What the Resignation of a UK Bishop Reveals About the Current Crisis

Over the past few months my mind has turned repeatedly to the case of my former bishop, Kieran Conry of the diocese of Arundel and Brighton. He resigned back in 2014 after Simon Hodgkinson, the aggrieved husband of Olivia, went to the press with claims that his wife had been enjoying an illicit affair with Bishop Conry, who had been counseling her over her marriage troubles.

Having been tipped off that the story was about to break, Bishop Conry immediately announced his resignation, denying that he had been involved inappropriately with Mrs Hodgkinson and instead citing a sexual relationship he had had with another woman some years previously. In an interview with the UK’s Daily Mail, Bishop Conry spoke of his relief at having been outed, calling it a liberation and noted that he did not believe he had been a “bad bishop” nor did he believe that his affair(s) had got in the way of his job. At least, Conry added, he had never attempted to make sexual morality the subject of his homilies. He might be an adulterer but thank goodness he wasn’t a hypocrite!

Conry’s statement spoke volumes. It appears clear that he never considered the sacred and metaphysical nature of his vocation, believing instead that his history of adulterous sexual liaisons did not interfere in any way with his role of bishop. Many would beg to differ. From my own personal perspective and dealings with Bishop Conry, he always gave the impression of being deeply disorganized, something which I put down to the fact that he had dispensed with the services of a live-in chaplain when he moved into a new executive home after selling the official residence which had been bequeathed to the diocese. With no live-in companion or community to witness his comings and goings, and no regular pattern of praying the daily office or regular community time within his household, it is not surprising that he went off the rails. Regardless of whether or not Conry was the most efficient administrator, he still failed miserably in terms of his responsibilities as a spiritual leader, refusing the authentic and enticing offer of love and fulfillment within the Church’s teaching on sex and relationships.

My former bishop’s resignation threw me into turmoil in a number of ways. Kieran’s statement had been released on a Saturday afternoon but was under embargo until that evening, in order that it could be read to the faithful of Arundel and Brighton during the vigil Masses. Somebody had sent an advance copy to Damian Thompson who broke the story on Twitter and I was besieged with phone calls from the national press and media outlets, wanting the juicy details and requesting my comments. The diocesan communications manager had equally been caught unawares and was away on holiday for the weekend, therefore, as a then-member of Catholic Voices, the group set up by Austen Ivereigh and Jack Valero to defend the truth of the Catholic faith in the public square, it seemed as though I was going to be the main point of contact.

 

A friend with links to the local curia therefore filled me in with what they understood about the situation. Kieran Conry had been in a long-term relationship with a married (but separated) woman whose husband worked overseas for a number of years. She had supposedly become jealous of the bishop’s new relationship and had threatened to expose him to the press. This made sense, because if Kieran was not in a relationship with Mrs. Hodgkinson, as he claimed, why then would he confess to a previous misdemeanor?

What angered me about this was that, just as in the case of Theodore McCarrick, it appeared to be an open secret. While researching to see if there were any other skeletons about to emerge from Kieran Conry’s closet, I discovered a whole stack of incriminating photographs which Bishop Conry had been tagged on Facebook by the children of the first woman with whom he had been having an affair. I say incriminating because even though there was nothing overtly sexual about them, they did depict Kieran in civilian clothing enjoying a number of jolly days out and larking about with a separated woman of his own age who was not a family member. They certainly raised eyebrows as did the fact that the woman appeared to have Catholic priests among her Facebook friends who would almost certainly have seen the photographs.

For my part, I first heard a rumor about Kieran in 2011, three years before the scandal broke. A woman who has a reputation for unpleasant and highly-embellished gossip curtly informed me that my bishop had a string of mistresses, a string of illegitimate children, and was known for the old cliché involving housekeepers. To be clear, those last two allegations are, to the best of my knowledge, utterly false.

At this point I hadn’t yet met Bishop Kieran and was horrified. I attempted to put it to the back of my mind. I had been offered no proof in support of the allegation apart from “everyone knows”; this was nothing more than hearsay, no matter how authoritative the gossip claimed to be. Perhaps I ought to have looked this up on Facebook then and brought it to someone’s attention, but even if I had, would anything have been done? I certainly couldn’t have gone reporting a piece of hearsay. But it’s hard to forget such a piece of outrageous gossip, which is one of the reasons St. Francis de Sales counsels so heavily against it.

When I did meet Kieran a few months later, I was struck by two things: Firstly, he was an extremely personable and engaging personality able to immediately put you at your ease. Secondly, he clearly had an eye for a pretty face. He emitted a myriad of signals, both conscious and unconscious, that he found me attractive and, as I told my husband, it did make me feel uneasy. There was one occasion when I was attending an event at the seminary where I definitely caught him, or at least it’s my belief that I caught him, “checking me out.” I was mortified and told my husband who had asked me why my face had turned puce, and we both tried to pretend that I had been mistaken. Nobody, least of all a priest, wants to think that their father in Christ, to whom he has sworn obedience, fancies his wife.

My husband’s first reaction on hearing the sad news about his bishop’s resignation was to exclaim, “Gosh, you were right. Remember that time when you thought he’d been giving you the eye?” In the intervening period I had forgotten. We’d lost a baby and Bishop Conry had been particularly kind and solicitous with absolutely no hint of impropriety so I had convinced myself that I had been imagining things.

