O'Mahony, Dermot Patrick Leo (1935–2015), catholic auxiliary bishop of Dublin, was born on 18 February 1935 in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, the younger of two sons of Gerald William O’Mahony, a bank official, and his wife Elizabeth May Josephine (‘Lily’; née McGuinness). In 1942 the family moved to Tramore, Co. Waterford, where his father was a bank manager. O’Mahony was educated at Tramore Christian Brothers’ primary and secondary schools, and for a time at Waterpark College in Waterford city. In 1949 the family moved to Balbriggan, Co. Dublin, and O’Mahony attended Belvedere College, Dublin. After completing his leaving certificate, he spent a subsequent year there studying philosophy before, in September 1953, entering the seminary at Holy Cross College (also known as Clonliffe College), Clonliffe Road, Dublin. In 1956 he graduated Bachelor of Arts (BA) from University College Dublin (UCD), where seminarians at Holy Cross also studied.
AUXILIARY BISHOP OF DUBLIN
On 29 May 1960, O’Mahony was ordained a priest by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid (qv), who then dispatched him to Rome where he pursued postgraduate research. He was awarded a doctorate in canon law by the Pontifical Gregorian University in February 1964, for a thesis titled ‘Knowledge of the invalidity of marriage and matrimonial consent: an historical and juridical commentary on Canon 1085 CIC’. Returning to Dublin in autumn 1964, at McQuaid’s urging O’Mahony entered King’s Inns. There he won the Victoria Prize (for topping the class in the final examinations), and in 1967 obtained his Barrister-at-Law degree (BL) and was called to the Irish bar. Concurrently he was an assistant priest in Clonskeagh, Dublin, for a year before his appointment in 1965 as professor of canon law at Clonliffe (that same year the seminary was affiliated to the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas, Rome, enabling Clonliffe to confer degrees in theology). He held the post until 1970. In 1966 McQuaid appointed O’Mahony as regent (director) of studies at the associated Mater Dei Institute of Education, Dublin, founded that year for religious sisters and lay people to study theology, and also to train teachers of religion for the rapidly expanding secondary school sector.
O’Mahony was integral to the early development of the Mater Dei Institute and established a reputation as one of the leading canon lawyers and administrators in the diocese. In 1970 he resumed diocesan duties as a curate in Grange Park, Raheny, Dublin. There he developed the Donaghmede area as a parish, and in September 1974 became its first priest and administrator. O’Mahony was appointed a vicar forane of Howth deanery the same year, overseeing priests and assisting in diocesan administration.
On 13 February 1975, just prior to O’Mahony’s fortieth birthday, Archbishop Dermot Ryan (qv) simultaneously appointed him as an auxiliary bishop of Dublin and titular bishop of Tiava; he would only relinquish this titular see upon his death in 2015. One of the youngest ever prelates so appointed in the archdiocese, O’Mahony’s advancement chimed with Pope Paul VI’s interest in interfaith dialogue and concern for social justice. O’Mahony’s episcopal ordination, on 13 April 1975 at the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin, was attended by President Cearbhal Ó Dalaigh (qv), Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave and the papal nuncio, Archbishop Gaetano Alibrandi (qv) alongside a host of dignitaries, clerics and public figures, including Éamon de Valera (qv) and John A. Costello (qv). Media reports observed O’Mahony lived in a semi-detached house on Kincora Avenue, Clontarf, and drove a Mini car, promoting an image of urban modernity in keeping with Ireland’s changing social trajectory. (He later moved to a detached house in Swords, Co. Dublin). At his ordination O’Mahony adopted as his episcopal motto Gaudium et spes (‘Joy and hope’), the opening words of the Second Vatican Council’s message to the world, and the title of its most important decree, indicating his intent to engage with the secular world.
Ryan tasked O’Mahony with the pastoral care of priests, particularly younger priests. Aside from various administrative responsibilities, O’Mahony assigned priests to, and moved them between, parishes in the archdiocese. As chancellor of the archdiocese (1975–81) he dealt with inter-church (‘mixed’) marriages and contributed to the creation of sixty-six new parishes during Ryan’s episcopacy (1971–84). In 1981, O’Mahony assumed pastoral responsibilities for thirty-six parishes in north Dublin, stretching from Clontarf to Balbriggan. At various times he served on the Dublin Diocesan College of Consultors and on the Metropolitan Chapter.
