Fr Oliver Brennan will never forget the morning of August 14, 2010. It was to the beginning of a personal hell that saw him uprooted from the parish community he loved and feeling alienated and unable to exercise his priestly ministry. After decades in the priesthood he now stood accused of abuse.
It is a harrowing chapter in his life that he can only now begin to try and move on from having being told at the weekend that he has been cleared by a Church inquiry – almost a year after being cleared by the civil authorities.
“It was a Saturday morning,” he recalled speaking to The Irish Catholic this week. Fr Brennan, the long-time parish priest of Blackrock and Haggardstown, received a phone call from Auxiliary Bishop of Armagh Dr Gerard Clifford. A short time later Bishop Clifford met with Fr Brennan and told him that an allegation of abuse dating back over 30 years had been received. “It was the last thing on Earth I imagined I would ever hear,” he recalls.
Church procedures – which have been criticised as too draconian by human rights professionals as well as priests’ representatives – immediately swung into place. Fr Brennan was immediately forced to step aside from his ministry. Senior Churchmen are always at pains to point out that the stepping aside is entirely voluntary.
In reality, however, priests faced with allegations of abuse – regardless of the credibility of such allegations – have little choice but to step aside, and move away from their parochial house and the life they have known.
Fr Brennan admits to feeling a “great deal of relief” that he has finally been cleared of any wrongdoing. It has been a long two years since the allegation surfaced just as he was due to be moved to the parish of Keady in Co. Armagh.
As is standard practice now, the Church authorities immediately passed the allegation on to the relevant civil authorities – in this case the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Fr Brennan was informed almost a year ago by the PSNI that the allegation was lacking in credibility and therefore he had no case to answer.
But, while in any other profession this would have meant a return to work, the Church process only began after the PSNI and Public Prosecution Service (PPS) had finished their inquiries.
On Friday of last week, almost a year after being cleared by the civil authorities, Fr Brennan received a letter from Cardinal Seán Brady which contained the findings of a Church inquiry process – that:
(i) the allegations against Fr Oliver Brennan have not been substantiated;
(ii) Fr Oliver Brennan remains a priest in good standing and is to be restored to active ministry forthwith.
He readily admits that it all came as “a bit of an anti-climax”.
“Your life is on hold for so long, you think nothing is happening and then, out of the blue, the word you had been waiting on,” he said.
He says that the long, drawn-out nature of the Church process was “particularly stressful”. He also says that he feels let down by Cardinal Seán Brady and other senior officials within the Armagh archdiocese. “I felt very let down by the cardinal and diocesan authorities. When they make the announcement to parishioners, there is an insistence in the statement about the need for the presumption of innocence. But it doesn’t feel like that, the treatment you receive is very different,” he said.
“I would have to say that I didn’t feel compassionately supported by our diocesan authorities. The aim of our diocese is to be compassionate, but I didn’t feel it. As time went on there was occasional contact [from senior diocesan authorities] but I certainly didn’t feel there was the compassionate support I deserved,” he said.
Fr Brennan recalls as “very painful” a decision by the diocese not to allow him to attend the annual gathering of Armagh priests in Bundoran, Co. Donegal. “There was a lot of pressure,” he recalls, “from other priests for me to attend the event, but the diocese would not allow it.” Fr Brennan says this contributed to a “sense of alienation” he felt from the diocese. However, he is thankful for the great support he “received from many priests and parishioners – that’s what kept me going”.
For a man who has every right to be bitter, there is not a trace of rancour in Fr Brennan as we speak. He is wistful more than angry about his treatment.
“Generally speaking the way the bishops have handled allegations against priests has been terrible,” he says. While he acknowledges, this is largely due to a reaction to bishops’ mishandling of abuse in the past, he believes that the current heavy-handed approach had “radically changed the relationship between priests and bishops. Even though they say you are presumed innocent, it doesn’t feel that way and the actions don’t give that impression.
“That brotherly relationship that existed between bishops and their priests has changed. The way I was treated, the way other priests falsely accused have been treated, does cause alienation,” he says.
But, Fr Brennan is not calling for priests to be treated differently to other people – quite the opposite. “I’d just like to see priests treated the same as teachers, doctors or social workers in a similar situation,” he says. “Going to a parish and making a public announcement at Mass, which is then in all of the newspapers, is wrong.”
He insists that “this will have to change. I wouldn’t like to see another priest treated the way I have been”.
So, faced with such a horrific ordeal, how does one keep sane? “It’s a good question,” Fr Brennan says – and it’s clearly one the 67-year-old cleric has thought about.
“The spirituality I have developed over the years has helped me immensely. I have developed a type of spirituality that is key to priesthood, but not dependant on it,” he says. This allowed Fr Brennan to concentrate on his spiritual life despite the fact that he was not permitted to exercise his ministry in public. He recalls asking Cardinal Brady’s permission to celebrate Mass in his home parish just a week before he was finally cleared – this was refused.
Fr Brennan has spent decades working in the area of adult faith formation and catechetics. He has travelled the length-and-breadth of the country meeting people in this capacity. These contacts were a “tremendous support” to him too and represented “a huge support system”.
“Some priests allow themselves to be cut off, isolate themselves, I never did that, I allowed myself to be befriended and allowed people to reach out to me – that was immensely helpful,” Fr Brennan believes.
And what of his accuser? Fr Brennan feels no bitterness towards the woman who has put him through this ordeal. “This is someone I helped as a teenager, initially I felt very let down. How could someone I had helped so much accuse me of something so terrible?” he asks. It’s a question with no answer.
“I have worked very hard on forgiving; I would say that to anyone, holding bitterness just becomes self-destructive. It’s not easy, it takes a long time, but eventually I have found the space in my heart to be able to forgive,” he says.
In our entire discussion there is one abiding theme: the support Fr Brennan received from his parishioners, former parishioners and brother priests. It’s a familiar pattern when one speaks with priests returning to ministry after false allegations. Depressingly familiar too, is the story of a lack of support from senior Church authorities, of feeling let down or hung out to dry by one’s bishop. He singles out one senior cleric for praise: the Rome-based head of the Franciscan Order Fr Aidan McGrath. Fr McGrath is a canon lawyer and was “extremely helpful” to Fr Brennan. “As soon as I met him I knew he believed me and wanted to help me,” Fr Brennan recalls, “that was so important”.
Fr Brennan, after two years, will not return to public ministry. He expects to meet Cardinal Brady in coming days to receive a new appointment. “Above all else, I just feel a massive sense of relief,” he says, “and I want to thank everyone who has supported me. It has been such a terrible ordeal.”