A relationship with a troubled teenage girl and the subsequent accusation of sex assault — of which he was cleared — has left a priest with a battle on his hands, writes Caroline O’Doherty
Fr Chris Conroy had a saying when he was living in the Andes Mountains in Peru: “Canon law doesn’t apply above 10,000 feet.”
By that, he meant the formal structures and strictures of the Catholic Church took second place to the practicalities of survival in a harsh environment among people living a primitive existence in grinding poverty, stalked by a guerrilla insurgency.
Back at sea level in his native Wicklow, however, Church law very much holds sway and Fr Conroy has found himself in difficulties for challenging it.
The 81-year-old entered the priesthood through the Carmelite Friary in Kinsale and after his ordination in 1959 he was based at the Order’s Whitefriar Street community in Dublin.
He spent time studying in Belgium, Russia, Japan and Korea before returning to the Gort Muire Carmelite Centre in Dublin where he ran retreats for schools.
He first went to Peru in the 1970s and spent five years there before returning in 1980 to Knocklyon in Dublin where he was made parish priest and introduced what were possibly the country’s first altar girls despite a ban on girl servers that was only lifted in 1994.
He went back to Peru for 15 years and on his return, wrote an account of his time there, A Beggar in Paradise.
The following year he met the young girl from a neighbouring house, who would later accuse him of sexual assault, when she stopped to talk to him as he worked in his garden.
He says he did not see her again until two years later when she was 14 and arrived at his door crying after a row at home.
Fr Conroy’s accounts of the time they spent together and the conversations they had — recorded in subsequent Garda interviews and court transcripts and reproduced in his new memoir, A Rocky Road to Paradise — make for uncomfortable reading.
The girl was an unhappy and stressed teenager who often brought up the subject of sex. Fr Conroy says he answered her questions and did not feel it awkward or inappropriate to do so.
“When I went around the country giving retreats, there was always a question time at the end and the young people would write down the questions because they were too embarrassed to ask them.
“All the questions were about sex and about the facts of life because nobody had ever talked to them. So I wasn’t shocked when a young person would want to know all about sex. She had questions and I answered them.”
He accepts he was naive to spend time alone with the girl but says he never appreciated how much Ireland had changed while he was overseas.
In 2002, Fr Conroy was arrested and charged on two counts of sexual assault on the girl. In the interim, a dispute between Fr Conroy and the girl’s family over a laneway separating their property ended up in the High Court, where the girl’s family lost.
The complaint to gardaí followed soon after and Fr Conroy was suspended from ministry and ordered to live in Whitefriar Street.
The first trial collapsed and was declared a mistrial over discrepancies in evidence. The second one, in December 2004, ended with a not guilty verdict.
Fr Conroy is adamant that the allegations about him were driven by revenge over the land dispute but he says that is no longer relevant and that he has “forgiven” the family.
But the legacy of the allegations is not so easily set aside. Fr Conroy returned to live in Wicklow and began saying Mass again but he says the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, directed local diocesan priests not to use him.
He also says got and he continues to get solicitors letters from his Order telling him to return to Whitefriar Street. It is unusual for a Carmelite to live outside of a communal residence but Fr Conroy says the arrangement was cleared before he returned from Peru.
“I was 45 years outside a monastery when I retired. There was no way I could go back,” he says, claiming his Order is merely trying to appease Archbishop Martin.
“We are deeply concerned that Fr Christopher Conroy, a member of the Carmelite Order, has recently published a memoir, The Rocky Road to Paradise, in which details of conversations between him and a young teenager, now an adult, are recounted.
“Whereas the person with whom he had these conversations is not named in the book, she is clearly identifiable to a number of people.”
Archbishop Martin issued the following statement: “It is not the practice of the Archdiocese to comment on individual cases involving allegations of child sexual abuse. Any allegation of child sexual abuse against a member of a Religious Order is dealt with by the Order in question.
“The matter of whether a member of an Order lives as part of a community or on his or her own is for the Order to determine. In any case involving a priest resident within the Diocese of Dublin the case is dealt with in accordance with Civil and Church Child Protection Guidelines.”
Fr Conroy says those guidelines state that an accused priest found to be innocent should have his good name and reputation restored.
“The problem has been that when the Archbishop came first from Rome, he was given the job of cleaning up the diocese and he did it in such a way that, with any slightest allegation, he used a sledgehammer to hit it.
“He was all on the victims’ side — which was right because the Church wasn’t on the victims’ side at all before — but he’s made new victims now. He never distinguished between false accusations and the real thing and I’ve been caught in a false accusation.”
“I am condemned to no man’s land. I am like a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay. The good people of Wicklow deserve to know why I am not saying Mass.”
Fr Conroy says he will continue to defy orders to leave Wicklow and is determined to continue fighting to be allowed say Mass.
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