You can legally solemnise marriages in Ireland if you are a psychic medium, tarot card reader, public entertainer, ghost whisperer or ghost buster (Ministers of the Spiritualist Union of Ireland); or if you oversee a culture of covering up child sex abuse, or lie to and positively mislead a state inquiry into child sex abuse, or swear victims of child sex abuse to silence (Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church); or if you default on six-figure debts, or fail to file income tax returns (Pastors of the Abundant Life Christian Centre and Victory Christian Church).
Any religious body can nominate its members to legally solemnise marriages in Ireland, but Atheist Ireland can not, because a new law passed on 20 December discriminates on the ground of religion. Secular bodies must have fifty members, must be five years in existence, must be on the charitable tax exemption list for five years, and must not promote a political cause. This is supposedly to ensure that secular bodies are ‘stable, longstanding and reputable’, while the only criteria for religious bodies is that they meet regularly for common religious worship.
Government seeks to justify discrimination
The Irish Government does not disagree that this law discriminates on the ground of religion or belief. Instead the Government seeks to justify the discrimination with implausible arguments, none of which are necessary to protect the human right to practice freedom of religion or belief, and none of which reflect a proportionate relationship between the aim that the Government describes (protecting the institution of marriage) and the means it is employing to pursue that aim (discriminating against nonreligious citizens).
On 20 December, Government Minister Joan Burton told the Dail that the reason why secular bodies are required to fulfill more criteria than religious bodies is “to ensure the institution of marriage is protected by applying a rigorous set of rules regarding the type of body that can be deemed eligible. In this regard, it is important that the criteria should be robust so that the authority to solemnise marriage would be granted only to stable, long-standing and reputable organisations.” She said this despite the fact that this authority is currently granted to religious bodies that do not fulfill these criteria.
Minister Burton also told the Dail that “Another concern I had about some of the material in the submission from Atheist Ireland is that we must be specific about the criteria because there are places in the United States where the criteria for solemnising are very broad and, as a result, an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas can perform wedding ceremonies. None of us wants anything like that here. There is all-party agreement on that point.” She said this despite the fact that there is nothing in the Atheist Ireland submission that remotely suggests that we are proposing this.
Spiritualist Union of Ireland
The Spiritualist Union of Ireland has five solemnisers on the list, including two Ministers and three Officiants. The two Ministers are Tom Colton, ‘one of Ireland’s leading Psychic Mediums’, and Mary Murphy Losty, ‘Psychic Medium, Tarot Cards, Facilitator.’ Tom Colton also has a personal website and Twitter account (Irelands Medium Tom @irishmedium), both of which he uses to promote his spiritual services and the sale of a pseudoscientific water ionizing machine.
The Spiritualist Union of Ireland advertises ‘Spiritual Weddings – Married by a Medium’ in which dead relatives are invited to attend the ceremony. They say that “As part of the spiritual ceremony we can invite those from spirit world to be present with us to share your special day and remember those who have passed to spirit world in a special way not traditionally seen at a wedding ceremony.”
On the Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster, Tom Colton explained how the Spiritualist Union of Ireland started doing spiritualist weddings, and he described it as being a nondenominational service that is not primarily about spiritualism but more about avoiding family disputes where people have different religions.
“I got a phone call from a lady who wanted to have a spiritualist wedding, and the issue was that she was of one religion and her partner was of another, so they wanted to go for a nondenominational service, and that is essentially what as spiritualists we do. We don’t look at religion or what backgrounds people come from, be it a Jew, a Protestant, a Catholic or whatever religion, or Buddhist, we don’t recognise a religion as such, we just believe that we can communicate with spirit, with those who have passed on to spirit world, and people see this as a way of getting over the issue of having one religious wedding over another, because it can cause a lot of tension in the family, so people would look to a nondenominational service. And that was the first inquiry we got, it was from a lady who wanted a nondenominational service.”
At the time of the first wedding enquiry, Tom Colton did not know that spiritualists could conduct marriages. As he told the Irish Sun in April 2010:
“We had a couple of enquiries about having spiritual marriages. I didn’t think we could do them until I did a bit of research and found out that since 2006 the whole law has been relaxed in relation to marriages in Ireland. Before that, it had to be in an established church and the only place you could have a civil marriage was the Registrar’s Office. But now we can actually do the full civil legally binding marriage here.”
