The big read: As allegations of child abuse against Bishop Eamonn Casey emerge, Kim Bielenberg recalls the rollercoaster career of a discredited man of the Church
For decades, he was the Catholic Church’s most charismatic figure in Ireland. He highlighted homelessness and poverty. He drove fast cars and stopped to sing songs with the public as he went about his merry way. That was the public face of Bishop Eamonn Casey.
In his work as chairman of the development agency Trócaire, he was not afraid to put the wind up Irish cabinet ministers – and attack American foreign policy towards poor countries such as El Salvador.
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But even at the height of his powers, before his life was mired in scandal, there were those who questioned whether the slogan of Trócaire was entirely suitable for a man like Eamonn Casey: “Live simply, so others may simply live.”
Bishop Casey’s life was anything but simple. He liked to eat in fancy restaurants, drive sports cars at alarming speed, and he boasted to his lover Annie Murphy that he could dance like Fred Astaire.
By the mid-1980s, his celebrity had reached such celestial heights that RTÉ offered him a slot for one night hosting the chat show Saturday Live. He regaled his audience with “come all ye” songs – and boasted that he knew 400 ballads off by heart
Like his friend Fr Michael Cleary, who joined him as the warm-up act at the Papal Mass in Galway in 1979, Casey was the bridge between the fusty and reserved old world of the hierarchy, stuck in the 1950s, and the modern media world of soundbites, chat shows and talk radio.
Casey and Cleary, with their populist touch and crowd-pleasing manner, were seen at the time as standard bearers for the more youthful church of the future.
But this was to unravel in spectacular fashion when news emerged much later of their sons and lovers.
The story of Casey’s affair with the American Annie Murphy and how he fathered a son, Peter, helped to shatter the Church’s reputation as the ultimate arbiter of moral values.
More recently, in the years before and since his death, Bishop Casey has enjoyed something of a rehabilitation. Despite his neglect of his son Peter, the Annie Murphy affair was seen as the relatively innocent prelude to a series of much more sinister scandals engulfing the Church, particularly those involving child rape and attempts to cover it up.
Casey’s work in the social area among homeless Irish emigrants in London and among the poor of the developing world caused many to forgive his peccadilloes as a prodigal playboy bishop.
The purple prose of Annie Murphy’s account of the affair in her heavily ghost-written book Forbidden Fruit at times teetered on the brink of comedy: “There stood the bishop, my love, without clerical collar or crucifix or episcopal ring, without covering of any kind. The great showman had unwrapped himself…
“I witnessed a great hunger. This was an Irish famine of the flesh.”
In the light of the scandal what followed, many wondered where there was harm in a tryst involving consenting adults, but the story of the bishop’s life has now taken on a much darker aspect – with reports of allegations of child abuse against Eamonn Casey.
His niece Patricia Donovan, now aged 56, alleged in an interview with a Sunday newspaper that she had been sexually abused by Casey over an extended period from the age of five. She said she reported this to gardaí in 2005. The allegations were investigated in 2006 but the Director of Public Prosecutions ordered that no charges were to be brought on 13 sample allegations.
These allegations were reported in the media in 2006, but Patricia Donovan was not named at the time.
It also emerged this week that other accusations of child abuse had been made against Casey from his time as a young priest in the 1950s and 1960s.
In one of the cases, an alleged victim was reported to have made a claim through the Residential Institutions Redress Board and received compensation.
In the other case, it was reported that a settlement had been made after Casey’s death. A woman had begun court proceedings alleging abuse during the time when he was a young curate in St John’s Cathedral in Limerick from 1955 to 1960.
Although he was to rise rapidly in the Church to become one of its prominent stars, Casey did not enter the priesthood as a young man with a startling vocation – a “blinding light” or “voice in the night”.
Born in Firies in Kerry, he was the son of a creamery worker and grew up in Adare, Co Limerick.
A local priest put him down for St Munchin’s, the diocesan seminary in Limerick, without even telling him or his father of his destiny. He studied there and moved on to the seminary in Maynooth, where the regime was harsh.
”You couldn’t read a paper, you couldn’t eat chocolates,” he said in an interview of the self-sacrifice involved in training for the priesthood.
He also later acknowledged, after the Annie Murphy scandal had emerged, that he struggled with celibacy, particularly when he lived in London, and he traced this back to his time in Maynooth.
In an interview with Veronica Guerin in 1993, Casey recalled how he had sought help.
“Celibacy was unquestionably a factor,” he said. “Two or three times in my seven years at Maynooth it became very much a factor and I had to engage in serious counselling sessions. There were no girls involved at the time.
“It wasn’t that I was looking for female company or a sexual experience, but working outside – pastoral work – disorientated me for a while. I think that celibacy requires community in two senses. Firstly, as a community to serve, to live and to be loved by and, secondly, in the sense of companionship. In London I had neither.”
In his first job as a curate in Limerick, he took an interest in social causes, including poverty and emigration. According to one account of his time in the city, he learnt about a “widespread vice ring using young boys for sexual purposes”.
