Fr Brian D'Arcy: My battle with cancer, the Catholic Church and how my faith survived trauma of being abused as a boy of 10
Fr Brian D'Arcy is one of Ireland's best-known clerics – controversial and frank. He speaks to Adrian Rutherford about the future of the Catholic Church and how his faith survived the trauma of being abused as a boy of 10 in Omagh.
Published 28/07/2014 | 09:09
Q. You are one of Ireland's best-known priests, but was religion always a part of your life?
A. I was born in 1945 and, growing up in the 1950s and 60s, not many families weren't religious. By modern standards, there were exceptionally religious families back then.
It was a culture. It didn't matter what religion you were, you went to church on Sunday, you had respect for your parents, the law and your community.
We weren't a family that was always in church or highly religious. We were a very normal family.
We were highly involved in GAA affairs – my father was a famous footballer – and that was almost as big a religion as Catholicism.
Did we believe in a God, did we pray, did we keep the Commandments? Yes, we did that as simply as you breathed because there was no other way of life.
Q. When and why did you decide to become a priest?
A. I had no notion of being a priest at all, even though it would have been on the list of possibilities for most Catholics growing up at the time.
I went to confession as a young boy one Saturday and the priest asked me if I had thought of becoming a priest. I said no, and he said I should consider it.
It was like a command, it was almost the voice of God speaking to me.
My mother and father said absolutely no way – I wasn't good enough. They said I was too fond of football and pop music and I would never make it.
I kept coming to confession, and the priest kept saying I should join the priesthood. Eventually I decided to give it a try, not expecting to go through with it.
I entered the Passionist monastery near Enniskillen on September 1, 1962.
Q. You were abused as a child – did that shake your faith?
A. I was abused when I was 10 and at school in Omagh. I didn't realise what was happening at the time, but I still knew it was wrong. It had a great effect on me. It made me very nervous and insecure, unsure of what religion was or wasn't because it was a religious brother who abused me for almost a year.
As a teenager, after I entered the priesthood, a priest tried to involve me in abuse as well.
I had more sense at that age and was able to get out of the situation much quicker.
I hadn't the wit to tell my superiors because he told me that if I ever told anyone I would never be ordained.
It was only 35 years or so afterwards that I was even able to think about it.
Abuse affects you to the day you die. It leaves you very insecure, very hurt. You never actually get over it. You have to live with it.
Q. You could never imagine it had been so widespread in the church?
A. I thought I was the only child in the country that it had happened to. I genuinely thought that, which is why I convinced myself I wouldn't be believed.
It was such a uniquely awful experience. Being abused by an adult who you trusted, especially by someone in religion, destroys your relationship with people, it destroys your relationship with others and it threatens to absolutely destroy your relationship with God.
Q. Pope Francis recently said he believes one in 50 priests is involved in child abuse – do you think that's accurate?
A. He is underestimating it. It is more than that. At the very minimum, I would say three to five per cent, and I would say nearer 5%. But that is only the reported cases – I would contend that less than 50% of cases are ever mentioned or reported. So what is the real figure? It's probably nearer 8% – about one in 12 priests. Certainly one in 15 have either abused, assaulted or had dysfunctional sexual relationships.
Q. It has been very damaging for the Catholic Church.
A. It has, but I would rather have the church now, with its less arrogant, less perfectionist attitude than a church which said there is no room for sinners.
You always have to accept that you have to live with sin, not necessarily in sin, but with sin.
Q. Do you think it will ever recover its old image?
A. I hope not, because when its image was best, its sinfulness was greatest. Its image now is far more healthy because the good will survive and the hypocritical will perish.
Q. Would you still have joined the priesthood if you knew the scandals that were going to rock the church?
A. I honestly don't know. I think I probably would join the priesthood in any era if it was a priesthood of service to people, where you try to help people in trouble and walk with them.
That is what the priesthood is about – it's not about the image of the church.
