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Jimmy Savile’s obituaries mentioned his charity work: but why the conspiracy of silence about his faith?

Was this a sign of English hostility to the Catholic religion?

By on Monday, 7 November 2011

A devout Catholic. Photo: Lewis Whyld/PA Archive/Press Association Images

A devout Catholic. Photo: Lewis Whyld/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Until I read it in the Catholic Herald, I have to admit that I didn’t realise that Jimmy Savile was a practising Catholic, who attended Mass several times a week. Neither, or so it seemed, did most of those who wrote his obituaries. Some 0f them mentioned that he had a papal knighthood, possibly a clue (though since Rupert Murdoch also has one, it doesn’t necessarily signify). But they must have known it. I’ve written obituaries for the Times and the Telegraph: you can’t do it without quite a bit of research into a man’s life: his attending daily Mass must at some point have come on to the obituarists’ radar.

They all mentioned his generosity with both money (he gave 90 per cent of his earnings away) and his persistent and energetic doing of good. (It was interesting that no-one ever described him as a do-gooder; his sheer effectiveness made that impossible, somehow.)

This is how the Telegraph obituary recorded his remarkable charitable life:

Savile’s role as cheery national benefactor was further reflected in his tireless charity work.

It was once estimated that he had personally raised more than £40 million for various charitable causes, and that up to 90 per cent of his own income was given away, although Savile never disclosed the extent of his charitable donations. He took part in more than 200 marathons and innumerable “fun runs” for charity, without ever bothering to train: “I just turn up and run.” He completed the London Marathon in 2005.

He worked as a volunteer porter at the Leeds Royal Infirmary, and enjoyed a particularly close relationship with the Stoke Mandeville hospital near Aylesbury, raising £12 million to contribute to the rebuilding of the hospital’s National Spinal Injuries Centre, which opened in 1983.

He also worked as a volunteer at Broadmoor, the hospital for the criminally insane, where he was given his own room, and referred to the staff and patients at the hospital as “my people” and himself as “the Godfather”.

Savile once described his role at the hospital as honorary entertainments officer: “I ask them, what do you want to go round strangling crumpet for?” But his flippancy belied a shrewd understanding of inmates’ problems and how best to win their trust. In 1988 he was chosen to head a Department of Health task force to advise on the running of the hospital when it suffered a crisis of management and a nursing dispute. By some accounts, he ended up virtually running the place.

I love that remark to a Broadmoor patient: “what do you want to go round strangling crumpet for?”; there’s a touch of genius in that — also a reflection of the invulnerability of the truly innocent man, so much and so obviously on the side of everyone he talked to that he could only stay safe in any company.

The puzzle, I repeat, is just why there has been such a universal silence about his faith, which must have been the real source of such a gigantic charitable commitment. This is the nearest the Telegraph comes to mentioning it: he was, we are told, “the youngest of seven children in a Roman Catholic family… He attended the local school, St Anne’s Roman Catholic School”. That’s it. The Times came closer in hinting at the continuing, functioning, character of his belief: he was, we are told:

…born into a large Catholic family in Leeds in 1926. At the age of 2 he was declared dead of pneumonia before recovering — his mother Agnes hds prayed to her favourite Scottish nun Margaret Sinclair. (He was later to support a move for the nun’s beatification).

But why not mention that an important part of his life was attending daily Mass? There’s a deep dedication in the life of a man who gives away 90 per cent of everything he earns and so tirelessly does all the other things he did. You’d think that an obituarist would want to ask a simple question: where did all that come from? It’s almost as though they couldn’t bear to accept that the answer was his Catholicism: even that Catholicism itself could ever be the source of actual human goodness.

All the obituaries were happier when talking about his career as a distinctly peculiar disc jockey, his colourful eccentricities and also his less colourful human oddities. Here’s one account of all that:

Jimmy Savile, who has died aged 84, was a disc-jockey, television presenter and charity fundraiser who became an eccentric adornment to public life in Britain.