The Spiritualist Union of Ireland, and Colton personally, also advertise paid private and public spiritualist sittings, including a completed 50-date nationwide tour with tickets at €20 each, and mediumship development workshops. A European Union directive insists that charging for medium-type services must be legally described as ‘for entertainment purposes only’, yet these ‘psychic mediums’ and ‘tarot card readers’ can legally solemnise marriages in Ireland simply because they describe Spiritualism a religion.
As an added bonus, Tom Colton is both a ‘ghost whisperer’ and a ‘ghost buster’. He has published on his website articles from national newspapers describing him using both terms. The Irish Sun article above, titled ‘Married by a Medium’, said:
“A psychic is bringing people back from the dead – to attend their loved ones’ weddings. Ghost whisperer Tom Colton, of the Spiritualist Union of Ireland, has just been granted a full licence to perform marriages. And he says he can use his spiritual knowledge to form a link between this world and the afterlife – then call on the deceased to be present during the ceremony.”
And last October, an Irish Times article titled ‘Meet the Ghostbusters‘ described Colton as ‘a medium and minister of the Spiritualist Union of Ireland, who cleanses houses of spirits.’ The article said:
Some houses have been built in places where tragedy occurred, says Tom Colton, a former accountant and father of four who is now a medium and minister of the Spiritualist Union of Ireland. He has cleansed some 120 houses including some that weren’t selling. One was a property that had been built on a field where a teenager had died by suicide and disturbances were troubling the occupants. He encourages househunters to follow their instincts when viewing properties for sale. “Use your sixth sense to connect with that internal radar, that feeling or sense of things not being quite right. It is your body telling you something.”
Roman Catholic Church
The Roman Catholic Church has nominated most of the people on the official list of marriage solemnisers in Ireland. In December 2009, in response to the Murphy Report into sex abuse by priests in Dublin, the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference admitted a widespread culture in its church of covering up child sex abuse by priests.
“We are deeply shocked by the scale and depravity of abuse as described in the Report. We are shamed by the extent to which child sexual abuse was covered up in the Archdiocese of Dublin and recognise that this indicates a culture that was widespread in the Church.
The avoidance of scandal, the preservation of the reputations of individuals and of the Church, took precedence over the safety and welfare of children. This should never have happened and must never be allowed to happen again. We humbly ask for forgiveness…
In response to the many concerns raised about the use of ‘Mental Reservation’, we wish to categorically state that it has no place in covering up evil. Charity, truthfulness, integrity and transparency must be the hallmark of all our communications.”
Yet despite this public admission of a widespread culture of covering up sex crimes, and despite the commitment to truth, integrity and transparency, the Roman Catholic Church has not lived up to these promises in the three years since that statement.
Bishop John Magee and Monsignor Denis O’Callaghan of Cork are on the official list of solemnisers nominated by the Roman Catholic Church.
In 2011, the Cloyne Report into the handling of allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests in the Catholic Diocese of Cloyne revealed that various permutations of the Cloyne Diocese, Bishop John Magee and Monsignor Denis O’Callaghan “positively lied” [21.79], “positively misled” [21.79], “deliberately misled” [21.91], deliberately created two different accounts of the same meeting, a true one for the Vatican and a false one for the local diocesan files [1.48], gave false assurances to the Government Minister for Children and the Health Service Executive [1.77], “tried to bury the matter” of the requirement to report “evidence of a vicious sexual assault” [16.19], advised that statements to the gardai should be “minimal” [9.84-85], failed to give its own advisory committees full information [1.36], “put out an erroneous view” about a report [1.40], produced crucial documents that were wrongly dated [12.29], held three different versions of one meeting in diocesan files [21.27], and misled people in at least 35 separate ways.
Bishop John Kirby of Clonfert is also on the official list of solemnisers nominated by the Roman Catholic Church.
In 2012, Bishop Kirby said that he is to stand down as chairman of Trócaire. A recent review of child protection in his diocese had found he had dealt inappropriately with abuse allegations there. Bishop Kirby had been aware since the mid-1990s that a priest he moved following allegations of child sex abuse had continued to abuse children in his new parish, contrary to different statements that Bishop Kirby had earlier made about this. He had also described one case of child sex abuse as “a friendship that crossed a boundary line”. In a statement, Trócaire said the bishop had briefed its board on that review and the subsequent publicity. It said Bishop Kirby “acknowledged the grave mistakes he had made in the early 1990s and reiterated that he takes full responsibility for them. He also acknowledged that his remarks in an interview had caused offence to survivors and he repeated the apology that he had made in an earlier letter to the people of his diocese.”
Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh is also on the official list of solemnisers nominated by the Roman Catholic Church.
In 2009 Cardinal Brady told RTE that he would resign if a child had been abused as a result of a failure on his part. Ironically, he made this statement when he was putting pressure on the Bishop of Limerick to resign over similar allegations. Yet in 2010 Cardinal Brady admitted that he attended meetings in 1975 at which teenage victims of the paedophile priest Father Brendan Smyth were sworn to silence about the crimes committed against them. At the time Cardinal Brady was a priest, and was investigating the complaints in his capacity as Secretary to the Bishop of Kilmore. Brady now says that he believed the victims were telling the truth but was only following orders from his Bishop in how he dealt with them. Cardinal Brady is now (and has for many years been) aware that his failure to act allowed or meant that other children were abused by one of Ireland’s most notorious paedophile priests.
Cardinal Desmond Connell of Dublin is also on the official list of solemnisers nominated by the Roman Catholic Church.
The lying, deliberately misleading and unethical behaviour exposed in the 2011 Cloyne report must be seen alongside the previous revelation that Archbishop Connell knowingly misled the Murphy Report by a process that he described as ‘mental reservation’. As Connell explained in 2009, “There may be circumstances in which you can use an ambiguous expression realising that the person who you are talking to will accept an untrue version of whatever it may be.” Indeed, the Cloyne Report refers to two accounts of the same meeting having different end times, and suggests that “It may be that that time difference was also of some assistance in performing the mental gymnastics of mental reservation in the manner of recording the details of the meeting.”
Four other Roman Catholic Bishops resigned (Bishop Donal Murray of Limerick and Bishop Jim Moriarty of Kildare ) or offered to resign (Bishops Eamon Walsh and Ray Field of Dublin) after the publication of the Murphy Report. The report also concluded that the vast majority of priests turned a ‘blind eye’ to abuse, although some individuals did bring complaints to superiors, which were not acted upon. This Church is the body that has nominated the vast majority of people on the official list of marriage solemnisers in Ireland.
Abundant Life Christian Centre
The Abundant Life Christian Centre in Galway has four solemnisers on the list, despite the church having effectively ceased operations, or having been transferred to a different set of Pastors. In January 2012, its husband and wife Pastors Kevin and Heather Sanford returned to Texas leaving behind an unpaid bill of €160,000 in rent, penalties, interest and court costs to their church’s former landlord. The Sunday World reported on this in November 2011:
A Rolex-wearing church minister accused of being a cult leader is quitting the country leaving behind massive debts. Kevin Sanford and his wife Heather, who wears a €10,000 diamond ring, told their ‘Abundant Life’ church in Galway that “God has told us to move to Texas”. Sanford was taken to court earlier this year by a landlord who claimed he was owed €80,000 for 18 months rent arrears for the church on the top floor of Tower House in Galway.
The High Court ordered Sanford to pay nearly €160,000 in rent, penalties, interest and court costs. Even though he won the case in March, landlord Owen Heffernan has not seen one cent of the money. Instead of coughing up, the American Sanfords have announced they are quitting the country, leaving behind their church of 15 years…
“Kevin boasted from the pulpit about buying his wife a €10,000 diamond ring for their tenth anniversary,” said one former member. “He said God had blessed him so much he was able to do it – and bring his wife on a trip on the Orient Express for the same anniversary.” The ex-member said if followers cut back their donations the two pastors would demand to know why. Kevin Sanford would tell them: “The amount you give shows how much your heart is in it. Your heart is connected to your wallet.”…
Latest figures for Abundant Life, which is a registered charity, showed its income in 2009 was nearly €450,000, almost all from members’ donations. Figures uncovered by the Sunday World also revealed Sanford, an ex-US marine, earned nearly €70,000 from his US charity, Kevin Sanford Ministries, last year. The Sanfords also took extensive expenses from Abundant Life.
