Attitudes Toward Priests Change in IrelandBy SHAWN POGATCHNIK
Jan 21, 11:12 PM (ET)
GALWAY, Ireland (AP) - Bishop Eamonn Casey fled Ireland 14 years ago in shame for having secretly fathered a son. But he is coming back to a dramatically changed, forgiving Ireland that appears willing to accept Roman Catholic priests who are not celibate.
Galway Bishop Martin Drennan announced Saturday that his disgraced predecessor, who has spent his exile on missions from England to Ecuador, soon would resettle in the western Irish county.
Drennan said he was personally "very happy."
And on the steps of Galway Cathedral where Casey was once denounced as a hypocrite, Mass-goers said Casey's sins no longer seemed so severe - not in a country, and an Irish priesthood, so battered by a decade of pedophile-sex scandals.
"I'm delighted Eamonn's coming home. I wish he'd never felt he had to leave. Ireland's grown up a bit since he was away. Maybe he'll finally feel free to have a normal relationship with his boy," said Mary Gibney, a Galway homemaker.
Just days ago, news broke that another Galway priest, 73-year-old Maurice Dillane, had fathered a son with a 31-year-old teacher he had been secretly dating for years. He resigned from his post.
Locals and commentators were surprised by the gulf in age between Dillane - known as "Mossie" - and his partner, but solidly supported the priest and criticized church superiors for forcing him from his parish.
Galway Bay FM, a radio station taking an informal poll on the issue, got 197 positive comments about Dillane and just eight negative one.
"He told me that he had a girlfriend. He wasn't a bit worried," said one of Dillane's friends, Jim Kennedy, a former priest himself.
"I wouldn't mind going to Mass with Mossie tomorrow morning," said another former priest and golfing partner, Liam Keane.
"We have lost a priest at a time when there is a shortage of priests, and that is a sad event," said Justin O'Byrne, chairman of the parish council where Dillane worked. He said worshippers would like Dillane back if possible, and were mostly concerned that his partner and child received sufficient community support.
"There's certainly no anger. ... We've all moved on a lot since 1992," he said.
The Ireland that Casey fled in 1992 was an overwhelmingly Catholic country with double-digit unemployment and heavy emigration.
But over Ireland's past decade of dynamic economic growth, the church has lurched from scandal to scandal over its policy of shielding sexually abusive priests from prosecution. Weekly attendance at Mass, once rated at over 90 percent, has fallen to around 40 percent of Catholics today.
More than 250 priests in this country of 4 million are under investigation for alleged abuse of children.
Public anger at past cover-ups of clerical abuse has fueled a growing public belief that a priesthood without mandatory celibacy would reduce the risk of pedophilia and promote greater honesty.