McNamara left a tainted legacy

Twenty seven years ago this week the death occurred of former Bishop of Kerry, Dr Kevin McNamara. A soft-spoken, deeply spiritual academic, he was one of the most conservative members of the Irish hierarchy and was particularly outspoken on social issues like divorce and abortion.

But, since his death, at the age of 60, damning new evidence has emerged that he failed to act on serious child abuse complaints brought to his attention during his term as Archbishop of Dublin.

Here, examines the allegations levelled against McNamara and reflects on his time at the helm of the Catholic Church in Kerry


Kevin McNamara: died 27 years ago this week
Kevin McNamara: died 27 years ago this week

HE gave the impression of being more comfortable sitting in the shadow of a desk lamp in his private library than at the top table at one of many community social gatherings at which he was guest of honour.

Gentle, reserved and with a habit of speaking in whispered tones, Dr Kevin McNamara seemed to prefer the company of academics and scholars than the ordinary man and woman on the street in whose company he often appeared ill at ease.

His approach to his pastoral and social duties as Bishop of Kerry was in sharp contract to his brash and jovial immediate predecessor Eamonn Casey, a social butterfly that very much styled himself as a man of the people.

A native of Newmarket-on-Fergus, Co Clare, Dr McNamara was vice president and professor of dogmatic theology at the national seminary of St Patrick’s College, Maynooth for several years prior to being appointed Bishop of Kerry, in succession to Casey.

He was ordained by Cardinal William Conway on Sunday, 7 November 1976 in St Mary’s Cathedral, Killarney and it marked a significant change for the diocese to have a studious, introverted ecumenist at the helm after the colourful reign of the flamboyant and gregarious Casey.

According to Dr McNamara’s biographer and friend Louis Power, the priests of the Kerry diocese were “up in arms” over the appointment, mainly because the new man at the helm was largely unknown outside of Maynooth and Rome and they hadn’t been consulted about his appointment in advance.

It is understood that the priests in Kerry had conducted a poll amongst themselves to select a successor to the Galway-bound Casey and the members of the clergy were asked by immediate superiors to nominate one Kerry man and one outsider to form a shortlist to be forwarded to the Vatican for consideration.

But there was widespread – if silent – outrage when Dr McNamara was appointed before the poll was completed.


Power later revealed that there was a deep sense of resentment among the Kerry clergy because of the lack of consultation. A five-man delegation from the diocese, understood to have included the current Archbishop of Cashel and Emly and then Kerry Diocesan Secretary, Dermot Clifford, visited the Papal Nuncio, Dr Gaetano Alabrandi, and Cardinal Conway, to voice concern at the manner in which Bishop Casey’s successor had been appointed.

Dr McNamara later acknowledged that the Kerry priests had been upset by the lack of consultation prior to his appointment but he said he was happy to learn they had no objection to him on a personal level.

The prelate from Clare was regarded as one of the most conservative leaders in the Irish Church and, sticking rigidly to an ultra-conservative agenda, as could have been expected, he strongly supported opposition to divorce, family planning and abortion.
Controversially, he once likened divorce to the fallout from the Soviet nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, saying divorce legislation permeated western societies and undermined the stability of married life.

Archbishop Clifford: part of five-man delegation
Archbishop Clifford: part of five-man delegation

During his time in Kerry, McNamara was responsible for the development of the John Paul II Pastoral Centre in Killarney and the Ardfert Retreat Centre and he organised various theological and pastoral study groups throughout the diocese for the ongoing education of the clergy under his remit.

In his eight years based in Killarney, he took his confirmation and parish visitation duties extremely seriously and planned them very carefully in advance with his homilies and sermons, although often lengthy and complex, always painstakingly prepared.

“This is understandable perhaps from someone who had spent 22 years delivering 50-minute lectures in a classroom setting,” biographer Power wrote.

“It was not in his nature to go out and capture an audience with jokes or stories… he did not have that light touch that can be so effective a tool in communication.

“He found it difficult to deliver a punchline or telling phrase with the panache or snappy manner that some of his fellow bishops had, but there could be no doubting his holiness, goodness and sincerity,” Power added.

