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For centuries the Catholic Church has been the most potent force in the lives of Irish people.

Priests and bishops were exalted and held up as paragons of public virtue.

But the power and appeal of the church lies in tatters - rocked by a series of shocking sex scandals.

Priests have fled the chapels, discarded their robes and run off to marry lovers.

Bishops have fathered children and paid out thousands in blackmail money to buy their lovers' silence.

And the Irish people have been appalled at the shocking abuse of children by priests.

Ireland, once a hotbed of Catholicism and a rich recruiting ground for the priesthood, seems on the verge of turning its back on the Church.

Seminaries lie virtually empty and religious orders are recording the lowest number of applications ever.

Today the Mirror, in the first of a series of fascinating articles, investigates the crisis gripping the Catholic Church.

The middle-aged couple are relaxed and comfortable in each other's company.

They exchange knowing smiles and shy glances. They are in love, obviously devoted, and don't care who knows it.

Joe Mulvaney leans over and softly kisses wife Maureen on the cheek.

The attraction was not always so blatant, not always so open. When the lovers first met, furtively making eye contact at a crowded St Patrick's Day party, they had to keep their feelings hidden.

Joe was a Catholic priest and Maureen a nun.

They chatted but could not acknowledge the stirrings deep inside. These were dark and dangerous secrets which would bring shame upon their calling.

But eventually love proved too strong and the couple abandoned the vocations they cherished and their sacred vows of chastity.

Now married they devote their spare time to helping Catholic clergy and nuns who love God but yearn for intimacy - good people who love their faith, hope for change, and seek the charity and understanding of the Church.

Joe, now 50, fondly recalls their first meeting at a party in Texas: "I thought Maureen was very pretty and I was immediately attracted to her."

Maureen says: "I knew Joe was on leave from the Church and I knew straight away I liked him. But I also knew I had to give up the Church or give up Joe."

The pair became firm but secret friends, forbidden from meeting or behaving like normal adults.

They dated like frightened teenagers, eating in quiet restaurants where no-one they knew was likely to see them.

They wrote regularly. The notes became love letters. They discussed their vocations and the realisation that they could no longer live apart.

They resisted the temptation to sleep together and prayed for strength to do right.

Within convent walls Maureen agonised over her future.

Joe waited, firm in the knowledge of his love for Maureen and that his dislike for enforced celibacy barred his path back to priesthood.

Maureen made up her mind. If she had to choose between the sisterhood and Joe, it would have to be Joe.

Joe applied to his Bishop for dispensation to turn his back on the cloth and marry. The couple returned to Ireland to tell their families and to wed.

Their story is one of frustration, hurt, and betrayal. But one they hope will highlight where, they believe, the Church is going wrong.

Maureen Leonard left her rural Galway as a naive 16-year-old. Shy and demure she decided to become a nun.

Her proud parents were delighted despite a 5,000 mile separation as Maureen headed for Texas to join the Holy Ghost Order of teaching nuns. The teenager resigned herself to a life without a man as a bride of Christ.

Only a few miles away young Mulvaney had given his devout farming family a thrill.

His parents were overjoyed when Joe, the eldest of seven children, announced plans to become a priest.

But the young man had doubts. In his Dublin seminary he rattled the establishment with his outspoken views on birth control.

But he was ordained and sent to Corpus Christi, Texas. There his doubt provoked a personal crisis.

Father Mulvaney wanted out. He wanted time to think. His superiors gave him his wish hoping leave of absence would confirm his calling.

But at the fateful 1976 St Patrick's Day party Joe's mind was made up by circumstances beyond his control.

Maureen had excelled in her Texas convent where her teaching skills made her principal of the little Catholic primary school.

But, like Joe, she was bedevilled by nagging self doubt.

She'd been so young when she entered the convent. Then thoughts of love, husband and family had never entered her mind. Now they did.

Maureen was falling in love with Joe but couldn't share the joyful burden.

"I couldn't talk to anyone about Joe or the doubts I was having with my vocation," she says.

"The Mother Superior would have regarded any nun talking about leaving as a threat to the convent."

The relationship blossomed. Joe says: "After a couple of dates we discovered we'd a lot of shared feelings. We'd both come from rural backgrounds in the west of Ireland and shared the same outlook on the Church.

"I was having problems sticking to the rules and so was Maureen."

Maureen had seen little of the world beyond the convent's high walls. But she liked what she saw.

"I was becoming more aware of the outside world and it was causing problems with my vocation.

"I knew I couldn't stay a nun while harbouring the feelings I had for Joe. It would have been dishonest to go on pretending I was dedicated to a life without intimacy. I wasn't."

Joe felt the same stirrings. He recalls his parents bitter disappointment. "I could tell they were hurt," he says.

The couple returned to Dublin, rented a flat and began to plan their wedding.

But their past haunted them. No church would marry them because Joe's bishop in America was blocking the papers freeing him from his vocation.

Eventually, tired of waiting for Rome's approval, they married in a register office with no guests and no church blessing. "That was so hurtful," says Maureen. "We'd given decades of devoted service to the Church and were being treated like outcasts. It's something I'll never forget."

But five months later the hierarchy relented, cut the red tape and allowed the couple to marry in Church.

Now, they are looking forward to their 20th anniversary. Joe works in real estate and Maureen is a primary school teacher. They have three teenage sons and a comfortable home in a Dublin suburb.

They attend mass every Sunday at their local chapel but still find themselves gritting their teeth at some of the church's teaching.

"We're heading for a crisis," says Joe, "a crisis of celibacy and sexuality. Hundreds of priests and nuns suffer terrible misery because Rome won't accept that enforced celibacy is wrong.

"The religious orders are run like a secret society for men. They believe a woman can't be a priest and a man can't be a priest if he has sex with a woman. It's doing the church untold damage."

Joe and Maureen are involved with Leaven, a Dublin-based group which helps priests and nuns who have left the church.

"We have about 160 members," says Joe. "They have given their lives to the Church and want to be part of it but are treated like outcasts because they've fallen in love.

"The world needs priests who know about life, relationships and sexual love. It does not need priests who are sexless and able to relate to women only as sisters or mothers."

Maureen agrees. "We were lucky because we took a difficult and painful step away from our vocations."

"It's strange, nuns have close daily contact with men, mainly priests. Friendships and relationships do form. But when they become close they pull back from intimacy because they are afraid. Joe and I took the final honest step."

Joe Mulvaney believes change in the church's ban on sex and marriage is inevitable.

"It's just a matter of time," he says. "The Church believes it's impossible for a man to make love to his wife at night and say mass next morning. But most priests know this is unjust."
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Hanna, Conor
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 6, 1997
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