In March 1977 O’Mahony became national director of CURA, the ‘pregnancy support service’, established with the objective of dissuading Irish women from obtaining abortions in Britain. That year he also assumed the presidency of Pax Christi in Ireland, which promoted international peace and reconciliation. With that organisation O’Mahony campaigned against nuclear arms, European collective defence, and the 1992 Maastricht treaty. He was president of Threshold, the homeless and housing charity established in 1978 by the Capuchin priest Donal O’Mahony (qv), as well as of the Irish Handicapped Children’s Pilgrimage Trust.
O’Mahony was perhaps most impactful as president of the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace (ICJP), established in 1968 by the Irish Episcopal Conference in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. The commission concerned itself with civil liberties, social justice and international development issues. O’Mahony’s leadership of these national catholic organisations represented both the growing concern within the wider church for human rights and social justice, as signalled by the Second Vatican Council, and the competing impulses of the Irish catholic episcopacy to act as a ‘conservative watchdog’ over the traditionalist doctrine that remained prevalent in the Irish church in areas such as divorce, contraception and abortion (Holohan, 1024). They can also be construed as embodying the catholic hierarchy’s conservative instinct, as it came to grips with the Second Vatican Council’s engagement with the secular world, to harness and control such currents.
In June 1981, in the aftermath of the death of Bobby Sands (qv) on hunger strike and the increasing likelihood of further republican prisoner deaths, O’Mahony led an ICJP delegation that sought to mediate between the prisoners and the UK government. Though he met with good will from the hunger strikers and Michael Allison, a minister of state at the Northern Ireland Office, O’Mahony was frustrated by the overall lack of engagement by the UK government and issued a statement on 7 July blaming it for the ongoing impasse. In June 1982 O’Mahony, as head of the ICJP, urged the abolition of the legal concept of illegitimacy and the regularisation of the status of children born to unmarried parents. He appealed to the Irish government to enact a process to formally establish paternity, bestow equal rights of succession to the estates of their parents for all children, and for each parent to be made a joint guardian by default. He also led the commission’s collaboration with the Irish Council of Churches, an umbrella group for Christian churches (not including the catholic church), which led to the launch in February 1983 of ‘Free to be’, an ecumenically minded primary education programme.
The Irish Episcopal Conference, chaired by Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich (qv), made a written submission to the New Ireland Forum in January 1984 addressing ecumenism, the family, pluralism, and Roman catholic schools in the North. The final summary paper – titled ‘The alienation of catholics in Northern Ireland’ – was perceived by many as strident, verging on abrasive. On these issues some commentators discerned differences in opinion between bishops in Northern Ireland, and those in the Republic. The following month O’Mahony, alongside bishops Joseph Cassidy (qv) (Clonfert), Cathal Daly (qv) (Down and Conor) and Edward Daly (qv) (Derry) participated in an oral hearing at the Forum, involving cross-examination by members. O’Mahony’s performance, particularly in exchanges with Seamus Mallon (d. 2020) and Mary Robinson addressing religious equality and political pluralism, demonstrated his composure and political nous. More amenable to cross-examination than his fellow attendees, O’Mahony’s soothing rhetoric went some way towards softening traditional perceptions of the catholic church as intransigent on such matters as divorce, mixed marriages and religious freedom, then highly contested issues in debates about the future of the island of Ireland.
In April 1984 Archbishop Dermot Ryan was transferred to Rome by Pope John Paul II. O’Mahony and Bishop Donal Murray, the youngest of the archdiocese’s four auxiliaries (a fifth vacancy was then unfilled), were considered by many the most likely candidates for elevation, though Ryan regarded them both as too liberal. In November Kevin McNamara (qv), Bishop of Kerry, was elevated to Dublin. Favoured by Archbishop Alibrandi and aligned with the Pope’s conservative religious orthodoxy, McNamara was rewarded for his doctrinal rigidity and forthright effectiveness during the successful 1983 abortion referendum campaign. It was later revealed that O’Mahony had been seriously ill in hospital for much of 1984 (afterwards it emerged that he suffered from chronic angina, indicative of coronary artery disease, for which he underwent major surgery in Florida, USA, in 1992). After McNamara’s death in 1987, O’Mahony was not amongst those discussed as leading candidates to replace him.
