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Tributes paid to Cardinal Desmond Connell

By Sarah Mac Donald - 22 February, 2017

"I think in the beginning he had no idea of the extent of the problem. But he was the one who said ... we have to know ... I admire his courage ... because it wasn’t an easy thing” – Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.

Cardinal Desmond Connell (1926–2017). Pic courtesy: John McElroy.

The Primate of All Ireland led tributes to the former Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Desmond Connell, who died early on Tuesday morning after a short illness.

In his statement, Archbishop Eamon Martin acknowledged that the Cardinal’s tenure had “coincided with one of the most challenging periods in the recent history of the Church in Ireland”.

He also highlighted how the Cardinal had, in relation to the failures on his part in addressing the issue of child sexual abuse, asked for forgiveness from those who had been “so shamefully harmed” and expressed “without reservation my bitter regret”.

The Archbishop of Armagh, who didn’t know Cardinal Connell personally, paid tribute to the Cardinal’s contribution to the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference between 1988 and 2004 in his role as vice-president.

He was also a member of the Commission for Doctrine, and of the Theology Commission; chair of the Commission for Universities; a member of the Commission on Ecumenism; a member of the Committee for European Affairs; and a member of the Inter-Church Committee.

President Michael D Higgins, the Taoiseach Enda Kenny and the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin also conveyed their condolences.

Aged 90 when he passed away, he had served as Archbishop of Dublin from 1988 to 2004. Pope St John Paul II made him a cardinal in 2001.

Ahead of his retirement in 2004, he asked in the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin for forgiveness from all those he had offended.

At a press conference in Maynooth in April 2002, Cardinal Connell said the paedophilia scandal was “the issue that has devastated my period of office”. He went on to describe paedophiles as “devious” and willing to “lie through their teeth”.

Speaking to journalists at Archbishop’s House on Tuesday, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin described Cardinal Connell as “a man who struggled with himself, struggled with wanting to do the right thing – realised he had made mistakes and apologised for those mistakes and kept going”.

He said he had received messages from victims and survivors which had recognised his kindness and his struggle.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin speaking in Archbishop’s House Drumcondra on the death of Cardinal Desmond Connell. Pic John McElroy.

He said they had gone through a difficult period when “we hadn’t got things working as they should”.

Cardinal Connell had left him a child protection service in the Dublin diocese which, though starting, was in good shape.

“I know how difficult that was for him. He was the first person to try to find out the real extent of the problem. There were meetings in this room where he almost had to drag information out of some of his own collaborators. And he had the courage to do that. Knowing his personality, to discover the extent of that problem must have been horrendous personally for him. He talked about evil and I think he really believed that.”

The Murphy Report in 2009 found that the archdiocese’s strategy under Cardinal Connell of refusing to admit liability often added to the hurt and grief of many victims of abuse.

There was a standoff in 2008 between the Cardinal and Archbishop Martin, when Dr Connell went to the High Court to obtain an injunction against the Murphy Commission preventing it from examining files which Archbishop Martin had agreed to hand over. Eleven days later he withdrew his action.

Asked whether this episode was a low point in his relationship with Cardinal Connell, Archbishop Martin replied, “No. I always appreciated his integrity. He was not very well at the time. He had had an accident.”

He added that Cardinal Connell had “never interfered” and he had “never heard him make any commentary” about the work of his successor. “He was absolutely correct in that sense.”

The Archbishop also paid tribute to Cardinal Connell as a man of an older generation in his politeness and courtesy.

“… it was difficult for him to live in a world of fast decisions and that may have led to some errors of judgement, but he was a man who apologised for his judgement. Even in his latter days he was asking himself what he could have done better.”

Early in his episcopate he had spoken out about unemployment and Travellers and in that sense he was “quite courageous and ahead of his times”. Archbishop Martin also described him as “a man of deep holiness and prayerfulness”.

Describing Cardinal Connell and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as “kindred souls”, Archbishop Martin recalled that in relation to the Murphy inquiry Dr Connell had been “very troubled” about what he should do.

