IRELAND - Eamonn Casey left Ireland under the darkest of dark clouds 14 years ago, having dealt a hammer-blow to the authority and standing of the Irish Catholic Church.

Casey, one of Ireland's most dynamic bishops, had been chosen to act as master of ceremonies when Pope John Paul II visited the country in 1979. But the revelation in 1992 that he had a teenage son - brought up secretly in the United States - caused Catholic Ireland to gasp in shock, for there had never been a clerical scandal of such magnitude.

The Irish faithful had never expected to see and hear a woman describe her affair with a bishop as "the most magical thing I encountered in my life", and that "I was on gossamer wings".

Bishops were supposed to inspire the faithful, yes, but hardly to produce such individually rapturous responses. The Catholic Church has not been the same since.

Now, after 14 years of exile, the former bishop of Galway is on his way back. His hope is that at 78 he can live out his retirement as quietly as possible in the west of Ireland.

The overwhelming feeling in Ireland is that the time has come for his return.

But although he has been forgiven by many, the affair will not be quickly forgotten, for the extraordinary tale of the bishop, the American divorcee and their secret son is so sensational it will be talked of for decades.

Even before he became a bishop, Casey was a priest who was always in the news.

Based in England in the 1960s, he stood out as a campaigner for the Irish homeless in Britain, helping to found the Shelter organisation.

When he became a bishop - first of Kerry and, in 1976, Galway in the west of Ireland - he maintained a reputation for being always on the move, speeding round Galway's roads in a Mercedes and a BMW, on church and charity work.

He had a cute instinct on how to handle the media and used it to his advantage, often appearing on television.

So when he ran into trouble during a trip to England, and was banned for drunken driving, he performed an effective public mea culpa which won him credit for humility and openness.

Although in religious terms an orthodox conservative - on the surface, at least - he was a strong critic of United States policy in Central America, causing a stir by his refusal to meet Ronald Reagan during the American President's visit to Galway in 1984.

An Irish newspaper commended him as "outstanding among the Irish bishops for his humanity, his passionate concern for the deprived, the poor and the defenceless".

The paradox was that a bishop who once declared that "any clergyman with more than four figures in the bank has lost the faith" should so publicly have enjoyed sport, fast cars, good food and drink.

But few, if any, guessed that his worldliness extended to the bedroom and that in 1974 - while Bishop of Kerry - he had fathered a son and that he had managed to keep his secret for 18 years.

He was, after all, a staunch defender of priestly celibacy. Although reluctant to acknowledge his son, he had once lectured parents that they had a "far greater need to be available to their children than previously".

The mother of his son was Annie Murphy, an American who had gone to Ireland, at her father's suggestion, at a vulnerable time after a divorce.

She told how she met the bishop. "I came off the plane and very quickly, the moment I laid eyes on him, it was a spontaneous kind of love. He pursued me, because even though I was crazy about him, I never thought anything like that would happen.

"I knew the minute I went to dinner with him, that night he was holding my hand. The relationship started three weeks after I got there and I was like his mistress. It lasted a year and a half."

Casey and his lover would meet in an 18th-century hunting lodge overlooking the Atlantic at Dingle in County Kerry, a summer residence for bishops of Kerry.

Murphy said the affair was "out of this world" but she became pregnant. "The pregnancy put pressure on us. He led me into a brainwashing - that I was an immoral person and that I had to be cleansed. I had to give up the baby because that was God's will and then I would be reborn as a good Christian Catholic.

"I was supposed to go into a Catholic hospital, I would have the baby and it would be taken from me instantly, given up for adoption and I would never see my child again."

Murphy insisted on keeping the baby, named him Peter, and took him back to America. She had to put pressure on the bishop, she said, to obtain financial support.

"Eamonn belligerently and grudgingly offered $100 (NZ150) a month," Murphy said. "Then I said I would go to Rome and make my son a ward of the church, and within 48 hours he said he would pay $175 a month and I said okay. When Peter was 4, it went up to $260 a month."