It is about living an honest life, not pretending to be a saint when you're like everyone else – a sinner who needs forgiveness.
What would make it very difficult to be a priest is where the church pretended that priests were better than others, that it had to be clerically dominated and where sin was hidden in case it damaged the image of clerics.
Q. Have you ever regretted joining the priesthood?
A. Yes, of course, such as when I haven't been free to speak what is obviously the truth.
I've never regretted being a priest when it meant helping people by sacrifices we have to make such as not marrying.
I would like to have married, very much, and it would have made me a better priest, but that's a sacrifice I was prepared to make.
Q. Have you ever doubted your faith?
A. Yes – you have to. You never grow in faith if you don't doubt it.
Doubt is not the opposite of faith – certainty is. Because if I am certain of something, why do I need faith?
I can't convince myself rationally that God exists, but I know in my soul that He does, so I take the leap of faith into the darkness.
Faith is matured and strengthened through periods of doubt.
Q. Two years ago it emerged your Sunday World columns have to be submitted to an official censor – that made you very angry?
A. They attempted to censor it, I've never let them censor it.
They were saying from Rome that what I was writing in the Sunday World was contrary to what the Catholic Church believed.
I dispute that to this day. There are some things you can have an opinion on, and I have an opinion which is different to Rome.
I have never, ever disputed what is defined Doctrine.
Nothing has changed to this day, except the fact there is a more benign Pope in place and one can breathe a little easier.
But the letter of censure has never been withdrawn, and I don't expect it to be.
I'm certainly not going to write only what the Vatican thinks should be written.
If they feel I don't deserve to be a priest, well, let them throw me out. I'll survive, somehow.
Q. So what exactly is the current situation – are you submitting articles to Rome?
A. Not at all, they appointed someone to censor my work.
I have an arrangement with them that if there is something that might be controversial regarding faith and the Doctrine, I will ask them about it.
But it won't be the whole article – just that particular point.
They won't censor my thoughts, I refuse to let that happen.
Q. It did cause you some anguish though?
A. After about two years of sheer hell, I realised I wasn't wrong, and that everything I had been saying had been common sense.
I got the courage to realise that what I was saying was right.
Say it, they know where I am – if they want to come and get me then let them, but I'm not going to go around worrying over whether I should say something in case it upsets some guy in Rome.
I'm more interested in what my readers think than what some fella in Rome thinks.
It was a nonsense and a perfect example of how a dysfunctional institution becomes so keen on self-preservation that if forgets it has a mission to tell the truth.
Q. It had a big effect on your health?
A. It caused me serious ill-health and within a year-and-a-half or so I had cancer. I'm not saying it caused it but it certainly didn't do me any good.
In the end I said to myself, am I going to let a crowd in Rome destroy my health?
At the end of it I just thought, everybody knows what I'm like, this is what I have to say. You can agree or disagree, but I'm not going to stop saying it.
Q. When were you diagnosed with cancer?
A. Earlier this year, but I don't really like saying too much about it. It's prostate cancer, which any man can get at any stage.
I haven't said much about it because it's putting yourself in the limelight, but thankfully I'm overcoming it.
My faith was important through it, it is also a reminder that you're not going to live for ever.
You have to get on with life, do what you have to do, say what you have to say and don't risk dying with any regrets.
Q. So, you're fine now?
A. As far as I know I'm fine, but then I thought I was completely fine beforehand.
I'm old enough to realise that when you think you're fine there is probably something wrong.
I haven't let it affect me, I'm still working 18 hours a day.
Not many people have been aware of the fact I've cancer, I never hid the fact, but very few people have referred to it.
I've also had a new knee recently, and three stents in my heart. In other words, if I was a car you would be trading me in.
Q. In the mid-1990s you had an infamous clash with Cardinal Cahal Daly on RTE's Late, Late Show. Tell me about that.
A. It must have been some show because 20 years on people still talk about it no matter where I go. It was the early days of the abuse scandal in Ireland. It had broken in 1993 and after two years it was becoming clear that bishops had moved these guys around.
