Church’s hierarchy shows its colours

An arrogant Church hierarchy has a long history of scapegoating and trying to cover up serious scandals, says Ryle Dwyer

RECENT revelations about the mother-and-baby home at Tuam — where 796 children died between 1925 and 1961 — shocked people, but few seemed surprised, because there had already been so many shocking revelations about abuse in Church-run institutions. Indeed, comparisons are being made with Nazi Germany.

During the Second World War John Betjeman, the British press attaché in Dublin, depicted the Catholic hierarchy as the real power in Ireland. “We should bother less about relations, good or bad, with the Government and more with relations with the Catholic Church,” he wrote in March 1943.

The same month Roland Blenner-Hassett, one of three undercover agents stationed to Ireland by the Office of Strategic Services —the wartime forerunner of the American Central Intelligence Agency — depicted the hierarchy as essentially fascist in outlook. He thought this posed a threat because Irish censorship had been so rigid that Irish people had little understanding of the true nature of fascism.

“I am convinced that what the Irish Church hopes to see as the outcome of this war is the military defeat of the Axis, followed by peace between the Allies and semi-authoritarian regimes in Italy and Germany,” Blenner-Hassett wrote. He went on to suggest that the Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, could cause trouble over partition unless Irish neutrality was essentially discredited in the US.

David Gray, the American wartime minister to Ireland, initiated a series of propaganda stunts aimed at distorting the true nature of Irish neutrality. In the process, he goaded de Valera into making the political mistake of proffering official condolence on the death of Hitler in 1945.

When US president Franklin Roosevelt died little over a fortnight earlier, Gray reported that de Valera paid “a very moving tribute” in the Dáil, which promptly adjourned as a mark of respect, and Irish flags were flown at half-mast over Government Buildings. de Valera therefore felt that ignoring Edouard Hempel, the German representative, would be an “unpardonable discourtesy”.

“During the whole of the war,” de Valera privately explained, “Dr Hempel’s conduct was irreproachable. He was always and invariably correct — in marked contrast with Gray. I certainly was not going to add to his humiliation in the hour of defeat.”

His personal gesture to Hempel was understandable, but it was a mistake, because it bolstered the misconception that the Taoiseach had, in some ways, been sympathetic to the Nazis.

Allied efforts to discredit de Valera over neutrality should be seen against the backdrop of concern over what was considered a fascist outlook within the hierarchy. Blenner-Hassett actually singled out Bishop Michael Browne of Galway as “an outspoken clerical fascist”, over his involvement in blocking the appointment of Robert Corbett, the master of the Coombe, as professor of gynaecology at University College Galway in late 1942, simply because Corbett “had been educated at Trinity College, Dublin”.

Michael Browne was connected with a series of controversies during his time as Bishop of Galway from 1937 to 1976. The main reason for the introduction of the controversial Mother and Child Bill in 1951 was to tackle this country’s infant mortality rate, which was the highest in western Europe. The mortality rate may well be largely attributable to the mother-and-baby homes in Tuam and elsewhere around the country.

Although the 1951 controversy is often depicted as a confrontation between the minister for health and the Archbishop of Dublin, Noel Browne, the health minister, was actually more critical of the role of the Bishop of Galway.

In his book, Against the Tide, Noel Browne noted that other churchmen told him the Archbishop of Dublin “was a simple and good man who had been manipulated with much skill by Dr Michael Browne”.

The Bishop of Galway appeared anything but simple in Noel Browne’s account of their private meeting: “He handed me a silver casket in which lay his impeccable hand-made cigarettes. ‘These cigarettes,’ he intoned, ‘I had made in Bond Street.’

“Then he offered me a glass of champagne. ‘I always like champagne in the afternoon,’ he informed me in his rich round voice. He appeared ignorant of the social solecism of mixing cigarettes and champagne. My feeling of awe was mixed with a sense of astonishment that this world sybarite considered himself to be a follower of the humble Nazarene.”

Some of those close to Bishop Browne denounced that cruel portrayal.

“The Bishop never smoked cigarettes rolled in Bond Street or any other street,” Kathleen Cunningham wrote to the press. “He only smoked a pipe. Also he did not drink champagne or any kind of spirits. I should know the truth because I worked for the Bishop for nearly 40 years.”

In 1966 as the country was preparing to celebrate the golden jubilee of the Easter Rebellion, Bishop Browne’s alleged extravagance was back in the news, this time in connection with the rebuilding of Galway cathedral, which some dubbed the “Taj Micheáil.”

As the West of Ireland was widely seen as the poorest region in the country, Brian Trevaskis — a student at Trinity College, Dublin — sparked an unholy controversy on Gay Byrne’s The Late Late Show by accusing Bishop Browne of being “a moron” and suggesting that the cathedral was “a ghastly monstrosity”.

Trevaskis was brought back to apologise on The Late Late Show the following week.

“I should never have used the word ‘moron’,” he admitted. In an ensuing discussion in relation to the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rebellion being celebrated that month, he suggested that building extravagant churches demonstrated that Ireland was not really a Christian country.

“I would ask whether the Bishop of Galway knows the meaning of the word ‘moron’,” Trevaskis added. “I doubt very much that he knows the meaning of the word ‘Christianity’.”

This was an era in which bishops were still virtually untouchable, but Bishop Browne subsequently made his own contribution to the demise of their power.

Before retiring in 1976, he insisted that the priests in his diocese would have the right to approve of his successor, in line with the spirit of Vatican II.

It was widely believed the Hierarchy was anxious to appoint Kevin McNamara, the vice president of Maynooth College, but the priests in Galway would not have him.

Eamonn Casey, the Bishop of Kerry, was acceptable, so he was transferred to Galway, and Dr McNamara was appointed Bishop of Kerry, much to the indignation of Kerry priests.

Bishop Casey had already had an affair in which he had fathered a child in 1974, but the story only broke in 1992 while he was Bishop of Galway.

This showed that bishops were human and with normal frailties, but the hierarchy demonstrated that it was as arrogant as ever by seeking to scapegoat him and cover up other much more serious scandals, such as the Brendan Smyth affair, which continues to plague Cardinal Seán Brady to the present day.


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