UNCOVERING A HOUSE OF CORRECTION FOR PRIESTS
by John Cooney, Western People, 21 July 2006
The careers of Joseph Walsh, Michael Browne, James Naughton, Patrick Morrisroe, John Dignan and Edward Doorley mean nothing in today?s vibrant communities in the west and north-west.
But in their heyday sixty years ago they ruled the land with iron croziers as the Lord Archbishop of Tuam, and the Lord Bishops of Galway, Killala, Achonry, Clonfert and Elphin.
Only older readers of the Western People, especially among the clergy, will retain memories of how this episcopal clique dominated every aspect of people?s lives from the cradle to the grave in 1945-46.
What was not known by the public at that time was that the six Western prelates were signatories to a secret deal which was brokered in the name of the Catholic Hierarchy at successive meetings in the mid-1940s at St Patrick?s College, Maynooth.
The Catholic bishops were so appalled by evidence of immoral behaviour among priests that they secretly authorised the setting up of a “House for Clergy Under Correction.”
The six Western prelates, along with the country?s other three archbishops and 18 bishops. Pledged themselves to contribute ?2 for each priest in their diocese who was to be sent as an inmate to the House.
In their respective palaces in Tuam, Ballina, Ballaghadeereen, Loughrea and Sligo, the West?s ecclesiastical leaders obviously calculated that it was worth their money to be rid of their errant clerics in such a communal penitentiary.
Why else would the bishops have taken the extraordinary step of deliberately concealing from the Catholic faithful the true purpose for which “inmates” were sent to the detention centre in Co. Waterford.
A previously unpublished document reveals that their Lordships agreed that the proposed House “be given a name which will not have a defamatory connotation?, and should be called either St Joseph?s Home for Priests or St Joseph?s Convalescent Home for Priests.
Even though bishops in those not so distant days exercised virtually absolute power over their clergy who, in turn, operated like little Popes? in their parishes are we looking here at a scheme that was unconstitutional under the State laws of Ireland, north and south? Are we dealing with unlawful detention of priests? Are we stumbling across an instance of the clandestine imposition of Roman canon law by bishops on morally wayward priests that breached the common law?
The language used in the document which I discovered in the archival papers of the formidable Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, is distinctly that of a bygone age of moral authoritarianism.
“While the House is intended primarily for priests who through their own fault have rendered themselves unfit for missionary or other priestly work, the Superior may also admit priests who are incapacitated through non-culpable causes”, the document states.
Intriguingly, it does not specify the vices indulged in by fallen clerics. But it is obvious that collectively the bishops of all 26 dioceses were highly alarmed at the scale of the clerical scandals. Yet, the existence of this “House for Correction of Clergy” has never been mentioned in any history book of twentieth century Ireland. Its existence contradicts the glowing accounts of wholehearted and wholesome piety of priests and people at the height of Catholic Ireland?. It suggests that something rotten existed at the grassroots of Irish church-life and society.
The document represents the tip of an iceberg of some kind of moral decline in the 1940s that has been air-brushed out of history. A clue as to what was going on beneath the surface veneer of religiosity is to be found in a report published in 1944 by the Dublin City Medical Officer. He reported a sharp increase in venereal disease, a symptom of a marked growth of public immorality in Emergency Ireland? during the years when the rest of the globe was embroiled in the Second World War.
The significance of this report was grasped by Archbishop McQuaid, the son of a Cavan doctor who at that time was using his enormous influence to persuade the Sisters of Mercy to open the first VD clinic in Ireland.
The immediate post-War years saw a surge in emigration to Britain of unmarried young women, many of them leaving home to conceal illegitimate pregnancies, some of them from illicit sexual relations with or rapes by priests.
At a time when child-birth out of wedlock was deemed to be a grave social sin unmarried mothers, many of them from the West, were being sent to Magdalene Homes to work in laundries, where later testimonies have shown that some were abused sexually by priests.
In an era of high unemployment, depression in the agricultural sector and pervasive, endemic poverty, pressure was mounting on the religious orders to cater for children who were being sent by the courts to industrial schools and reformatories.
In view of the fact that child sexual abuse and youth prostitution had been major social problems in the 1920s and 1930s – but had been hidden from public knowledge by successive Governments of W.T. Cosgrave and Eamon de Valera the House of Correction may also have been a location for bishops to send paedophile priests.
The bishops were also worried by a general rise in public intemperance, and the Oedemon drink? had been identified by observers as a curse of the Irish priesthood. The West was particularly cursed by whiskey and poitin priests.
Whatever the exact nature of the peccadilloes of the clergy, the initiative for establishing the House came from the Brothers of Charity, who were based at Belmont in Waterford.
Literally, the Brothers were pushing an open door. Their proposal was granted by the Hierarchy at its June meeting in 1945.
However, the paper trail about how the House of Correction actually operated and for how long dries up. No one in the Irish Church living today whom I have spoken to professes to possess any information about this prison for dodgy priests.
Yet, details of the House of Correction for Clergy must surely still exist in musty ecclesiastical archives scattered around the dioceses, the files of religious orders and perhaps even be lodged in secret vaults in Rome. Or have the records been destroyed conveniently by a later generation of churchmen?
The track-record of the Irish Catholic Church in preserving personnel files of dead bishops and clergy is not good. I recall talking to a Kilkenny priest from the diocese of Ossory who was in Drumcondra photocopy correspondence between McQuaid and his contemporary in Ossory, Bishop Patrick Collier, because Collier destroyed his own files.
Likewise, at the Commission into Child Abuse being conducted by Judge Sean Ryan, time and again we are being told by the Religious Orders, and the Departments of Education, Health and Justice that many files no longer remain extant concerning clerical child sexual and physical abuse in reformatories and industrial schools.
Would it be too much to ask today?s Western bishops Michael Neary, Martin Drennan, John Fleming, Tom Flynn, John Kirby and Christie Jones to trawl their archives to cast further light on the House of Correction for Clergy that was established and funded by their predecessors?
Finding out about the exact reasons for which priests were incarcerated for immoral conduct in the 1940s onwards is an essential piece of the jig-saw for the writing of a truthful history of Catholic Ireland.
I would appeal to older readers of The Western People and senior clergy to contact me with their memories of priests who disappeared without explanations from their parishes in those dark days.