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Spotlight Report

Irish bishop quits over priest case

Prelate admits he failed to stop abuse of children

By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff, 4/2/2002

A senior bishop in Ireland yesterday became the first known member of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to resign voluntarily over his management of a priest who had sexually abused children.

The Most Rev. Brendan Comiskey, the Bishop of Ferns in Ireland's southeast, said he had offered his resignation to the pope and would travel to Rome this week to finalize it.

In October, an archbishop in Wales was forced to resign because he had ignored complaints about two priests later convicted of sexually abusing children. Several bishops, meanwhile, have resigned over their own personal sexual or financial misconduct.

But according to those who study the church, Comiskey's resignation marks the first time a member of the Catholic hierarchy had stepped down because he acknowledged he had not done enough to control an abusive priest, and because he saw himself as an obstacle to reform and the healing process.

For years, Comiskey had been under fire for his handling of a pedophile priest, the Rev. Sean Fortune, who killed himself in 1999 after he was charged with abusing boys. Pressure on Comiskey grew last month when the British Broadcasting Corp. broadcast a documentary about some of Fortune's victims. That documentary was scheduled to air on Irish television tonight.

Yesterday, Comiskey stepped outside his office in Wexford and read a statement in which he apologized to the four men whose stories were depicted in the documentary ''and to all who have been abused by priests of the diocese.''

''I did my best,'' Comiskey said. ''Clearly that was not good enough. I found Father Fortune virtually impossible to deal with. I confronted him regularly, for a time I removed him from ministry, I sought professional advice in several quarters, I listened to the criticisms and the praise, I tried compassion and I tried firmness. Treatment was sought and arranged, and yet I never managed to achieve any level of satisfactory outcome.''

Comiskey said he could not be part of the solution because he was so much part of the problem.

''As bishop I should be a binding force among people and priests within the ministry of Christ. I had hoped that I could bring about reconciliation between the diocese and those who were abused. Such, I hope, might be part of the healing,'' said Comiskey. ''I now recognize that I am not the person who can best achieve these aims of unity and reconciliation. My continuation in office could indeed be an obstacle to healing.''

In the Republic of Ireland, where more than 90 percent of the 3.6 million people are Catholic, Comiskey's resignation was seen as shocking. Coincidentally, it came on Easter Monday, the day that Irish rebels launched the Easter Rising of 1916, the revolution that eventually brought independence.

The Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, who as a canon lawyer working at the Vatican Embassy in Washington wrote a 1985 study on sexual abuse by priests that he said bishops ignored, said Comiskey's resignation ''is as revolutionary for Ireland as was the Easter Rising,'' and could be revolutionary for the rest of the church. He said Comiskey had set ''a new standard for accountability.''

''Bishop Comiskey is the first bishop to have placed the victims before himself,'' said Doyle, in a telephone interview from Germany, where he is now a chaplain to the US Air Force. ''Other bishops have apologized, but Bishop Comiskey is the first one to admit that apologies are not enough.''

Doyle said Comiskey's handling of Fortune was remarkably similar to Boston Cardinal Bernard F. Law's handling of John Geoghan, who allegedly molested scores of children and whom Law moved from parish to parish before defrocking him. Doyle said Comiskey's resignation would place more pressure on Cardinal Law to resign.

''Cardinal Law should read Bishop Comiskey's resignation speech. He should memorize it,'' said Doyle.

But the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, said he doubted Comiskey's resignation would increase the likelihood that Law would step down. McBrien said Comiskey's history of alcohol abuse, and unanswered questions about Comiskey's solo trips to Thailand, where he stayed in a hotel frequented by prostitutes, would dilute the significance of his resignation.

Doyle, however, said Comiskey's resignation could be seen as part of his recovery from alcoholism.

''He is thinking clearly and acting courageously,'' said Doyle. ''He is saying the church is not about the bishops, it's about the people. He is the first bishop to show humility.''

A spokesman for Law could not be reached for comment.

This story ran on page A6 of the Boston Globe on 4/2/2002.
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