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Pat Buckley: If the Moon had churches, Bishop Cahal Daly would have sent me there... it didn't, so Larne it was

By Suzanne Breen

Published 08/08/2016

Bishop Pat Buckley at his church in Larne
Bishop Pat Buckley at his church in Larne

Independent Catholic cleric Pat Buckley says he never set out to cause trouble, it came to his door because he is a champion of the downtrodden.

Q. You're a gay Catholic cleric living in loyalist Larne with your husband. What is that like?

A. You might be expecting a tale of horrors, but nothing could be further from the truth. I've never once suffered homophobic abuse in Larne. I've lived in the town for 32 years and there was a lot of sectarianism at the start. But that has disappeared.

People who spat on me when I first arrived today sit and have a coffee and a chat with me. I was elected to Larne Borough Council in 1989, and it was a rough ride. But now when I'm out doing my shopping I meet DUP people who wouldn't speak to me back then, and we smile and laugh about those days.

I'm now part of the furniture. I've bought the plot in the council cemetery where I want to be buried.

Q. How did you end up in Larne?

A. Cahal Daly, who was then Bishop of Down and Connor, deliberately moved me into what he thought was hostile territory. Larne wasn't a desirable parish. It was 83% Protestant and that included a sizeable Free Presbyterian population. I think Bishop Daly thought he wouldn't be hearing from me again (laughs).

Before that, he had proposed a parish in Australia, which he suggested would be happy to have a liberal priest like me. I said: "My name isn't Guinness, I'm not for export." If they'd churches on the Moon, he would have moved me there, but they hadn't, so Larne it was.

Q. Have you always been a mischief-maker?

A. Well, I was born in Tullamore, Co Offaly, the eldest of 17 children. I had no childhood as I was effectively a third parent to my brothers and sisters. So maybe I developed a sense of mischief as an adult to make up for those lost years. But look, I never set out to cause trouble. It came to my door because I championed the cause of the downtrodden and outcasts. I call myself the black shepherd for the black sheep.

My parents strongly influenced the kind of person I am. My dad Jim was a trade union official who went to university late. He was called to the bar in his 50s. He was an admirer of Tony Benn, and I get my fighting spirit from him. My mother Josephine had a huge heart and I get my compassion from her.

Q. When did you first clash with the Catholic hierarchy?

A. After I was ordained I was sent to St Peter's in west Belfast in 1978. There were five priests inhabiting a palatial house in the middle of Divis Flats. We were living in first world accommodation, and working in a Third World community. I had to choose which world I belonged to. I chose the people and that made my life with the other priests, and my superiors, very difficult.

Q. You said Mass in the H-Blocks during the 1981 hunger strike. What was that like?

A. They were traumatic times. One Sunday a prison officer asked me to bring communion to a prisoner in the hospital wing - it was Bobby Sands. I asked him for a chat afterwards and he said: "Only if you're not going to preach at me." I told him I wasn't that type. I got to know him fairly well.

A lot of the other hunger strikers were hostile to the Church, but he ordered them to Mass. I certainly didn't share Bobby Sands' convictions, but he was very genuine in them. I watched the hunger strikers die one by one.

I was forbidden by the hierarchy from going to their funerals - they said it wouldn't look good with the authorities. I went to all 10. Not because I supported the IRA - I most definitely did not. But these were men I had ministered to, I had heard their confessions. I did the Christian thing.

It was the same with British soldiers. Many priests in west Belfast wouldn't talk to them. I always did, and got grief for it. I remember one soldier asking me to bless his miraculous medal. I didn't hesitate. I relate to people as human beings.

Q. You will be 65 next birthday, officially an old-age-pensioner, are you still challenging the Church?

A. Of course I am. I pick my battles more carefully these days, but I remain as committed to truth and justice as ever. I run the Bethany group, which is made up of 120 women who have had failed relationships with priests. I help people who find out - usually late in life - that they're the sons and daughters of priests.

