'I am not even a Christian now'

31st May 1996 at 01:00
On the face of it, the story of RE teacher Monika O'Neill and her scandalous liaison with a local priest is an infallible recipe for a TV drama-documentary, a heady blend of sex and incense with a battle against authority and a heartwarming wedding thrown in.

The reality, as Mrs O'Neill herself admits, is both sadder and more ordinary.

Monika O'Neill has married her priest, and Jennifer, the child who precipitated her dismissal, is now four. The couple have had three other children, the youngest of whom died two months ago, shortly after birth.

Neither Mr or Mrs O'Neill has been able to find work since the scandal, and they have both lost their faith - they married in a register office and their children have not been baptised.

The young Monika was a pupil at St Thomas More Upper School, from which she was later sacked as a teacher. It was there that she converted to Catholicism at 18. Her sense of disillusion with the Church is all the more bitter, she says, because she had converted in a spirit of youthful idealism. "I recently found out that the priest I innocently went to see for instruction when I was 13 was in a relationship with a woman for years.

"She eventually committed suicide. I would not even call myself a Christian now."

She retains a strong sense of grievance about what she considers to be double standards in the Catholic Church, and obviously has not forgotten the time when her husband-to-be abandoned her for 14 months to wrestle with his conscience while she was pregnant and jobless.

"I was actually a single woman at the time, I had taken no vow, I was free to enter into a relationship with any consenting adult. Chris was not free to make the same choice. Yet I was kicked out, he was allowed to continue."

She is cynical about the private lives of Catholic priests and convinced that celibacy, which she believes should be optional for priests, is becoming rare.

"When I started my relationship with Chris, I thought I was the only woman in the world who had ever dared to sleep with a priest, but since the case became public I have realised that it is common."

She also alleges that when she was teaching at St Thomas More, two teachers, both married, had an affair which produced a child, but neither was dismissed.

"Is adultery less serious than an affair with a priest?" she asks. "Perhaps they would have preferred me to have an abortion?"

Now 31, Mrs O'Neill says that her fight for justice has taken up every minute of her spare time for the past four years: "I have spent between four and eight hours on it every evening, like a job, researching legal case histories, writing to courts. I did about two-and-a-half years on my own, without solicitors."

Mrs O'Neill has a soft, childlike, rueful voice. The only hint of the relentless singlemindedness necessary to pursue a case of this kind through years of unemployment and setbacks lies in her willingness to relate the story in great detail to journalists.

She has no plans to return to teaching just yet: "I'm quite enjoying being a full-time Mum."

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