For almost 30 years, as the presenter of BBC’s ‘Top of the Pops’ and ‘Jim’ll Fix It’, Savile was an ubiquitous and distinctive face on television — an improbable figure with a helmet of platinum hair, dressed in a lurid track suit and bedecked in ostentatious jewellery. As he waggled an outsize cigar, he would utter a series of catchphrases (“Howzabout that then”, “Now then, now then… “) which were usually punctuated by a bizarre yodel, and were a gift to even the most limited of television and nightclub impressionists.

His trademark mixture of gurning and garrulity, pioneered on ‘Top of the Pops’, inspired an entirely new genre of television presentation — what one observer called the “attention-seeking, nutty-prankster school” — but Savile also saw himself in a more serious role as the King Solomon of pop, dispensing words of wisdom and advice to young musicians. “I never forgot they were the talent and we were just presenters,” he explained.

The same account of his life simply ends with the sentence “But as a man who divided opinion without ever appearing to care much what anyone thought of him, he was simply an odd chap.”

There is no mention in this account, anywhere, of his faith. The source of that account? The Irish Independent.

Truly since the long-ago days when the Irish Independent published a series of booklets on the Catholic faith for children (my favourite — one of which I remember vividly since I much later based a children’s sermon on it in my days as a clergyman, to the fury of a very protestant churchwarden—was entitled “Tales of the Blessed Sacrament”) there has been a great falling away from that faith, which makes me very sad indeed.

As I say, the English quality papers say nothing about Jimmy Savile’s faith either. But they must have known about it. Is it too much to call this a “conspiracy of silence”? It must, at the very least, be a sign of the underlying almost instinctive hostility in England to the notion that anything good could come from a life whose foundation is the Catholic religion. I fear we still have a long way to go. Ah well; A Luta Continua.

  • Anonymous

    I fleetingly met Sir Jimmy one Christmas morning twenty years ago as I was distributing Holy Communion to some pretty severely injured patients at Stoke Mandeville. Only a matter of seconds and being called ‘oh mr holy man!’ a couple of times was enough to realise that great people make other people feel great. RIP.

    Don’t expect the media to acknowledge the Catholic beliefs which a person acted upon…that’s too much for them to accept.

  • http://twitter.com/RCYouthWorker Jack Regan

    I wonder how many Catholics there are who are famous for other things and whose faith is never reported. You get to hear about a few here and there (Jack Dee, Frank Skinner, Gary Neville, Delia Smith) but there are probably loads more we don’t have a clue about…

  • Anonymous

    I did notice that too. Typical of course.

  • Anonymous

    The BBC Radio 4 Last Word program had an extensive obituary on Jimmy Savile last week. Not a single mention of his Catholic faith, despite loads about his charity work. It does leave one wondering as to what the motives were behind such a glaring omission – or was their research really that bad?

  • ms Catholic state

    I guess as Christians we are meant to have disappeared decades ago.  And since we haven’t obliged the secular ‘progressive’ world by disappearing completely…..they pretend we don’t exist by airbrushing us out.  Free publicity is not something they intend to give us. 

    Still….let’s continue with our evangelising efforts anyhow.  God Willing.

  • Tdavi2007

    I am afraid only bad news about Catholics makes news, if only they knew how much good that is done all
    around the world by Catholic organisations they would be amazed.
    God Bless Jimmy, a wonderful example to everyone. RIP.

  • John Jackson

    Thanks for this.  I had no idea, of course, due to the seeming conspiracy of silence.  

  • Parasum

    OTOH, if Catholics commit appalling crimes – IRA atrocities, drug cartels, paedophilia, rape, massacres – how often is the Catholicism mentioned ? Not very often. Maybe Catholicism is regarded, not as a form of religion, but as a form of politics. And sometimes, it seems to be treated, even by Catholics, as a form of political tribalism: did the criminals of the Ustashe who butchered tens of  thousands of Serbs during WW2, in circumstances of the most revolting barbarity, thinking they were acting in accord with the teaching of Jesus ? Catholicism has a tendency to separate from its specifically Christian content. Unless it does, how do people manage to set car-bombs, or knee-cap other Catholics, or keep tame priests to hear their confessions before they go out on a Mafia “hit” ?  If they regarded Catholicism as Christian, could people do this ? But if Catholicism is just one’s tribe, giving hell to those who threaten it makes sense.