Instead of uttering punchlines from the pulpit, McNamara preferred to spent his time delving deeply into theology and spirituality and his deep fountain of knowledge was encased between the covers of his published work, The Church: an atheological and pastoral commentary which was billed as a history of ecclesiology and is still used as a valuable reference tool by theologians.
Having suffered from cancer for several years, Archbishop McNamara finally succumbed to his illness, at the age of 60, in April 1987 after just two years in the post of Archbishop of Dublin.

Warm tributes were paid, following his death, by media commentators and political leaders, including then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, who told of his “deep regret” at the passing of the former Bishop of Kerry.
“He was dedicated to upholding traditional Catholic values and his sincerity of purpose won him universal respect in Ireland and abroad,” Haughey said.

“His sense of duty and dedication to his flock, whether in Kerry or Dublin, was greatly respected and appreciated,” the then Taoiseach stated.

Former Labour leader and North Kerry TD, Dick Spring, described Archbishop McNamara as a man of great compassion and kindness.

“His warm pastoral concern was well known and was one of the features which made him very popular with the members of his flock,” he said.

“After his appointment as Archbishop of Dublin I had less occasion to have contact with him but on each occasion that I met him I was impressed by his courtesy and by the concern for ordinary people which he always displayed,” Mr Spring said.

“I know he worked in a quiet and self-effacing way to help individuals and families in distress.”
Dr McNamara’s biographer maintained that the media, in general, did not seem to like the former Bishop of Kerry’s message or “the manner in which he called things what they were.”

Power wrote: “Kevin McNamara believed that great issues affecting people have to be decided in uninterrupted silence rather than on chat-shows and, as a result, his pronouncements were invariably sourced from a position of deep prayer and study.”

His biographer suggested that McNamara struggled with his responsibilities as a disciplinarian and he exercised considerable sympathy for priests if they encountered any problems. Such loyalty and unconditional compassion were traits that would later lead to major controversy.


Since his death, the role played by McNamara in the child abuse scandal that rocked the Archdiocese of Dublin was slated in the disturbing official report of the Commission of Investigation in which he was criticised for his inexplicable lack of action during his two-year term in office.

The report found that McNamara was one of four archbishops who handled child sex abuse complaints “badly” and there was evidence that he neglected to pass on his knowledge of abuse claims to gardaí during his 1985-1987 tenure in the capital.
The commission found that McNamara actually restored priestly duties to one child abusing cleric in 1986, despite the fact that the priest had pleaded guilty in 1983 with concerns about his continuing suspicious behaviour towards other children.
After initially suspending the priest in question in 1985, McNamara agreed to allow him back into the fold if he received treatment for alcohol abuse although it was widely acknowledged that the cleric did not actually have a drink problem.

The commission found that the priest, who had made bizarre attempts to foster children, was a serial abuser.
The report also revealed that Dr McNamara promoted another notorious child abusing priest to a high-ranking position in the Dublin diocese, despite a refusal by the previous archbishop, Dr Dermot Ryan, to do so because of concerns about his lifestyle.

A total of 31 people made allegations of child abuse against that priest and 16 of the cases related to a time when he was chaplain in a hospital where he had daily access to vulnerable children.

Commentary: McNamara's published work
Commentary: McNamara’s published work

The disturbing Commission of Investigation report also criticised Archbishop McNamara’s handling of complaints made against other clerics.

In one case, he was slow to respond to a complaint about a priest who had admitted sexual assault and, as a result, he was allowed to continue his abusive behaviour for several years.
McNamara wasn’t slow to move when it came to protecting the interests of the Catholic Church, however, and he was the first archbishop to stress the need for insurance cover against abuse claims.
“At this time the archdiocese had knowledge of approximately 20 priests against whom allegations of child sexual abuse had been made,” the Commission of Investigation report noted.

“The taking out of insurance was an act proving knowledge of child sexual abuse as a potential major cost to the archdiocese,” it added.

The commission concluded that Dr McNamara handled child sexual abuse complaints badly and didn’t report his knowledge of abuse to gardaí.