Cardinal Desmond Connell, who retired as the Roman Catholic archbishop of Dublin during a furor over the church’s handling of cases of sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the clergy, died on 21 February. He was 90.
A theological scholar with training in metaphysics, then-Father Connell was a surprise choice when Pope John Paul II appointed him to lead the archdiocese of Dublin in 1988. John Paul named him a cardinal in 2001, making him the first archbishop of Dublin to be so elevated in nearly 120 years.
During his 16 years as archbishop, Connell was a stalwart defender of church doctrine, particularly on social issues like contraception, divorce and homosexuality. At times he came across as too doctrinaire. He criticised Mary McAleese, a Roman Catholic who was president of Ireland from 1997 to 2011, for taking communion in a Protestant church. At a reception hosted by then prime minister Bertie Ahern and his partner (the two were not married), the cardinal spoke of the primacy of marriage.
But Connell was best known for his handling of a sex abuse scandal that eventually engulfed his archdiocese.
The abuses first began to emerge after the Rev Brendan Smyth, a Northern Irish priest, was convicted of child sex abuse and imprisoned in 1994. The next year Connell denied that the archdiocese had paid compensation to victims of abuse by its priests. But in 1998, it emerged that he had lent archdiocesan money to an abusive priest, the Rev Ivan Payne, who then paid an abuse survivor, Andrew Madden.
In 2002, the national broadcaster RTE published a report by investigative journalist Mary Raftery exposing the archdiocese’s protection of eight priests who had sexually abused children.
An independent commission was established to investigate the archdiocese’s handling of 325 abuse claims from January 1975 to May 2004, but Connell mounted a High Court challenge to try to block the inquiry from gaining access to 5,500 files on priests and abuse allegations. He secured a temporary injunction, before withdrawing his action two weeks later amid public outrage.
The inquiry issued a damning conclusion in 2009: “The Dublin Archdiocese’s preoccupations in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the church and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities.”
Connell expressed remorse several times about the abuse and how the scandal was handled.
Desmond Connell was born in Dublin on 24 March, 1926, the son of a civil servant. Ordained in 1951, he went on to earn a doctorate in philosophy at University College, Dublin. He later became a professor of general metaphysics and dean of the philosophy faculty there before he was appointed archbishop. He is survived by three nephews.
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