Victory Christian Church
Victory Christian Church in Dublin, with its 1,000 seater auditorium, has two solemnisers on the list: Brendan Hade (pictured with his wife Sheila) and Gerry Byrne. In January 2012 Phoenix magazine wrote this about them, and about the connection between Victory Christian Church and Abundant Life Christian Centre:
There’s been a great deal of activity at the Abundant Life Christian Church in Galway, from where Kevin and Heather Sanford are to return to Texas. Now it appears that an old pal of the Sanfords, Brendan Hade – of the victory centre in Firhouse, Dublin 24 – is moving in to take over.
Hade was in fact a director of Abundant Life Christian Church Ltd from 2001 to 2003. In a newsletter last year to their flock announcing their departure, the Sanfords said that they had known Hade and his wife, Sheila Hade “for many years. They have known our church and staff. After praying about it, they decided to not only take the church, but to drive over every week and handle it themselves.” Brendan Hade didn’t respond to a query from Goldhawk asking if this effectively meant that the Victory Centre was taking over Abundant Life.
Hade is a former electrician, and his move to being a Pastor has apparently proved a more rewarding enterprise. In the late 1970s, he and his wife started off with a modest house in Ballyboden, Dublin 14, and according to land registry documents, in 1998 they bought two city centre apartments in Jervis Place, followed by another house in Tallaght in 1999 and another Tallaght apartment in 2006. These days the couple reside in leafy Rathfarnham.
Brendan Hade will be familiar to fans of Goldhawk through his church’s lucrative role in providing accommodation to asylum seekers, which led to accusations of “prison like conditions” from asylum seekers in one centre. The Department of Justice axed that contract in 2006. Hade has been involved in various other ventures and was also a director (and shareholder) of a property management company called Milverton house Ltd, along with one Gerry Byrne.
Gerry Byrne is also a Pastor at the Victory Centre, and is listed on the church’s website as a host for one of the church’s “home groups”. He popped up on the Revenue’s list of tax defaulters in 2001 for failing to file income tax returns, for which he received one conviction and a €875 fine. His occupation at the time was listed as a “painter”.
Victory Galway is a new church that resulted from the Sanfords leaving the Abundant Life Church to return to Texas. The new church is led by Brendan Hade of Victory Christian Church in Dublin, and another official marriage solemniser, Thomas Cooney of Living Word Church in Galway. Its status and relationship with all of these players is complicated.
The best place to keep up with the ongoing saga of Abundant Life, Victory Christian Church and Victory Galway (and other religions that are both entertaining and harmful) is to read the website of Dialogue Ireland, led by Mike Garde, which is an independent trust that works to promote awareness and understanding of New Religious Movements and cultism in Ireland. The section on Victory Church is here.
The discrimination is real not merely theoretical
Apart from these specific examples of people who can solemnise marriages because of their religious affiliation, the new law’s discrimination against secular bodies is real and not merely theoretical. In practice, the Roman Catholic Church promotes political causes, which secular nominating bodies are forbidden to promote. Cardinal Sean Brady used his recent Christmas message to encourage Roman Catholics to lobby politicians on the issue of abortion law.
And the following religious bodies do not appear on the current charitable tax exemption list: Arran Reformed Baptist Church, Babul-ul-Ilm Society, Bridge Christian Community, Calvary Chapel Cork, Calvary Church Wexford, Dublin Vineyard Church, Ennis Evangelical Church, First Six Principle Baptist Church of Ireland, Great Hope Gospel Ministries, Lurganearly Hall, Oratory Society, Pagan Federation of Ireland, Spiritualist Union of Ireland and Tramore Bible Church.
Ironically, on the secular side, even the Humanist Association of Ireland does not qualify under this new law, despite already hosting non-binding wedding ceremonies, and despite the law being specifically intended to benefit them. However, the new law is clear that secular bodies cannot promote a political cause, and the Humanist Association of Ireland (like Atheist Ireland) promotes the political cause of separation of church and state. Atheist Ireland brought this problem to attention of TDs, and it was raised during the Dail debate, but the Bill was not amended.
Atheist Ireland has asked the President to send the Bill to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality. We have also written to the Irish Human Rights Commission to ask them to examine the Bill from a human rights perspective, with particular reference to Articles 2, 18 & 26 of the the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Articles 9, 10 & 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.