I'm currently involved in a battle with the hierarchy over a big gay scandal in Maynooth seminary. As a result of material that I published on my blog, the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, will no longer send student priests to Maynooth. They'll go to Rome instead.

There is a very dominant gay culture in Maynooth, which non-homosexual seminarians find intimidating. A former seminarian is filing a complaint of sexual harassment with gardai against a staff member. Interestingly, the four Northern dioceses are content to keep sending their trainees to Maynooth.

Q. Does the Catholic Church have a big 'gay problem'?

A. In the past we had the 'Jack The Lad' heterosexual priest, having affairs with housekeepers and female parishioners. It still happens - like Father Ciaran Dallat, who got a parishioner pregnant in west Belfast - but that type is a minority now.

Around 60 to 70% of priests ordained today are gay. There are at least 200 Irish priests on the gay dating app Grindr. It's a schizophrenic situation. Imposing compulsory celibacy on priests is disastrous, because it drives them into underground sex.

Q. You were suspended from the priesthood 30 years ago, then excommunicated in 1998. What normal clerical duties do you still perform?

A. They took my membership card away, but they can't stop me working. I run an independent ministry from The Oratory in Larne. I baptise children - mainly from mixed marriages. I baptised a baby girl at Glenoe Waterfall recently.

I married two divorced couples last week. I marry fewer gay people since the legalisation of civil partnerships here and gay marriage in the South.

I used to be only person conducting non-church weddings in the South, but there are now 5,000 others on the register - druids, white witches, black witches and humanists - so I do less of that too.

Now, I marry a lot of couples from the Travelling community. You can't get married in the South until you're 18 but, with parental permission, it's 16 in the North, so they come up to me in Larne.

Q. What are the Traveller weddings like?

A. Exactly as you see on TV. Girls arrive in the snow with skirts the width of belts. I tell them they'll get a chill in their kidneys. Brides arrive in Cinderella carriages drawn by four horses. The people of Larne gather at the gates to watch the spectacle. The bridal limousine and all the Mercs bring the traffic on Main Street to a standstill.

When The Oratory was being renovated, the bride and bridesmaids at one wedding couldn't change there. So they just stripped to their undies in the street. The builders' eyes were out on stalks. They told me that watching that scene was better than any big bonus in their pay packets.

But fights can start at these weddings. I've had occasion to call both police and ambulances. I've taken the odd knock myself from a drunken father of the bride. So when I'm doing a Traveller wedding, I always keep my mobile phone in my pocket in case I need to dial 999.

Q. You came out as gay in 1999. Did you march in the Pride parade on Saturday?

A. No, it's not for me. For those in the gay community who like the parade and its colourfulness, that's fine. But there are lots of others who are quietly gay and aren't into parades. We all express ourselves differently.

Q. Did you support the campaign against Ashers bakery for refusing to make a pro-gay marriage cake?

A I have mixed feelings on Ashers. I don't buy their produce instinctively. Yet I do feel that too much was made of the situation with Ashers, it was definitely overdone.

I dislike fundamentalism of any kind and I detect a creeping fundamentalism among some gay rights campaigners. I don't see the need for it. There is strong legislation protecting gay people now. We have civil partnerships in the North and it's only a matter of time before gay marriage is legalised here too.

The battle for equality is almost over. But I am concerned about an Animal Farm situation developing, where those who were once marginalised end up becoming as intolerant as the dictators they despised.

Q. In 2010 you married Eduardo Yango, a Filipino chef 23 years your junior. How is married life?

A. We are very happy. We have the same sense of humour, which helps. We share the housework and the cooking. We travel a good bit. We went to Bulgaria recently and enjoyed some sight-seeing and visiting museums.

Our life is very ordinary. We go out for a bite to eat now and again. If we're in Belfast we call into the Union Bar for half-an-hour. But we are not part of the whole gay scene. It doesn't appeal to me. It can be very concentrated on sex, alcohol and loud music. That may be attractive to young people, but it's not, and never was, my style.

