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Willie Walsh in the apple orchard at his home in Ennis, County Clare

Retired Irish bishop questions celibacy, ban on marriage and afterlife

\"Willie

Willie Walsh in the apple orchard at his home in Ennis, County Clare

The Rev. William Walsh, the retired Bishop of Killaloe, which is the Clare diocese, has told the Irish Times that he has deep questions about the afterlife, celibacy and thought of leaving the priesthood to get married because of loneliness.

Walsh, now 75, speaking of his attraction to certain women stated “There would have been a very strong attraction there at times, certainly, and you would of course wonder, wouldn’t it be lovely to be married to that person, even to the extent of wondering whether I should leave the priesthood,” he says.

“Thankfully I don’t think I’ve ever exploited those sorts of loving relationships, which certainly have enriched my life.”

He says he had such thoughts more than once “More than one is all I’ll say. But nowadays what I’d see as part of the sacrifice of celibacy would be a degree of envy I’d feel when I see grandparents and how much new life and wonder and joy grandchildren bring to them. That would make you lonely at times.”

Walsh stated he struggled with basic faith at times.  “I would have been struggling with faith itself. In some ways faith is a leap in the dark. There was never a doubt about the values which I believe Christ showed us – truth and compassion and forgiveness – but there would have been questions of how deep is your belief?”

Such as in the divinity of Christ? “As deep as that.”

“Even now I’m not smug about it. I’m content that I’ve lived my life generally the way I feel I should have lived it, and I have no regrets. But I see now more and more when I’m talking to close friends, loyal to the church all their lives, and their children are saying: ‘I don’t want any part in that, the way you treat women, the whole abuse thing.’ And those parents would be saying to me: ‘We begin to wonder at this stage did we get it wrong?’ And I begin to say to myself – I don’t want to say it to myself…” He hesitates. “Well, could it end with a hole in the ground?”

“I suppose at this stage I have decided that I choose to believe to some degree, but I can’t prove from reason these teachings.”

“I think if you can accept the existence of God, then all the other things are possible. And there’s the other side, which is that if you believe in nothing, you can believe in everything – like The Da Vinci Code. So, ultimately, believing in God and the afterlife is the only way I can make sense of life. It’s a huge leap.”

He says God is not a harsh or judgemental figure. “I just can’t accept condemnatory judgments from anyone, because every time I come across something that’s wrong or evil there’s always a story behind it. Yeah, that’s wishy-washy, I know. It worries me a bit but I certainly prefer that to this harsh judgmentalism.”

In terms of child abuse by priests he says the life of being sequestered away from a very young age damaged many priests.

“From the time I was 12 years old until my mid to late-20s, I lived in a totally male environment and I think that has some significance in your growing to sexual maturity. I’m very nervous about saying this – it’s an issue that hasn’t been faced – but practically all the abuse that I’ve come across has been abuse of boys, and boys of 14, 15-years-old. Now, that raises some serious questions, and if you really went into them you would be accused of mixing up homosexuality and paedophilia. If a priest abuses a 16- or 17-year old, is that homosexual? It’s certainly not paedophilia. Where does the division come? It is a very hazardous area – and there’s no question in my mind that I’m not equating homosexuality with sexual abuse by priests. No, I’m not. But I’m saying that at a certain point the distinction is not that clear.

“There’s the whole argument: is our sexual orientation there from birth or does it come about from early sexual experience? I think and believe it’s not one or the other, but I think that early sexual experience is a factor and that there is a risk in an all-male environment of sexual experimentation, and that can in some way affect their sexual development. I mean, some people would argue that a male who abuses a 15-year-old is really himself a 15-year-old sexually.”

He says women should be ordained “I wish if people were changing to the Roman Catholic Church, they’d find a better reason than the non-ordination of women. I find that bothersome,” he says with uncharacteristic edge. “I really don’t want to cause division in the church, but what I have real difficulty with is that some subjects are not for discussion. I don’t see how we can be that certain of things – celibacy is another – which I don’t see as belonging to the essence of the Christian message.”

“Sexuality is much wider than, say, the use of genital organs or whatever. It’s an essential part of the whole person. I think the fact that I don’t have sexual relations with somebody doesn’t mean that there isn’t something of sexuality in our friendship.”

He says he is uncomfortable with all the pomp surrounding the church.

“I think what we need – and this applies to all of us and to me sitting in a comfortable house – I think what we really have shied away from or watered down is our teaching on justice. That’s one of the ways where we can show people that we really believe.”

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