    If Catholicism was thought of as no more than his “tribe”, maybe that is why his religion was largely ignored. It may even have been ignored out of a desire not to associate a decent & generous human being like him with Berlusconi, Adams, and suchlike repulsive specimens.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve no doubt William Oddie’s suspicions regarding the media’s reluctance to draw attention to Catholicism’s part in Jimmy’s life and influences are, broadly, accurate. HOWEVER…! – he seems to have somewhat overlooked the fact that religious assumptions and public anxieties these days have shifted considerably (further East…!) in the general direction of fundamentalism than ever used-to be the case…!! And I therefore find myself nursing a grudging conviction that if there is one word that all and sundry are today even more disposed to dodge than “Catholic” – then that word (pray, whisper it…!) is CHRISTIAN…!!!  

  • Anonymous

    Oh, and by the way, I forgot to say – that’s because Catholic is a faction, NOT a faith…! Christianity is…!!! 

  • BTyler

    Matthew 16:18. 

    Or have you chosen to ignore this?

  • Anonymous

    Hardly…! – I’m a born and bred Liverpool Catholic…!! Catholic churchgoer, Catholic college educated…!!

  • Mr Grumpy

    Perhaps we need to remove the beams from our own eyes before flinging about accusations of conspiracies. The Telegraph is crawling with Catholics, and yet even that paper was silent about Savile’s faith. Could it have anything to do with Catholic media types being a bunch of snobs for whom he was nothing but a ghastly proto-chav?

  • W Oddie

    Catholicism IS basic christianity. Protestant  and other factions are Catholicism MINUS essential elements. If you’re a born and bred Liverpool Catholic you should know that. Or was that in Abp Worlock’s time? WHEN exactly were you Liverpool bred?

  • Kateshawkateshaw

    Sir Jimmy did great works. The Catholic Church might benefit from looking to its own house before that of the press, to see why, especially in the 60s and 70s , Catholics in the public eye who worked with young people chose not make their faith public.

  • Anonymous

    “Maybe Catholicism is regarded … as a form of politics”, or so you say, Parasum.

    Or should that be Parasitos, befitting an instinctive intellectual propensity to feed what appears to be an appetite for eating at another’s table?  I’m left wondering about your own species of tribalism, you see.

    Please don’t misconstrue my tone (I feel no harshness towards you or your comments – such a thing would be arrogance), but what you have said bemuses me.

    Surely (from both the ‘ad rem’ perspective and cumulative empirical observation of your numerous past comments), only a naive – or else determined – anti-Catholic could imagine that media commentators and populists have rarely identified Catholicism pejoratively with appalling acts of human iniquity such as you have chosen to isolate from anthropological, socio-historical and political contexts. 

    Or is it that you imagine they do not grant such a privileged distinction to the overwhelmingly more numerous appalling crimes – individual, tribal, ethnic, national and international – committed throughout human time that we choose (or choose not) to historicize which have nothing remotely to do with Catholicism (nor even with any faith whatsoever, provided one is misguided enough to think that Marxist-Leninism, Fascism, Stalinism, Nazism, Moaism, Capitalist Imperialism, etc., etc., and all the other fundamentalist, ultimately atheistic ‘-isms’, are not analagous to religions). 

    And what about Liberalism?  A form of politics, indeed.  Or so they say. 

    It’s best to keep a sense of humour, don’t you think? 

    God bless.

  • theroadmaster

    Sir Jimmy was continuously depicted by the media as one of the last of the great breed of British eccentrics who dressed very colourfully and done a tremendous amount for Charity.  This very superficial reading of a truly great, inspirational personality whose public persona belied a humble, fully-committed Catholic Christian, really shows up the shallow nature of a lot of today’s media outlets.  Perhaps the solemnity and dignity of the Catholic Requiem Mass which took place today in St Anne’s Cathedral in Leeds may give more than a passing hint of the motivations which drove Sir Jimmy during his life.  I hope that future biographies and television and radio documentaries take stock of the inner Faith which was the real foundation for the consistent charitable care that he exhibited for the poor, downtrodden and grieving citizens of our society.