His interest in Irish emigrants took him to England, where he honed his skills as a campaigner against homelessness. He said in one interview: “One of the things that celibacy does for you is that it doubles and trebles your time.”
In fact, as he revealed to his lover Annie Murphy during their affair, Casey had plenty of time for activism, because he could get by on just five hours’ sleep.
His appearance in Cathy Come Home, Ken Loach’s harrowing TV drama about the homeless, helped to raise his profile and in 1969 he returned to his native county to become Ireland’s youngest bishop in the Kerry diocese.
The Kerry public relations executive Frank Lewis, who worked with Casey on a number of campaigns including the scheme for young people Full Life for Youth, tells Review: “He was like a breath of fresh air in the area, and he brought an excitement to the job to an unparalleled degree.”
Lewis recalls how Casey was approached by a woman who was a Moore Street trader in the centre of Dublin and they threw their arms around each other. At other times he could join diners in a restaurant in a sing-song.
Not everyone was impressed. The current affairs magazine Hibernia reported in 1974 that “since being made Bishop of Kerry, Casey has built up a reputation for fast cars and frequent absences from his diocese; a child in catechism class once said that the difference between God and Bishop Casey is that while God is everywhere, Bishop Casey is everywhere except in Kerry”.
The Diocese of Kerry this week revealed that it handled one allegation of sexual abuse of a child by Casey.
In a statement, the diocese said: “Given that information relating to Bishop Casey is now in the public domain, we can confirm that one historical concern regarding Bishop Casey was received by the diocese.
“This information was forwarded to the gardaí and the HSE, and the person concerned was offered support by the diocese.”
Frank Lewis says he was amazed by what was suggested in the most recent reports about Casey.
“I had no indication of anything like that,” he says.
When he became Bishop of Galway in 1976, Casey continued his social activism through his work with Trócaire and campaigned for accommodation for Travellers.
He may have campaigned on issues such as poverty at home and abroad, and his manner was informal, but he was not so progressive on doctrinal issues, according to Sean McDonagh of the Association of Catholic Priests.
“He was radical enough on social issues. But theologically he wasn’t radical in any sense of the word,” he says.
His manner may have been breezy, but he was no liberal on issues of sexual morality and warned about the dangers of “permissiveness”.
In a blast from the pulpit in Knock in 1978, he said: “There are those who irresponsibly, and for selfish reasons, clamour loudly for the unlimited availability of contraceptives since they would have the unrestrained use of sex.
“This is not the Christian viewpoint. It takes no account of the Christian concept of personal responsibility, the Christian concept of self-control which is the fruit of the Spirit….”
The preaching about personal responsibility and self-control came four years after Bishop Casey had fathered his son Peter with Annie Murphy.
Plight of Casey’s son
During this period, the issue of single unmarried mothers and “illegitimate children” seemed to preoccupy Casey; he was a patron of Cherish, the group that helped unmarried mothers and their children.
Casey said in one his orations: “We allowed our justifiable attitude of disappointment and disapproval towards the circumstances in which new life was conceived to affect our attitude towards the mother and child, sometimes to the point of rejection.
“We have a Christian duty to assure such mothers that they will be accepted and that their children will be cherished.”
As the saying goes, hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue and that was probably true of Eamonn Casey – as he spoke up for unmarried mothers and their children. Perhaps the plight of his own son Peter was preying on his conscience.
But when Annie Murphy was pregnant with his child four years previously, and subsequently gave birth, the bishop showed little sign of wanting to cherish either mother or child.
Both before and after the birth, he pleaded with her to give the child up for adoption as a way to “cleanse” herself.
“The minute I laid eyes on and held my son, I knew there was no way I was going to give him up,” she later wrote of the birth.
After the birth, Casey paid several fraught visits to the hospital, often with adoption papers in hand, still trying to persuade Annie to change her mind. Annie was told that if she gave the baby up, she could stay “closer to God”.
Years later, Annie Murphy appeared on the Late Late Show to talk about the affair and her book.
The interview is mostly remembered for Gay Byrne’s notorious comment at the end: “If your son is half as good a man as is his father, he won’t be doing too bad.”
Elsewhere in the interview, Gaybo put Murphy on the defensive, even questioning whether Peter was Eamonn Casey’s son – and offering an explanation as to why Casey was so insistent about adoption. “He would say that he didn’t have faith in your capacity to look after the child,” said the Late Late presenter.
That comment must have seemed particularly galling for Murphy after 18 years as a mother with no father in sight.
And the explanation for Casey’s behaviour seems wildly implausible. It was much more likely that he wanted the baby adopted out of his own self-preservation as a powerful establishment figure.
In the end, Murphy left for America with the baby.
For all his blather about cherishing the children of unmarried mothers, he could not even bring himself to send birthday cards, or form any kind of relationship with his son – until well after the scandal broke.
