Pope Francis Accepts Resignation of Ireland's Cardinal Sean Brady

Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh, Northern Ireland, arrives for the morning session of the general congregation meeting in the synod hall at the Vatican March 8. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Cardinal Sean Brady, the Primate of All Ireland, less than a month after he turned 75, the official age of retirement for a bishop.

The Vatican gave no reason for the pope’s decision, but informed sources say it is directly linked to the cardinal’s role, some 40 years ago, in the mishandling of the case of the sexual abuse of teenagers by a priest, which has provoked controversy in Ireland with ongoing calls for his resignation.


The cardinal, who has been archbishop of Armagh since 1996, is succeed by Archbishop Eamon Martin, whom Benedict XVI appointed as his coadjutor in January 2013.

In the normal course of events the pope would allow a cardinal to remain as head of a major diocese for two or more years after the official age of retirement, as has happened in the cases of the archbishops of Madrid, Cologne, Chicago and more recently in the case of the bishop of Hong Kong.

In Cardinal Brady’s case, however, Pope Francis decided not to extend his term of office because of the controversy, which some would call scandal, surrounding the role he played in 1975 in dealing with the case of teenage boys who were sexually abused by Father Brendan Smyth, one of Ireland’s most notorious child abusers.

At that time, the young Father Brady was secretary to the Bishop of Kilmore and was asked to assist in as a representative of the church, in the role of notary in taking evidence from two teenage boys who were sexually abused by Fr. Smyth. Testimony was taken from one of the boys without the boy’s parents being present, and an oath of silence was imposed on both of them regarding their complaints. The priest was not removed from the ministry then, despite their evidence, and went on to abuse several other boys before he was arrested and sentenced in 1994 to twelve years in prison.

When news of the cardinal’s role in this case was made public in 2010, and was perceived as participation in a cover-up, there were many loud calls for his resignation. It seems he considered doing so and apologized for his failure, but after consulting various people including Vatican officials, he decided not to resign, and did so clearly with Rome’s backing.

Cardinal Brady is a humble, kind, low-profile churchman and prior to that event he enjoyed great moral authority and credibility in the country, also for his active role in supporting the peace process in Northern Ireland. But after the news of his involvement in the abuse case became public Brady’s moral authority and credibility plummeted. He continued his ministry as archbishop of Armagh but he was a badly wounded leader. This all happened at a time of great crisis in the Irish Church as official government-authorized judicial investigations were published, which later led to an open attack on the Vatican by the Irish Prime Minister, Enda Kenny.

The situation did not improve much for Brady in the following years, even though he was still personally liked by many people, there were still calls for his resignation. Then in January 2013, Benedict XVI gave him a coadjutor. It was clear then that his days as Archbishop of Armagh were numbered.

Last July, Pope Francis had private individual meetings in the Vatican with six survivors of sexual abuse by priests, two each from Germany, the UK and Ireland. When Marie Kane, one of the Irish survivors, met the pope she asked him to remove the cardinal from his position as archbishop of Armagh. Victims’ organizations supported her request. She welcomed today’s news.

From the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis had adopted a zero tolerance approach on the matter of the sexual abuse of children by priests. He has set up a Commission for the Protection of Minors, and recently defrocked the Holy See’s former nuncio to the Dominican Republic, Jozef Wesolowski, for the abuse of minors in that Latin American country.

At the same time, he has made clear that he is determined to hold bishops accountable for the way they deal with abuse cases. And even though Brady was a young priest, not a bishop, at the time when he was involved, in mishandling the above mentioned case, the fact remains that he has lost much of his moral authority as a bishop because of what he did then, and the pope is aware of that. By accepting his resignation, Pope Francis is also raising the bar for other bishops in the Catholic Church who may have likewise lost credibility for their mishandling of cases of the sexual abuse of minors by priests.

In a statement issued after the news of the acceptance of his resignation was made public in the Vatican and in Ireland, Cardinal Brady said: "I am pleased that Pope Francis has today accepted the resignation which I offered to him on the occasion of my 75th birthday.” He warmly congratulated his successor and wished him well. He intends to continue to assist as a pastor, wherever he is needed. He remains a cardinal.

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