SOME senior priests have called for the removal of Eamon Walsh, the Bishop of Ferns, ahead of the publication of a devastating report into clerical sex abuse in the diocese this week. The priests, speaking on condition of anonymity, claim they have been “hung out to dry” by Walsh, who was appointed as caretaker bishop after the resignation of Brendan Comiskey three years ago. Walsh is not expected to be criticised himself in the report. But a number of Wexford priests claim they have not been briefed on the content of the report by him, or taught how to deal with angry parishioners. The senior clergymen claim rank-and-file priests have not been prepared for the fall-out from the Ferns inquiry report, which is due to be discussed by the cabinet on Tuesday.
The report is expected to trigger significant public anger at the Catholic church for failing to sack priests accused of abusing young children. It catalogues decades of widespread abuse by up to 30 priests in the diocese, up to and during the 1980s. “We’re out on a limb,” said one senior priest. “There is a lot of anger out there. At the moment, we are in a vacuum and don’t know what to expect. Walsh has failed to act as a bishop should in taking care of us and showing regard for our feelings. We have nobody stretching out a hand asking us how we are doing. “For the last three years we have been left to our own devices. We could have received more understanding and care from those at the top. The sooner it’s over and this man (Walsh) moves on, and the sooner we get our own bishop, the better.”
The unnamed priests, who also complained to the Irish Catholic and some local newspapers, claim that Walsh has “abandoned priests in their hour of need”. They say there have been a number of informal meetings to discuss the bishop’s leadership, amid what they say is sinking morale among priests in the diocese. The priests are also considering the appointment of a spokesman, independent of Walsh and the church hierarchy, to represent rank-and-file clergy when the report is made public. However, other senior clergy including Monsignor Lory Kehoe, the vicar-general of the diocese, denied last week that there was a split in the diocese and defended Walsh’s handling of the controversy. Following a day-long gathering of priests, the senior clergy declared their unequivocal support for Walsh in an attempt to quell clerical discontent.
“We wish to reiterate our full support for Bishop Walsh and our appreciation for his extraordinary commitment to the diocese, its priests and people in very difficult times,” said Kehoe. Fr Joseph McGrath, another senior Ferns priest and signatory to the statement, said he was “quite happy” with the way Walsh was informing priests regarding the Ferns report. The National Conference of Priests in Ireland said it supports the appointment of a priests’ spokesman in Ferns. “It is a very good idea,” said Fr John Littleton, the NCPI president. “It will be good for the priests on the ground dealing with the fall-out to have a separate voice from the episcopal commission.”
The long-awaited report into the sexual abuse of children by priests in the diocese from the 1960s to the 1980s will be made public by Brian Lenihan, the minister of state for health and children. It is expected to slam church authorities, the gardai, the South Eastern Health Board and the Department of Education and Science for failing to act on reports of abuse. Led by Frank Murphy, a retired Supreme Court judge, the Ferns inquiry is the first state investigation into the Catholic church’s handling of clerical sex-abuse allegations in Ireland. Earlier this year, Walsh warned church leaders to brace themselves for the publication of the report. He wrote to the leaders of Ireland’s religious congregations asking them to pray for “a positive outcome”. Last week Tom Moriarty, a clinical and sports psychologist who helped the Dublin football team to All-Ireland victory in 1995, addressed a meeting of priests in the diocese.