“He got a letter from Cardinal Ratzinger which is quoted in the Murphy Report telling him that there was no problem about collaborating with the Garda Síochana on a document which was under the pontifical seal if there was a clear indication that crimes had taken place and that was a major step forward.”

However, the Murphy Commission criticised him for being too slow in recognising the problem of clerical abuse.

“I think he was a shy person who struggled and he wasn’t a man of governance in that sense. I think in the beginning he had no idea of the extent of the problem. But he was the one who said in this room, we have to know – we can’t do it bit by bit. I admire his courage in doing that because it wasn’t an easy thing.”

Marie Collins

Marie Collins, who was abused by a Dublin priest and now serves on the Vatican’s Commission for the Protection of Minors, said that in the 1990s when she was dealing with Cardinal Connell, he was “very much locked into … canon law and defending the Church.

“He had little or no understanding of the devastation to victims. Undoubtedly he had done things behind the scenes to remove offending priests but when it came to some cases, he mishandled them,” she said.

“I am not sure that he ever really accepted the suffering that he may have caused himself by the way he dealt with victims,” she told RTÉ’s News at One.

Another survivor of clerical abuse, Mark Vincent Healy, who met Pope Francis in 2014, accused Cardinal Connell of attempting “to obstruct accountability [and] withhold relief in full disclosures to CCSA victims and their families where repeated warnings were issued regarding its destruction and detrimental effect on human life of those violated as children and youngest members of the Catholic Church.”

Fr Damian McNeice, a former press officer for Cardinal Connell, told CatholicIreland.net that the Cardinal had died 16 years to the day since he was made a cardinal in St Peter’s Square on 21 February 2001, in a group that included the then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis.

He died on the same date, 21 February, as his friend and former Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Dermot Ryan.

In his tribute, Fr McNeice described Cardinal Connell as “A Victorian Gentleman”.

“I remember accompanying Cardinal Connell to an event welcoming a new Board of Management in the Mater Hospital. It was during the time of crisis in the Diocese of Ferns in 2002. After the formal ceremony and a reception we were escorted by one of the board members back along the hospital corridors to where the Cardinal’s car was parked. Our progress was interrupted several times as the Cardinal stopped along the way talking with concern and care to patients and their family members, asking how they were, how long they had been in. One Filipino family, in particular, were amazed and delighted that he came into the ward to bless their father and pray with them. Two of the hospital cleaning staff recognised him, dropped their mops and exclaimed with lilting inner-city accents: ‘You look so much nicer than you do on the telly! Can I give ya a kiss?’ The Cardinal dutifully obliged.

“The board member pulled me to one side by the elbow and whispered to me with a kind of hushed awe: ‘I’m seeing a side of this man I never knew existed.’ Working in the Diocesan Communications Office at the time, I explained that I had seen him like that on many, many occasions. I also thought to myself: I am not doing such a good job at communicating Cardinal Connell’s immense capacity for kindness.

“The evening of the following day I was with the Cardinal again, this time to drive him to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in St Oliver’s Park, Clondalkin, in the tiny Chapel of the Travelling People. There he was totally at ease in the packed chapel reverently washing the feet of members of the community, praying with them and sharing a cup of tea and a chat as a guest of one of the Traveller families in their home afterwards. No television cameras were present. That was a pity. The whole evening was so moving and joyful that it deserved wider attention for everyone involved.”

He often made a point of choosing to celebrate with the poorest of parish communities during the important Holy Week ceremonies. According to Fr McNeice, Cardinal Connell’s “gentlemanliness” will not be forgotten.

Biography of Cardinal Desmond Connell (courtesy Archdiocese of Dublin)

Desmond Connell was born on 24 March 1926. His father, John Bernard Connell, a native of Moycullen, Co. Galway, was a civil servant who was a member of the Irish delegation to the Ottawa Conference of 1932 and was later appointed by Sean Lemass as Vice-Chairman and Managing Director of the Irish Sugar Company. His mother, Mary (née Lacy), was on duty as a telephonist at the General Post Office on Easter Monday 1916. The future Cardinal grew up on Dublin’s Northside. He attended St Peter’s National School, Phibsborough and subsequently the Jesuit second level school, Belvedere College.

