Thursday, 3 December 2009

The Murphy Report & My Response - Some Clarification and an Apology

This letter was in response to today's editorial in the Irish Catholic newspaper which made some statements about me and my response to the Murphy Report which I felt did not accurately reflect the tone or intention of my article, and used material from other sources than my article. On contacting the paper I found the Deputy Editor, Michael Kelly most helpful and at his suggestion I wrote the letter below in response.
I have had a lot of feedback since the original article and subsequent interviews on Radio and in the papers. Some of that feedback has expressed genuine hurt at my comments and I apologise without qualification for the hurt that I have caused. The letter below hopefully sets out the context for my comments and my motivation for going public with my thoughts.
Dear Editor,
As a regular reader who looks forward to this excellent paper every Thursday morning I was disappointed to find myself so unfairly represented in one of two editorials running in the issue of 3rd December. Under the heading, ‘Kicking the Church’ I was firstly described as coming from Galway, when in fact I am a Dub now living in Co. Tipperary. That in itself would not have prompted this letter but there was a second far more serious charge laid at my door; that I had ‘called for the prosecution of Cardinal Connell’( NOTE * See below letter) I want to go on record that I said no such thing either in print or in a live interview. To clarify, what I said was this:

‘Anyone named in the report, be they cardinal, bishop, priest or lay, garda or civilian, should be investigated and where evidence of criminal behaviour or neglect is found they must be prosecuted, not for the sake of revenge, but for justice, in particular justice for those who paid the ultimate price at the hands of these vile abusers’.

This article can be read in its entirety on my blog where it was first published (
In my comments I named only one person, Bishop Willie Walsh and there it was to praise him. I commented that he ‘has consistently represented the marginalised and put them first – He understands that the role of the church is on the margins not dominating and controlling society’ When he subsequently came under fire following remarks he made about Bishop Murray of Limerick I defended him in an interview published in the Nenagh Guardian on 2nd December. I referred also to the Papal Nuncio and the Pope, but in both instances by their office and not their names. No mention was ever made by me of Cardinal Connell.

I shall not deal with references to my father in the same editorial (Archbishop Neill of Dublin) as he is not my keeper nor I his and he is well able to defend himself.

The final charge directed towards me is that I was ‘impolite’ and was ‘kicking’ the Roman Catholic Church when it was down. Those who know me will know this is an unlikely scenario, but I am also aware that words written in black and white on a page with no nuance or context can convey an impression other than intended.
I know I have hurt and angered many Roman Catholics by what I have said. I apologize unreservedly for doing so. It was not my intention though I feared it was inevitable. However that does not absolve me from the need to say I am sorry for the hurt I have caused, especially to the vast majority of my Roman Catholic sisters and brothers who are already so hurt and horrified by the findings of the Murphy Report. Neither do I seek to become a distraction from what must be the focus of this report and that is the survivors. They are who this is about, not my pride or any high moral ground that some might think I seek to occupy.

So, why did I get involved in this? Why like most representatives of other churches did I not maintain a polite silence?
The principal reason was out of a genuine concern for the survivors which must be paramount. They are not just the business or the concern of Roman Catholics. All Irish citizens be they Catholic, Protestant, Jew or Muslim, Atheist or Agnostic have a responsibility to them. We owe it to them to make sure that no institution, religious or secular is allowed to do this ever again.

The second reason may surprise some! It is my love for the Roman Catholic Church and so many of its people priests, lay and religious. I have said it before in other forums that I owe my priestly vocation primarily to the support and nurture of members of that Church. I would especially point to a very formative period in my faith journey when I attended Gortnor Abbey Co-ed Convent in Crossmolina Co. Mayo. There the Sisters of Jesus & Mary modeled open and inclusive Christian Community in a way that left a lasting impression on me. They have been with me throughout my journey and took up the front row of Christ Church cathedral at my Ordination. Their sense of vocation and outreach beyond denominational boundaries has been a huge influence on my ministry. There are so many others I could mention but please understand that in the light of my experience I couldn’t contemplate ‘kicking’ the Roman Catholic Church at any time and especially now. I consider the Roman Catholic Church as a sister Church – Yes there are differences and ongoing pain in that relationship due to the ban on Eucharistic hospitality and the official position of the Roman Catholic Church which is that as an Anglican priest my orders are ‘null and void’. But it is not all one sided. To my continuing shame we in the Church of Ireland have still failed to distance ourselves from the historic but deeply sectarian ’39 Articles of Religion’ which are published in all our prayer books, and to which all those ordained must subscribe (I crossed my fingers when I had to subscribe to them as do many but that is not enough – they should be consigned to history where they belong).

But for all our problems I see our churches as friends. Relationships on the ground where it really matters are excellent in most cases and increasingly we are working side by side in a new Ireland which has less and less time for Christian disunity and recognizes it for the scandal that it is. And yes, churches should as the editorial suggested ‘offer support and prayers’ to each other in difficult times. But how do we best support one another? Is it by polite silence or is it by speaking openly and honestly to a friend? Surely the days of ‘Tea-cup ecumenism’ and the forced politeness that went with it are dead? I hope so. I hope our relationships have matured beyond that. I believe they have and that is why I felt I could speak as I did.

I want the Roman Catholic Church to triumph over this Cancer that is destroying it because Ireland needs a vibrant and effective Roman Catholic Church whose integrity is unquestioned. And so I made comments about the role of the Nuncio in obstructing the enquiry and about the primacy of survivors. I asked questions about the possible role of compulsory celibacy and a morality that can excuse lying to protect abusers. I highlighted these issues because I honestly believe that they are issues the Roman Catholic Church must address if it is not to be destroyed by militant secularists and sectarian bigots (some to my shame from my own Church of Ireland) who will unlike me happily dance on its grave. I believe it is that serious and as a friend I am not going to sit back and let it happen.
Yours truly,
Stephen Neill

* Re Cardinal Connell - In the interests of transparency I have now discovered that the Irish Catholic report on this stems from a remark I made in a conversation on Twitter! - I had totally forgotten it and it was not part of any public statement and was a soundbite out of context. However a caution to me that the Irish Catholic are watching me and even following me on Twitter!


Vince said...

'Starting at the top, we should expel the Papal Nuncio who along with his colleagues in the Vatican, including the Pope and his predecessors has demonstrated absolute contempt for the legal authorities of this State.'

This is the sentence I found a bit odd. It might be a bit too compound for the eye of most people, you really have to hunt for the 'who' after Nuncio. And that's an important little 'who', for without it the text reads as if you are pushing for the expulsion of the entire Catholic Church.

Pastor Defessus said...

Stephen thank you for this. I am interested to note that "mental reservation" is not confined to the RC Church (your crossing of fingers re the 39 articles)!! On a more serious note your clarification of where you are coming from is most welcome as I know your comments were hurtful to many struggling Catholics. You are correct to say that the tome of "tea-cup ecumenism" is long past. Unfortunately both our Churches have tended to limit ecumenism to the occasional joint prayer service. This does not serve the urgent need for creating ever closer links. This can only be achieved by honesty and openness, which at times may mean causing some hurt when the truth is spoken (in charity). I don't know you but I do not consider you to be dancing on the grave of the RC Church. Your response has been heartfelt and very Christian. Keep up the good work.

Stephen Neill said...

Vince - I should have been a German - my sentences are long enough ;)

Pastor Defessus - Re 'mental reservation' and 39 Articles - Touchee
Thank you for your generous words and your understanding - one of the good things about this has been making contact with fellow travelers such as yourself.