I thought about this a lot in light of #MeToo and the Harvey Weinstein revelations: At the time it had happened, my husband was still a seminarian and awaiting the rubber-stamp from Rome for his dispensation from celibacy. Kieran literally had our future in his hands. Had he displayed any kind of impropriety or made any kind of advances, and I need to stress that he didn’t—he might not have even been consciously aware of what he was doing that day in the seminary, I don’t know what I would have done. Would I have reported him and risked my husband’s vocation? Would I have reported anything about his supposed string of mistresses, even if I had the proof? Again, I don’t know.

Bear in mind, my husband resigned from being an Anglican vicar in September 2010. It was 5 long years before he was ordained a Catholic priest, because he had taken the diocesan route, resigning before the announcement of the Ordinariate. The vocations panel determined that because I had 2 children and a third on the way, that he would need to take time out before starting seminary. So he worked as a funeral director on minimum wage and we were supported financially by St. Barnabas Society, which was set up to help converts. It was difficult watching the Ordinariate priests, who by necessity were ordained 6 weeks after being received into the Church, whereas we sat in limbo for 5 years, not knowing if my husband would be ordained, or where we were going to end up as a family.

Matters weren’t helped by a snarl-up with Vatican paperwork. Whereas a dispensation from celibacy normally takes about 4 months to process and be granted, my husband’s took a staggering 18 months. It had landed on the desk of the CDF the day Benedict announced his resignation and was put in the wrong pile, a situation exacerbated by the fact that the personnel in various dicasteries seemed to change on a daily basis.

Until such time as my husband had the bishops’ hands laid on his head, we as a family were living in a state of anxiety, desperate not to do anything which could jeopardize our plans.

All of which brings me to the current crisis. My experience is absolutely nothing like those of the seminarians abused by McCarrick, but I do know what it’s like to feel powerless, beholden to a bishop and terrified to do anything which could dramatically change the rest of your life. Admittedly, I don’t have the experience that a priest has with his bishop, or know what it’s like to be in formation for the priesthood and look up to people spiritually, but I have witnessed the desperate longing for the vocation of priesthood to be able to serve at the altar. I know how much my husband physically ached to be able to truly serve Christ at the altar, to truly bring him to people in the form of bread and wine, and I did not want to be responsible for snatching that away.

My concern was the wellbeing of my family and children and what might happen to us if, after 5 years and with 5 children by then, we suddenly found ourselves cast out on the streets. This is why the laity who are privy to abuse allegations cover it up. They have identical concerns regarding their families should they find themselves dismissed. Seminarians have no right of appeal or recourse to an employment tribunal should they find themselves thrown out of seminary after complaining about Uncle Ted and his nocturnal habits.

An open secret isn’t always some kind of deliberate conspiracy but rather a culture of innuendo, hearsay, and people never having anything concrete or substantial to report and therefore being fearful for their own wellbeing should they dare to say something, especially if it turned out to be false. When Bishop Lopes said in his homily that he knew about McCarrick and that everybody had heard the rumor, critics immediately went on the attack. Austen Ivereigh, the author of a biography of Pope Francis, snapped, “Bishop Lopes was at the CDF between 2005 and 2015 and knew McCarrick had a predatory history, so presumably can say what he did to bring this to the attention of the CDF and who responded.”

If Bishop Lopes did remain silent, it’s easy to see why (though we do know from Archbishop Viganò that Benedict found out and imposed sanctions on McCarrick). As a relatively newly-ordained high-flying young priest (Lopes would have been approaching his 30th birthday when he was appointed to the CDF), he might have felt that there would be everything to lose and nothing to gain from further spreading a rumor.

Back to the case of Kieran Conry, it turns out that even if I had reported my suspicions, no matter how baseless, they would have been ignored. In 2001, an obscure publication, Christian Order, reported that as a Monsignor, Conry had a reputation for being seen out and about with female friends and “shortly before his episcopal consecration Mass he is seen in Italy strolling hand in hand and enjoying leisurely outings with his lady friend at Palazzola, the residence on Lake Albano belonging to the English College.” Apparently, enquiries were made and no action was taken—something that scandalized Daphne McCleod, former chairman of the traditionalist group Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, so much that she wrote to the then-Nuncio Archbishop Pablo Puente, but received no response. According to Graham Moorhouse, Mrs. McCleod’s successor at Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, the clergy of Arundel and Brighton, many of whom reportedly resisted Kieran’s appointment, began to joke in secret about their bishop “having a nice wife!” The priests “were burying their heads in the sand!”

One can only assume that the likes of Christian Order and Daphne McCleod were written off purely on account of the perception that they were eccentric traditionalists on the wrong side of the Catholic culture wars. It seems that they were onto something after all. Perhaps if they had been taken seriously, the diocese of Arundel and Brighton would have been spared the agony and scandal of a bishop who disappeared mid-way through celebrations for their 50th anniversary (leading to much expense) and who never managed to get to grips with a dramatic decline in vocations. Perhaps Simon Hodgkinson’s marriage would have remained intact?

As to what happened to Kieran Conry after his resignation: He retired to a comfortable house bought for him in the next-door diocese of Portsmouth; he has not been laicized. An investigation into Conry’s conduct and past history supposedly took place but behind closed doors. It seems as though the UK is not that far behind the US when it comes to an episcopal culture of silence and cover-up.

(Photo credit: FRUPPENCE / Wikipedia)

Caroline Farrow

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Caroline Farrow is a Catholic journalist and commentator based in the UK who has appeared on Sky News, the BBC and other networks. Her husband is a diocesan Catholic priest and convert from Anglicanism.

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