Belfast Telegraph

Former Catholic priest on the sad, lonely lives of retired clergy

'To see a man of 77 say he's lonely because he was once a priest is so sad... but the Church doesn't give a damn'

By Malachi O'Doherty

Former clergyman Declan Moriarty says Rome is abandoning clerics who want to quit, treating them as if they have done something shameful.

The Catholic Church has been accused of disowning former priests. Men who have been employed by the Church for decades are discarded without pension, support or even thanks for their service.

That is the claim of Declan Moriarty, who went through a formal laicisation process two years ago, which strips him of his authority as a priest.

Mr Moriarty said: "I think if they take me in at 19, welcome me in, put me through the rigours of seminary life and they gradually introduce me to the clerical world... when they do that, they have a responsibility to me."

But he says that older men who have left the priesthood were suffering lonely lives without financial support and were cut off from their friends.

"One man I know is 77. He says he is terribly lonely. To have taken this step out, he thought it would work out for him much better than it did. To find a man of 77 saying I am lonely because I was a priest is really sad. And to know that nobody at an official level gives a damn or visits him in any way. It's appalling. If there is a general judgement, I'd like to be on the outskirts of the town watching, because there'd be all hell to pay.

"We preach this stuff and then we abuse it."

He accuses the Church of a lack of humanity towards men who have devoted most of their lives to its service, given up all prospect of married life, tried hard to be good priests, and found in later life that the could not preach its teachings with conviction or could not go on living a celibate life.

He said: "The institution wins most of the time, the gospel rarely wins. If you go to Matthew it says: 'If you do this to the least of these, you do it to me'. Where does that leave you if you do it to your own, if you do it to people you have worked with, if you let them down?"

Men who leave the Church in later life lose all the support structures they had.

"The house is taken away. You are in diocesan property. You have no right to stay there after you leave the priesthood," he said.

"You wouldn't want to anyway. You are more insecure financially. But also you have to make new relationships, find new friends. You can't stay in the clerical life. That transition is really difficult."

He argues the Church should respect the conscience of those who want to give up the priesthood instead of treating them as if they've disgraced themselves.

"It's about conscience. Pope Benedict, wrote an amazing thing, he said 'conscience is primary', but conscience is not regarded as primary in the Catholic Church.

"I wanted to leave because, in conscience, I wanted to be in a relationship and be in good conscience. That isn't respected, so we don't really believe that conscience is primary.

"It was suggested to me by one person that I have the relationship but stay in the priesthood. It was by a guy who was in charge of clergy at the time."

Mr Moriarty is in a better position than others he knows who have left. The Church acknowledged that because he has Parkinson's disease he cannot be expected to work, and it pays him a stipend until 65 when he gets the State pension.

Normally a priest's support from the Church only takes effect when he is 75. Mr Moriarty believes many older priests, who are disaffected and have even given up believing in Catholic teaching, stay in place saying Mass and performing the sacraments because otherwise they would be poor and friendless.

"What's the difference between the Church and a cult?" he asked.

"In a cult, if you want to leave you must escape. You could be followed. The Church should let you go freely and should support you."

Mr Moriarty was a priest for 40 years. He recalls blessing his own mother at his ordination. The Church sent him first to teach in Wicklow, and later appointed him to a prison chaplaincy.

In that role he travelled on occasions to Northern Ireland and met NIO ministers to discuss prison reform.

After that he was a parish priest in Greystones, when his Parkinson's took hold.

He said: "I think as you go on in life, if you have any sort of grey matter at all, you begin to wonder: what am I doing? In some ways we weren't doing very much - trying to get people to think like us or be in a thought process.

"I don't know what we were at. There is no wisdom coming from the Church." He says a lot of people do good work for the poor, and that this contrasts with the priesthood.

"We are best where we work with the poor, I think. That's the best side of us, (St Vincent) de Paul and the like. The other side is the black suit side, and that's not a great side," he argued.

He says priests become institutionalised and defend the Church when they should be thinking for themselves.

Unlike many of those who give up the priesthood, Mr Moriarty entered a formal laicisation process to return him to being a layman.

Friends and a member of his family were invited to give "evidence", but he was never allowed to see that evidence.

He added: "I applied in 2012 and completed in 2014. Some guys take many more years than that to get it. There was a hearing. They take evidence, but people who don't know you also give evidence.

"But you are not given any copies of anything. I don't get a book of evidence or anything like that. It's just done behind closed doors."

He says that, technically, the Church could have refused to laicise him.

"I asked the bishops: 'What if I didn't get it? They said: 'We haven't really thought about that'. They're not going to keep you on anyway," he said.

He describes the process as an effort by the Church to exercise control over the man who is leaving, adding: "There's lots of guys who just walk out the door. If they are young, they get jobs. I know lots of guys who did that."

Now he can do nothing of an official nature in the Church.

He explained: "I shouldn't be near the altar, I shouldn't be doing anything that's vaguely priestly."

He can't even be a eucharistic minister, helping distribute communion to a congregation, as many lay people do at Masses.

He said: "No, no. Because I have left the priesthood. You could (do it), but you didn't leave the priesthood."

The one sacramental role he can still perform in an emergency is to take confession.

"I can hear your confession if you have a heart attack, and I can forgive you, which is ridiculous nonsense, you know," he added.

Mr Moriarty is obviously a happy man, content to be well out of the priesthood now, though he says it hurt at the time he was leaving.

He was bewildered while still a priest that the Catholic Church was taking in ordained Anglican ministers who were married and had families, while at the same time rejecting priests it had ordained itself who wanted to marry. In recent years several Anglican ministers have moved across to the Catholic Church because they are no longer comfortable in a Church that ordains women.

He said: "If I had become an Anglican first I could be married and then I could become a Catholic priest. It didn't make any sense."

He knows of one case in England where the parish priest went to one of his junior colleagues and told him he had to leave because he was in a relationship and wanted to get married.

He explained: "And he had to leave the presbytery. Out he got, and then an Anglican minister with his wife and four kids moved in - and he was a Catholic priest then.

"The idea that you would turf a guy out because he is in love and you would let another guy in because he doesn't want women in the priesthood, that's just daft - nobody has explained that properly."

But surely he made a lifelong commitment to the Church, and he has broken the promise that he made? Isn't there an argument that the Church genuinely owes nothing to men who renege on commitments they made when younger?

He pointed out: "You have only broken a promise to God. That's between you and God.

"No promise can be absolute anyway. We know that now. So I don't think they should be ashamed of us. I don't think we have done anything wrong, even if they make us feel that we have committed a huge sin.

"To me, the silence around leaving the priesthood seems to be the wrong way of dealing with it.

"It doesn't hurt any more - but they had a pastoral responsibility."

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