O’Mahony drew upon his legal training in July 1985 when interviewed on RTÉ television news, regarding reports suggesting CURA staff had shared confidential reproductive information with gardaí. O’Mahony rejected the claims, noting that if CURA staff were ever questioned by gardaí they would claim legal privilege. He was a prominent public supporter of the staff of Dunnes Stores in their protest against the apartheid regime in South Africa and from the late 1980s he increasingly spoke up for a variety of marginalised groups. He decried the widespread societal hostility – frequently evident in media and public discourse – towards single mothers, his concern largely prompted by a fear that such hostility spurred those considering abortion. In January 1995 he was among a small number of bishops calling for state support for Women’s Aid and the Rape Crisis Centre in their work with victims of gender-based violence.
O’Mahony retired as an auxiliary bishop in June 1996 on health grounds (he could have served for another four years, to the age of seventy-five), but continued to undertake public duties and participate in a variety of religious organisations.
THE MURPHY REPORT, 2009
The prosecution of the priest Ivan Payne in April 1998 for child sexual abuse revealed that O’Mahony, despite being personally informed at his Swords home of allegations that Payne had sexually abused a child, allowed the priest to continue his parochial duties undisturbed in Cabra, Dublin. When Payne admitted the abuse to O’Mahony, the bishop merely transferred him to Sutton, delaying the move for six months to limit any perception of scandal. It was not until the original informant went public, disgusted by knowledge that Payne continued to operate unhindered, that the priest eventually was removed from parish work in Sutton. During the intervening period he had sexually abused several more children.
Cardinal secrets, a 2002 RTÉ television documentary produced by Mary Raftery (qv), detailed the child sexual abuse perpetrated by Payne and other Dublin priests. The programme was instrumental in the establishment of a statutory investigative commission in 2006 to examine historic child sexual abuse in the Dublin archdiocese. Chaired by judge Yvonne Murphy, the commission reviewed a delimited sample of forty-six cases between 1975 and 2004. Declining the opportunity to be represented by the archdiocese’s legal team, O’Mahony retained his own separate legal representation, whose costs were met by the archdiocese.
The ‘Murphy report’ (formally titled the ‘Commission of investigation: report into the catholic archdiocese of Dublin, July 2009’) was published in November 2009. Among its conclusions was the observation that ‘O’Mahony’s handling of complaints and suspicions of child sexual abuse was particularly bad’ (section 1.13, 13). Delineating the extent of his knowledge and inaction, the report outlined O’Mahony’s awareness of thirteen cases of abuse and noted that he had deliberately shredded relevant documentation in 2001. Bishop Brendan Comisky, a fellow auxiliary bishop of Dublin (1979–84), observed to the commission that O’Mahony’s kindly manner perhaps contributed to him being assigned to deal with malfeasant priests. The ‘Murphy report’ stated that while the archdiocese named seventeen priests suspected of sexual abuse to gardaí in November 1995, it then knew of allegations of child sexual abuse against at least eleven more priests. The report concluded:
The Dublin Archdiocese’s pre-occupations in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse, at least until the mid 1990s, were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputations of the Church and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities. The Archdiocese did not implement its own canon law rules and did its best to avoid any application of the law of the state (section 1.15, 4).
In September 2009, in advance of the impending publication of the report, O’Mahony wrote to the archdiocese apologising for his failings. He was later aggrieved this letter was never made public by the Catholic Communications Office. In December 2009 Diarmuid Martin, archbishop of Dublin, requested O’Mahony desist from public confirmation ceremonies, remove himself from church administration, discontinue his involvement with the (renamed) Irish Pilgrimage Trust, and no longer attend meetings of the diocesan council. The request prompted O’Mahony to begin a strained correspondence with Martin and the Irish Council of Priests, much of which was published in the Irish Catholic newspaper in January 2010. O’Mahony and his supporters urged priests to challenge the widespread acceptance – by the media, the archdiocese, the government and the public – that the ‘Murphy report’ presented a robust account of a pernicious coverup. In November 2010 O’Mahony participated at a mass in Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral marking the feast of St Laurence O’Toole (qv), the patron saint of the diocese.
Dermot O’Mahony died on 10 December 2015 at Beaumont Hospital, Dublin. At his funeral mass at St Anne’s Church, Shankhill, held on 15 December and attended by a multitude of priests and bishops, his older brother Gerard spoke of the deep personal distress and suffering O’Mahony endured after 2009. He was interred at Shanganagh cemetery, Co. Dublin. Known to favour true separation of church and state, O’Mahony’s episcopacy reflected, at least in part, the evolving social conscience of the catholic church as it attempted to adapt to a changing Irish society. As the conclusions of the ‘Murphy report’ suggest, however (and in keeping with that of other prelates of his generation), his actions belied a conception of the catholic church as above the civil law, answerable only to itself.