In September 1943 he entered the diocesan seminary of Holy Cross College, Clonliffe, and began his studies at University College Dublin. It was the beginning of a brilliant academic career, with first class honours in his BA degree in 1946. The following year he completed his Master’s degree and was awarded the National University travelling studentship in Philosophy. Between 1947 and 1951, Desmond Connell studied theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, where he led the BD class. He was awarded a Bachelor of Divinity degree.

Following his ordination by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid on 19 May 1951, he took up his travelling studentship and spent two years at the Institut Supérieur de Philosophie in Louvain. There, in 1953, he was awarded a PhD ‘avec la plus grande distinction’ for his dissertation on the Vision of God in Malebranche. That same year, Dr Desmond Connell joined the UCD Department of Metaphysics in Earlsfort Terrace. For the next 35 years, his life was centred on UCD. He was appointed Professor of General Metaphysics in May 1972 and later Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy. Dr Connell successfully pursued his research interests and in 1967 published his major work, The Vision in God – Malebranche’s Scholastic Sources, still recognised internationally as an important study on the philosopher. In 1981 he was awarded a D. Litt by the National University of Ireland for his published works in philosophy. He was a member of the Irish Hierarchy’s theological commission and the Diocesan Committee on Ecumenism. He was named a prelate of Honour of His Holiness in 1984. He was initially a chaplain to a Poor Clare community and later to Carmelite communities at Hampton and Blackrock for many years.

In succession to Kevin McNamara, Desmond Connell was appointed Archbishop of Dublin by the Holy See on 21 January 1988. He chose as his episcopal motto ‘Secundum Verbum Tuum’ (‘According to Thy Word’), citing Luke 1:38.

He was consecrated by Gaetano Alibrandi, Nuncio in Ireland, in the Pro-Cathedral, Dublin on 6 March 1988. He was created Cardinal by Pope John Paul II at the Consistory in Rome on 21 February 2001 and named Cardinal-Priest of S. Silvestro in Capite.

Desmond Connell was one of the cardinal electors who participated in the 2005 papal conclave that selected Pope Benedict XVI.

He had previously served with the then Cardinal Ratzinger as a member of various Vatican commissions and Congregations. Among the Congregations and Commissions on which Desmond Connell served are the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation of Bishops, the Pontifical Council of the Laity and the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants.

Cardinal Connell published a number of works on philosophical and pastoral issues. Desmond Connell was a man of prayer, principle, courtesy, integrity and commitment to his faith and Church.

During his episcopacy he faced many challenges arising from the repeated revelations of clerical sexual abuse of children. In the wake of these revelations Archbishop Connell established a child protection agency in the archdiocese and his decisions in this difficult area were guided by the advice of that agency.

A spiritual man, at the heart of his pastoral ministry as priest, philosopher and bishop was a knowledge and experience of the person of Christ. He successfully restructured the financial situation of the archdiocese during his time as archbishop. Desmond Connell was interested in and knowledgeable about the arts. He had a great fondness for the works of Puccini and Verdi. He listed Mahler and Elgar among his favourite composers.

He held a deep and passionate interest in history, in particular the French Revolution. As Archbishop, Desmond Connell blessed and opened a number of churches in the diocese, including Ballygall and Rathcoole. He inaugurated a period of Eucharistic renewal in the diocese and promoted devotion to the Sacred Heart. He led the diocesan process at the beatification of the Irish martyrs. He oversaw a publication of the history of the archdiocese. Under his auspices, initial meetings with respect to the summoning of a diocesan synod took place. He inaugurated the Women’s Forum where female church issues could be aired. During his episcopacy, Formal Linkage agreements were established between Dublin City University and both St Patrick’s College of Education, Drumcondra and Mater Dei Institute of Education, which enabled each of them to become a College of Dublin City University.

On 26 April 2004, Desmond Connell retired as archbishop, handing the diocese over to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.

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