The Late, Late Show did a special on the future of the church, because it was a crisis for the church.
They asked me to be in the audience, but I had no plan to say anything.
However, as the programme went on, it was becoming obvious that everything the cardinal said was driving the audience mad.
Gay Byrne, near the end, turned and indicated that I had something to say.
I hadn't, but I just wanted to calm people down.
I said to him: "Cardinal Daly, you say the church is fine and good, but how come nobody else says that?".
I wasn't being angry, I was just telling the man what was happening.
Q. What happened afterwards?
A. I got thousands of letters, I think about 5,000 letters. About 3,000 thought I was a saint, the other 2,000 thought I was the devil.
Cardinal Daly got something similar. But he was living in a wee bubble up in Armagh so I phoned him the following Friday when I was in Belfast.
I went down and spoke to him, late on the Friday night, and he asked me why did I do it.
I told him that I had just spoken the truth.
I asked him did he know how many abusers were in his diocese, or the other dioceses across Ireland.
The man didn't know. It was all being kept from him.
I named names to him. He got very white. I thought he was going to die in front of me, such was his shock.
Q. Is it true you were the inspiration for Fr Ted?
A. It is partly true, but it's a bit like having a grandmother who allows you to play for Ireland.
Dermot Morgan, who played Fr Ted, began life on the Mike Murphy show imitating a priest. He was going to call him Fr Michael Cheery, after Fr Michael Cleary.
But Kevin Marron, then editor of the Sunday World, convinced him that he should call him Fr Brian Trendy.
Because he looked like me, everyone presumed he was imitating me. It was the bane of my life for many years, this Fr Trendy.
And out of Fr Trendy eventually came Fr Ted.
Q. Do you see a bit of yourself in Fr Ted – or vice versa?
A. Certainly not. I could never see myself as Fr Trendy, let alone Fr Ted.
Q. Do you think the priesthood will still exist 50 years from now?
A. It will still be here but I've no idea what it will look like.
It will have to change, of that there is no question, and God is telling us that.
We can't go on looking for male celibates, and having an exclusive club of male celibates.
I can see a time where men can be married and run a family and offer Eucharist at the weekend, there's no reason why it couldn't happen.
It happens in other churches very effectively.
Will people have to go to Mass on a Sunday for ever? I think it will be impossible for people to go to Mass. I regret that because I think the Eucharist is a hugely central part of any believing Christian's life.
I wish the church would lift this idea that it is a sin not to go to Mass on a Sunday because I think it's the wrong way around.
It is such a privilege to attend Mass on a Sunday that anyone with any iota of faith would want to be there, rather than compelled to be there.
Q. Would you like to see the Pope come to Ireland?
A. No, he has enough to be doing. Just get on with doing the work. Why should he waste his time coming here? We either believe or we don't believe.
Look at the news – sure we won't let Garth Brooks come, never mind the Pope.
Q. Recently it emerged that 800 babies may be buried in a mass grave in Tuam, Co Galway. That really distressed you?
A. It is the kind of thing we would have expected to come out of Germany during World War Two.
I was at Knock and I went to the grave to pray, and I was traumatised for days afterwards.
It seems to me a terrible comment on the church at the time, and a terrible comment on society at the time.
How could the birth of a child not be anything other than a social joy?
Why should parents send their daughter into a home to have a child? Why should parents never want to see or hold their own grandchild?
It is a most horrific comment on basic Christian values.
It is just sickening to think that this society was somehow viewed as Christian and saintly and holy and godly, when everything about it was precisely the opposite.
Q. You're now 69, and as busy as ever, do you still enjoy it?
A. I've always enjoyed priestly work.
I've never actually enjoyed being a priest.
I'm not a stuffy cleric, I can't fit into that scene.
That causes me great grief among other clerics who think I should be a member of the club, but I'm not a member of the club.
I was ordained to serve people, not to keep other priests happy.