Years passed, but it all became public in 1992 when Murphy, feeling she and her son had been scorned, told her story to a Dublin newspaper. Casey fled the country for America, leaving in his wake a stunned church.

He would later admit surreptitiously taking £70,000 ($182,000) from church funds. The transaction had been noted by others in the diocese but never queried. In those days the word of a bishop was not questioned. Later, the money was repaid by donors on Casey's behalf.

Again he issued a mea culpa statement, confessing: "I acknowledge that Peter Murphy is my son and that I have grievously wronged Peter and his mother, Annie Murphy. I have also sinned grievously against God, his church and the clergy and people of the dioceses of Galway and Kerry. Pray for me."

Casey, no longer a bishop, was quickly packed off to the Catholic missions, serving for five years in a dirt-poor district of Ecuador.

The affair caused great damage to the Irish Catholic Church, yet it is now viewed in a different perspective, given the much worse waves of scandal which have since engulfed the Church.

Over the years there were occasionally discussions on whether Casey should return to Ireland.

After his five years in Ecuador he was sent to a parish in Sussex and several times has slipped quietly back into Ireland for occasions such as funerals.

In his time in exile, Casey has by all accounts established a reasonable relationship with his son, though he and Annie Murphy have very little contact. He has indicated that he is very willing to repeat his apologies to all concerned.

Few bishops, priests or laity have any strong objections to his return, although Cardinal Desmond Connell, formerly the most senior figure in the Irish Church, had made it very clear he did not want Casey, a former classmate of his, returning on his watch.

Connell's retirement in 2004 removed from the Irish hierarchy the most vocal opponent of Casey's return. The hierarchy now has no objection and a house has been prepared for him in rural Galway.

Ireland has just produced another example of a breach of the church's celibacy rule. A few weeks ago, Father Maurice Dillane acknowledged being the father of a baby born last year.

The general reaction was one of sympathy - and amusement, because the priest is 73 and the woman is 31.

Theirs was not a passing affair but a relationship of many years. The priest and the woman have left the district, but the general response, locally and nationally, has not been to condemn them. The Irish Independent called the reaction "a massive outpouring of public sympathy".

This is the modern Ireland to which Casey will be returning.


Faith, hope and much charity

The present Bishop of Galway, Martin Drennan, insists that his predecessor, Eamon Casey, will be welcome to return and live in a retirement home.

"I would say it is a good day for the gospel that forgiveness has succeeded in winning," Bishop Drennan said.

"I find that forgiveness brings it's own joy and healing and that's what I sense from meeting people around Galway now. I would say it's a good day in that sense. I was shocked and taken aback by what happened but I think that damage can be healed by forgiveness and understanding."

The Bishop's magnanimous words put a decent gloss on what is in fact a recognition that the Catholic Church no longer holds the power that it did 14 years ago over the ordinary people of Ireland.

Polls indicate a major shift in churchgoing from 90 per cent when Bishop Casey was ousted to a mere 40 per cent now. The stark figures also do not reflect that most people going to Mass are the older members of the community, while the younger have abandoned a church that once dictated their lifestyles.

The changes within Irish society were most noticeable five years ago when Prime Minister Bertie Ahern - whose wife is still alive - began sharing public platforms with his partner. She occupied the position of First Lady and was at his side at public events in Ireland and overseas - except when Pope John Paul II visited Ireland, when she maintained a careful distance at official receptions.

One of the factors in the changes has been the revelation of the extent of sexual abuse by priests within Ireland against members of their congregations. About 250 allegations of abuse of children are being investigated and further claims of abuse have become almost routine.

That a bishop fathered a child as the result of an affair with an adult is almost refreshingly normal. But more than that, the Irish Republic - unlike Northern Ireland, where evangelical religion continues to hold sway - has entered so fully into mainstream liberal Europe that it is almost unrecognisable as the place where, until a decade ago, homosexual relations were outlawed and where, 20 years ago, it was illegal to buy contraceptives.

Thirty years ago, campaigners were throwing condoms across barriers at Dublin station, over the heads of police officers.

- Anne McHardy