As Peter was reared by his mother in America, Casey burnished his reputation as a social campaigner, lacerating the government for its failure to allow in the boat people from Indochina as refugees.
In 1980, Casey went to El Salvador for the funeral of the assassinated Archbishop Romero, one of many trips to the country. As bombs went off in the cathedral square and onlookers were killed, he took shelter behind a pillar.
“My whole body shook. I said my act of contrition and… made my act of faith in Jesus Christ,” he said of the experience.
The United States backed El Salvador’s government and Casey’s opposition to US foreign policy led him to boycott the visit to Ireland of President Ronald Reagan in 1984.
With the story of his love affair and the fathering of a child remaining secret, Casey was the most popular figure in the Church in the 1980s.
One journalist who witnessed him in action during this time said he had a habit of leaving most mortals bobbing in his wake on a rolling sea of words and intentions.
The public seemed to revel in the cigar-smoking bishop’s minor transgressions, such as the time when he was caught driving over the alcohol limit in England.
Widely regarded as a road hazard, he insisted that he had never injured another human being while driving.
His motoring misdemeanours were immortalised in a song sung by Christy Moore: “Casey, Casey you’re the devil. When you get behind the wheel. It was a sad day for the Kerry sheepdogs. When your Firestones they did feel.”
When the Casey scandal became news around the world in 1992, a considerable portion of the public felt more sympathy for him than for Annie Murphy and her son, and this grew as time went on.
Murphy’s book was banned by some Galway bookshops out of sympathy for Casey. Tom Kenny of Kenny’s bookshop told a local paper: “He is a very good friend of ours and we don’t feel like dancing on his grave.”
As he moved between Ecuador, England and eventually came back to Ireland, ending his days in a nursing home in Clare, his vanishing act and his silence added to his mystique.
More secrets about the life of Eamonn Casey are likely to emerge in the coming years.
In her interview with Gay Byrne, Murphy quoted Mark Twain’s words: “Every man is a moon and has a dark side which he turns toward nobody.”
If the allegations of child abuse made against Eamonn Casey are true, there is a much darker side to the personality of the bishop that is only now coming into view.
Eamonn Casey: a fall from grace
Birth of Eamonn Casey in Firies, Kerry. Son of a creamery worker. He was the second son of a family of five sons and five daughters. The family later moved to Adare, Co Limerick.
Casey enters St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.
Ordained as a priest, he starts his career as a young curate in Limerick, and immediately makes an impact.
Moves as an emigrant chaplain to Slough, outside London, at a time when thousands of people were leaving Ireland every year in search of jobs. He became active in the Catholic Housing Aid Society, eventually moving to London.
Casey’s niece Patricia Donovan alleges that she was first abused by the priest during this year when she was five years old.
Éamon De Valera attends as Casey is consecrated Bishop of Kerry at the age of 42. He makes an immediate impact with his informal style.
Annie Murphy, a distant cousin from the US, comes to stay with Casey in Kerry to recover from a painful divorce. Casey had told her father: “If Ireland has nothing else, it has serenity, so send Annie to me. I’m sure she’ll find something special.”
They begin an affair in the bishop’s house in Inch. During the same year, Casey is appointed chairman of Trócaire, the Irish church’s new overseas aid agency.
Peter Eamon Murphy, son of Annie Murphy and Eamonn Casey, was born at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin on July 31. Annie leaves Ireland with her baby and returns to the US.
Casey is transferred to Galway where he starts a long stint as bishop. He leads campaigns to improve Traveller accommodation and to halt economic decline in the west of Ireland, while also travelling overseas for Trócaire.
The bishop welcomes Pope John Paul II to Ballybrit racecourse for a youth Mass, and leads the faithful in the singing.
Refuses to meet President Reagan on his visit to Ireland, because of his opposition to American foreign policy.
Fined and banned from driving for 12 months in London after speeding while under the influence of alcohol. Acts as one of the presenters on the RTÉ chat show Saturday Live.
Resigns as Bishop of Galway after it is reported in the media that Casey had had a sexual relationship in the early 1970s with Annie Murphy. “I have sinned grievously against God, his church and the clergy and people of the dioceses of Galway and Kerry,” he says.
Casey leaves Ireland, first for the United States and then works as a missionary in a rural part of Ecuador.
He moves to the parish of St Paul’s in Staplefield, Haywards Heath, West Sussex, in England, where he works as a curate.
Patricia Donovan makes an allegation of child abuse by Casey to British police and she later makes a statement to gardaí.
Gardaí interview Casey but the Director of Public Prosecutions directs that no charges be brought against him.
The Diocese of Arundel and Brighton orders the former bishop to leave England and he returns to Galway.
Eamonn Casey dies on March 13. President Michael D Higgins is among an attendance of over 1,600 people at his funeral.
Casey’s niece Patricia Donovan gives an interview where she makes allegations of abuse by Casey. It emerges that two other allegations of child abuse by Bishop Casey led to compensation payments to women.