If you were to choose a venue for a public talk with Father Tony Flannery, a Redemptorist priest, the old, disused courthouse in the town of Dingle, County Kerry is as apt as any. Flannery sits at a table by the witness stand to speak about 100 years of the church in Ireland during the Feile no Bealthaine, an annual weekend festival held in the town. But he never gets around to that; the public are far too curious about Flannery and the public and personal trials he has faced since 2012.
It’s been four years since he was “silenced” by the Vatican, with his subsequent struggle detailed at length in newspapers, on radio shows and in his own tell-all book. By his own admission, some of his supporters feel the story has been exhausted. Even so, Flannery still manages to draw a crowd.
Since his suspension from public ministry, Flannery has dedicated his energy to speaking out about the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body responsible for investigating priests. Flannery was back in the news last month when he joined with 14 other Catholic sisters, priests and lay people, all of whom had been investigated by the C.D.F., to write the Vatican. Spurred on by the release of “Amoris Laetitia,” they argued that the C.D.F. “doesn’t reflect the gospel values of justice, truth, integrity and mercy that the Catholic Church professes to uphold.” The letter was sent to the C.D.F. and Pope Francis, as well as the media.
Flannery received a reply shortly after, in the form of a leaflet about the C.D.F., sent through the head of the order of the Redemptorist Society and passed down through the ranks to Flannery. This, he says, goes to the heart of his ongoing campaign: He has never received any direct communication from the body that investigated and suspended him, nor has he been able to communicate directly with them. He says his objection stems from the way the suspension was conducted, not the suspension itself.
Flannery’s suspension was based on articles he had written for the Redemptorist magazine Reality, in which he challenged church teaching on women priests, homosexuality and contraception. In one article, written at the height of the sexual abuse scandals, Flannery said, “priesthood as we have it now in Ireland, is not as Jesus intended.” Flannery’s own theory is that the hierarchy felt threatened by the Association of Catholic Priests, which Flannery helped to set up. He describes the group as radical in many ways, separate and independent from the church hierarchy. He says the church hierarchy watched suspiciously. “They wanted to put manners on me,” says Flannery.
Cardinal William Levada, who led the investigation into Flannery as Prefect of the C.D.F. at the time, said the investigation was initiated because he had “questioned, undermined, the teaching of the church on the Eucharist and on the priesthood.” Speaking to The Irish Catholic after his retirement, Cardinal Levada said, “If you hold these positions you are formally in heresy.” Flannery cites the article in his talk, still upset by the headline.
The sting of finding out that the Vatican was investigating him is still there. Flannery describes the enormous shock, the floundering, the confusion. “I saw myself as a relatively innocuous priest on a little island, I had no dealings with the Vatican,” he says. His initial reaction was to give in, and he almost did. “I was given a document to sign, in which I had to declare with all church teachings, and go back on things that I said. And I couldn’t tell anyone about it. I couldn’t do that,” he says, “How could I look at myself in the mirror after it?”
Father Gerry Moloney, who was editor of Reality, was also investigated in 2011. Unlike Flannery, he signed the document and remained silent for some time, only recently going public about his experience. He said that he felt anger and betrayal, describing himself as now “broken in body as well as in spirit.” Moloney signed the recent letter to the C.D.F., as did Father Brian D’Arcy, another Irish priest who said the investigation into his writing in 2010 was “the most devastating faith-crisis of my life.”
In the outrage of the moment, Flannery thought about bringing his case to the Irish courts but ultimately decided against it. “I weighed up the desire to embarrass the Vatican hierarchy against the toll of four or five years in the courts,” he says, “I decided to go public instead to expose injustices. Silence is the weapon of the oppressor.”
Flannery has built a high profile since then, speaking at international events on the C.D.F., reform and women’s ordination. He says the recent letter to the C.D.F. was written “to embarrass them, put some pressure on them; and also if they try the same thing with others that people will be less inclined to play along with the secrecy when they see what we have done.” Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said he had not read the document, and the group was unlikely to get a response.
Despite his criticism, Flannery isn’t removed from church life; he lives close to the Redemptorist order in Galway and spends his days there. He now lives in the family home in which he grew up and, apart from his brothers and sister, does not have any close family.
“None of my siblings had children,” he says. “Without the Redemptorists, who do I have?” He also remains active in the Association of Catholic Priests, whose membership now numbers around 1,000, although he removed himself from a leadership role.
Though he knows he will never return to public ministry, he’s not sure that he could. “I would have great difficulty ministering again,” he admits. He is hopeful for the future of the church under Pope Francis but says that most church leaders don’t, or can’t, speak with the same freedom that Francis enjoys.
When Flannery finishes speaking, a woman in the audience describes driving 30 minutes out of her way to attend Mass in a neighboring parish. “He’s a young priest, he is outspoken and talks about real life. At Mass my children are terrified that I will stand up and cheer at the end of the sermons,” she says, “they’re almost holding me down by my sleeves.” She recently heard that he had been warned by church hierarchy about his comments and had been moved to another parish.
She asks Flannery what advice he would give to that young priest. He thinks for a moment but can’t quite answer. “I’m probably the worst person to ask for advice on this,” he admits. “I don’t know, because what’s the alternative?”
Another man in the audience, who says that he admires what Flannery has done, asks if he could have achieved more within the church, rather than outside it. “Quite possibly, yes,” answers Flannery. He doesn't have the answers, and knows he might never have them. But he is still looking.
Rhona Tarrantis the Irish correspondent for America magazine.