Kieran Conry's stepping down prompts heated debate about cover-up, celibacy, and priestly integrity
The fall from grace of Kieran Conry, whose resignation this weekend as Bishop of Arundel and Brighton shocked English Catholics, has inevitably provoked speculation.
Conry, who said he was resigning because of an affair he had some years ago, has allegedly been involved with another woman, a married mother of two, whose estranged husband says the affair has gone on for about a year and is convinced Conry’s fellow bishops have long been aware of his conduct.
Clare Kirby, the husband’s lawyer, told the Mail her client was considering legal action against the Church on the basis that “they’ve known for years that the bishop has been having affairs and if they’d taken action he almost certainly would not have lost his marriage, and his children would not be having to be brought up in a broken family.”
The prospects of such a case succeeding would be slim, since as bishop of Arundel and Brighton, Conry was neither a representative nor an employee of the Archbishop of Westminster, the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, or the Pope, but the question remains: was there a cover-up?
By Conry’s own account, when he was first asked to succeed Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor at Arundel and Brighton, he was interviewed by the papal nuncio and was told that “50 references had been taken up to make sure that this Father Conry did not have a dark side to him.”
He has since told the Catholic Herald that “no other bishops” had ever confronted him regarding the affair which led to his resignation. If any other bishop had known, he insisted, “someone would have said something to me, someone would have taken me aside, and nobody did.”
Denying the affair alleged in the Mail, Conry says that once word of it reached his fellow bishops, action was quickly taken. “When Church authorities heard about this latest story there was someone at my door almost within hours,” he said. “And the way it works there is a procedure in place in Canon Law that if a bishop should find himself in my situation there is a procedure to follow and that was followed very, very quickly.”
Damian Thompson, writing for the Spectator, is unconvinced. Accepting that the bishops may not have known about the affair which led to Conry’s resignation, he nonetheless says rumors about Conry’s relationships “date back decades.” Pointing to how there were concerns when Conry was being considered for Arundel and Brighton, he says “Conry was asked about them. And lied.”
“So the idiots in the Church," he concludes, "either took him at his word, which implies an incredible level of naivety, or decided to bend the rules.”
If Thompson is to be believed, it was not just bishops whose judgment was at fault when dealing with Conry. Only two days earlier, he dismissed a claim that “everyone knew” about Conry by saying, “I didn’t ‘know’ anything. But I doubt there was a Catholic journalist in the country who hadn’t heard rumors that Bishop Conry had a long-standing girlfriend. But we gave him the benefit of the doubt.”
Others have blamed Conry’s fall on celibacy requirements in the Catholic priesthood, with Catherine Pepinster, editor of the Tablet, saying on Twitter that Conry’s “sad” resignation “raises questions about [the] Catholic Church's obligatory celibacy for priests.”
Mary Clarkson, a Labour City Councillor in Oxford and a member of Catholic Voices, was quick to respond, cautioning against making prematurely “sweeping statements about celibacy without knowing the details.”
“Most adulterers are not celibate,” she added, a point that has also been made by historian Tim Stanley, who has drawn contrasts in the Telegraph with the British media’s other sex scandal of the day, wherein Conservative MP Brooks Newmark was lured into sending indecent pictures to a journalist posing as a young woman. “News flash to Church reformers: married men commit adultery,” he said, continuing, “Some of them even send photos of themselves to young women over social media.”
Conry’s situation has been scrutinized, says Stanley, in a way other scandals are not. “A Catholic bishop admits to breaking his vows, resigns and everyone says it’s indicative of the madness of Catholic theology,” he says. “A Tory MP finds himself in a sexting scandal, resigns and no one (no one) says that it’s indicative of the madness of Conservatism. Why the difference? Because a lot of the people writing about the bishop’s errors don’t like Catholic teaching and will use any excuse they get to prove its ‘flaws’.”
Dr. Joseph Shaw, chairman of the Latin Mass Society, who likewise responded to Pepinster’s comment by saying “Married men have been known to stray too, you know,” has since argued that the revelation of Conry’s conduct “should make us more vigilant, not less, about the way priests behave.”
“A more traditional conception of the priesthood,” he says, “is actually the only one which is going to stop behavior in which women are hurt, children are hurt, husbands are hurt, parishes are hurt, and priests are ultimately destroyed.”
Shaw has speculated that Conry’s private life must have influenced his public one. “One response to falling into sin is, obviously, to begin to look for excuses,” he says, “a search aided so ably by liberal Catholic theologians. How convenient for a priest or bishop living a life of sin to embrace a theory according to which there is no such thing as sin.”
Conry’s 2013 comments about how “the Gospel has little to say about sexual behavior” might spring to mind here, but Shaw specifically cites the 2008 Catholic Herald interview in which Conry said regular confession wasn’t necessarily a good idea and that the Church’s teaching on contraception was ultimately a matter of opinion.
Support for this thesis, at any rate, may be found in Conry’s recent comments to the Mail, in which the former bishop admits to doing wrong, but says he is in some ways relieved his secret is now out in the open. Commenting on the impact of his double life on his preaching, he said, “I have been very careful not to make sexual morality a priority. I don’t think it got in the way of my job, I don’t think people would say I have been a bad bishop.”
Greg Dalycovers the U.K. and Ireland for Aleteia.