary injunction before withdrawing the legal action two weeks later.

The Murphy report was damning. It concluded that the archdiocese’s preoccupations in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse were “the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church, and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities.”

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