Q. In 2013 you were convicted of involvement in 14 sham marriages which flouted immigration laws. Why did you commit these crimes?

A. I've always had a natural sympathy for immigrants, but the couples were referred to me by a solicitor, Ho Ling Mo. She was an officer of the court and licensed by the Law Society of Northern Ireland. I trusted her, and I was wrong.

She was paid thousands by these couples. I didn't profit. I got my normal £300 a wedding. I co-operated fully with the police and handed over all my documentation to them. I have married 3,000 couples. At issue here were 14 weddings over three years - a tiny percentage of the marriages I've conducted.

Q. Are you not ashamed of your actions?

A. I was charged with conspiracy to defraud the British Home Secretary. Some people told me that any Irishman worth his salt should be doing exactly that. But I am not proud that I fell foul of the law and now have a criminal record. It also gives my enemies ammunition against me.

Q. What affect did the trial have on you?

A. It was one of the worst times of my life. To sit in the dock between two prison officers at 61 years of age is deeply unpleasant. Once, I was placed in handcuffs and taken to the cells in the bowels of the court - that was scary. The trial had a major effect on my health. I have Crohn's disease and I developed bad cramps and bleeding. Three times walking to court I had "accidents" on the street. I was worried that I'd be sent to jail, although I'd have just had to make the best of it. Thankfully, I received a three-year suspended sentence.

Q. During your trial it was revealed that you were HIV-positive. How does that illness impact on your daily life?

A. It doesn't. When I was diagnosed in 2001, it was a shock. But HIV is no longer a death sentence. I'm looked after wonderfully well at the Royal Victoria Hospital, and I take my medication. It's only one tablet a day. HIV is easier to live with than diabetes.

People can survive into their 80s or 90s and die of heart attacks and strokes.

I was very annoyed when my diagnosis was revealed in court, but it gave people with their own secrets the courage to share them with me.

Two priests with HIV contacted me. Another priest I'd known for many years confided to me that he had gender dysphoria.

He was born with ambiguous genitalia and was still unsure whether he was male or female. So I look upon my HIV diagnosis being made public as positive now. I always try to see the silver lining in the clouds.

Q. The man who infected you with HIV knew he had the virus, but never told you. Do you hate him?

A. Absolutely not. I was in love with him at the time and I believe that real love never dies. I still love him, although I haven't seen him for many years and I wouldn't want to.

Q. A fortnight ago, 86-year-old Father Jacques Hamel was beheaded while saying Mass in Normandy. What is your response to the attack?

A. I've been in those little picturesque churches dotted across the French countryside and I can just see the old priest celebrating Mass with his congregation of elderly women. It was a hideous act by fundamentalists of the Islamic variety.

All it takes is for one person in Northern Ireland watching that, aligned to Isis, to go out and do the same here. It's impossible to prevent, as you just can't put armed guards on every church.

But while we mourn the dead in France and Germany, we shouldn't forget that hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the Middle East since George Bush and Tony Blair invaded Iraq.

They have brought a lot of this upon us and I hope Parliament impeaches Blair.

Q. Pope Francis has been hailed as the great reformer. Do you think he can save the Catholic Church?

A. I doubt it. The Church is in meltdown. The damage from child abuse scandals has been colossal. Forty years ago there were 700 trainee priests in Ireland, now there are 60. The Church needs to change, but that's very hard for a massive 2,000-year-old organisation. It's like trying to turn an oil tanker in a small harbour.

I like Pope Francis. He's not judgmental, he's friendly, and he has the common touch. He tells mother-in-law jokes. You couldn't imagine any of his predecessors doing that. I hope he's genuine, but I fear it's just a PR trick. And, even if he is sincere, the Vatican mafia are all around him like sharks.

Q. Can you ever imagine yourself back in the Catholic Church?

A. I occasionally have that nightmare! It would be very hard to see, though. I regard myself now as a Free Catholic rather than a Roman Catholic. But, as a Christian, I am of course open to reconciliation with those from whom I am estranged.

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