"I HAD to think long and hard before deciding to give this interview. The experience is still very painful. But 1 felt that it might help other priests in similar situations."
Last year, Fr Michael finally admitted to himself that he was an alcoholic the essential first step, the experts say, on the road to recovery. lie then agreed, reluctantly, to undergo the catchall residential programme for priests and religious in difficulties run by the Servants of the Paraclete at Brownshill near Stroud in Gloucestershire.
For eight and a half years he had endured what he came to regard as an inner crucifixion, trying on the one hand to fulfil his priestly duties, while at the same time sinking further and further into a clandestine life of drinking. He even used parish money to satisfy his craving.
But at Stroud came his resurrection. He does not claim a total recovery. "I will always be an alcoholic," Fr Michael acknowledges. Yet, he says, he emerged a new man and, for the first time, a true priest.
"1 feel I came to birth at Brownshill. I made a choice there that I wanted to live. I was properly ordained there, if you like."
Fr Michael had entered the novitiate of a missionary society at the age of 22 more as a means of escaping from himself and his family than wanting to serve God, he came to realise afterwards. There had been no family history of alcoholism but he suffered verbal, physical and even sexual abuse at home. Not surprisingly, he embarked upon adult life as someone with little self-esteem and many emotional scars.
"I felt anxious, dirty, afraid and evil. For a lot of my life I just wanted to die. I even attempted suicide twice as a teenager".
Despite harbouring an image of God as someone waiting to catch him out and then deliver appropriate retribution, he made it through to ordination. His first posting was Africa.
At seminary, he explains, he had relied upon drink for confidence, but considered himself a "social drinker". Once in Africa however, he hit the bottle as he found that he couldn't cope with life as a priest.
"I still don't know to what extent people were aware of my drinking. Some would have seen
me drunk on the altar but I don't know how many would have seen it as a real problem.
"When I wanted to drink more than normal, I would make sure that I got drink into my room. If I drank in the public part of the house, 1 would do it while no one was around."
He says he became not only secretive but also angry, a cheat, someone whose value system was turned upside down. He would drink anything he could get his hands on.
Yet he refused to face up to the consequences of his actions. "I had no problem as far as I was concerned," he reflects. "Throughout this time, I had built a facade of a beautiful priest. The fact that I was a shambling drunk never entered my head."
In December 1989 he finally admitted to a fellow priest that he had a problem. Thus far he had received "gentle hints" from his superior about his condition but nothing more. Eventually, after a drinking spree that he hoped would give him the courage to kill himself, he approached his superior.
"I had gone as far as 1 could go. He told me to go home on the first available flight. 1 was asked if I would go to Brownshill. I immediately said no. I said that I only had a problem with my nerves. I refused to face that I was an alcoholic."
In the end however, he was persuaded to go to Stroud. Denial continued up to the last minute. On the train going down there, he recalls trying to convince himself that he wasn't an alcoholic. It was only after a couple of days at Brownshill, that he finally faced up to the extent of his problem. "It was such a relief to be able to be honest; to discover that I wasn't evil but sick."
The Servants of the Paraclete have been working with priests and religious experiencing difficulties in their vocation since 1947. Our Lady of Victory, Brownshill, was established in 1959. Since then hundreds of clergy from Britain, Ireland and other parts of the world have sought help.
The specially trained staff operate a stress programme and a chemical dependency programme, based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Fr Benedict Livingstone, Father Servant, says that there has been an increase in those seeking therapy in recent years. This didn't necessarily indicate a growing crisis in ministry, he stresses. "But there does seem to be a greater problem of alcoholism amongst the Catholic clergy compared to nonCatholics."
Initially for Fr Michael the programme was very painful. "I was forced to confront myself. I was afraid that there would be nothing left of me if 1 let the treatment work."
Gradually he began to develop a new way of looking at himself, the world and God. And he discovered how to come to terms with the pain of his childhood, though, he says, he sometimes still cries over it.
"I liked the man that walked out of Brownshill. 1 was still very much afraid. But I could face my problems in life without a drink."
Often he says, parishioners see priests as plaster saints above any kind of weakness. "Every problem in society is there amongst priests. And if you have a problem, the fact that you are a priest can make it worse," says Fr Michael.
He knows that somewhere out there are other priests in need of help to free them from the bottle; men enduring hidden agonies. His story, he hopes, may inspire these men to face their condition and seek therapy.
"I'll always be an alcoholic. As apart of my recovery I go to AA meetings twice a week. These give me strength and keep me sober.
Saying that I'm an alcoholic doesn't bother me now. I no longer sec an alcoholic as someone sitting in tatters on a park bench."