  • theroadmaster

    You seem to be viewing  Catholicism  through a very, narrow and perverse lens which denies the evident universality of this faith.  Just because certain individuals distorted and twisted the Ideals of Catholicism to serve their tribal nationalism does not undermine the trans-national character of it which has spread to practically every inhabitable corner of the World over the centuries.  You mention the atrocities committed in the Balkans during WW11 by the butchers of the Utashe regime against Orthodox Serbs, Jews and others who refused to convert to their poisoned version of ethnic Catholicism.  But these horrors happen precisely when despots and their evil regimes try to legitimize their nationalism with a religious benediction. This is precisely the antithesis of the Catholic Faith which had defied other attempts to nationalize it as in the case of schismatic Gallicanism in 17th century France or the Hapbsburg emperor Joseph 11 in 18th century Austria.  The tribal connotations of Catholicism with Irish Nationalism is very much a creature of that land which was partitioned against the will of the majority of that country’s population in 1922.  The Catholic Church in the northern part of the Island has consistently preached against the violence of the IRA. Gerry Adams was effected very much by the widespread discrimination which was prevalent against the Catholic community in political and socio-economic terms.  He became part of the armed campaign of the IRA which never pretended to be anything else other than an paramilitary force with a nationalist socialist agenda.  The atrocities committed by the organization cannot be excused but the complex nature of nationalism with a religious content is a potent mix, has to be understood as the backdrop against which such conflict can take place.  

  • Anonymous

    I whole-heartedly agree with theroadmaster and note that, sadly, BBC ‘red button’ news texts erroneously described Sir Jimmy’s Catholic Requiem Mass as a ‘funeral service’ that was held at ‘Leeds Cathedral’: was this careless?  Clearly.  Complacent?  Perhaps.  Impartial?  Unlikely.  Insensitive?  Effectively.  Deliberate? “Now then, now then… “

  • Anonymous

    Exactamundo!

  • theroadmaster

    Likewise,AnthonyPatrick.  The description of a “funeral service” downplays the intercessory nature of the Requiem Mass which appeals to God to mercifully treat the departed soul who has gone from this life into the next.  Somehow  ”funeral service” reduces the obsequies to a mundane observance of some rite which has long lost it’s significance and may be due to the protestant legacy from the reformation which surrounds the treatment of death.  One would think that the BBC would have realized the religious profundity of a Requiem Mass from the very public one that they broadcast from Rome following the death of the Great, Blessed Pope, John Paul 11 in 2005

  • Rachael

    I am afraid that there was no news about his faith because nobody cares about faith anymore…… it doesnt make news unless its war.

  • Jimmysavillewasapaedo

    bloody paedos!

  • Michael

    Something rather poignant in Oddy’s judgement: “I love that remark to a Broadmoor patient: “what do you want to go round strangling crumpet for?”; there’s a touch of genius in that — also a reflection of the invulnerability of the truly innocent man, so much and so obviously on the side of everyone he talked to that he could only stay safe in any company.”

  • Clivekitchentable

    Hey, it’s not a competition.

  • Kfjjones

    indeed it is, but is all this ‘good charity work’ a cover for the sexual deviancy which appears to be so common in this religion

  • tbittan

    I think some commentators may have scored some dramatic own goals here, but hindsight is a wonderful thing!

  • tbittan

    “also a reflection of the invulnerability of the truly innocent man, so
    much and so obviously on the side of everyone he talked to…”

    Well well well.

  • tamerlane

    So can we place all his “habits” down to be catholic? You lot do seem to make a habit of this sort of thing…

  • maxmarley

    There but for the grace of God go any one of us. 

    His paymaster strangely enough was Auntie that great crusader against perverts in the Catholic Church. And rightly  so.
    If dear old Auntie can get her moral compass straightened out, that long awaited crusade against perverts in the BBC could keep her reporters busy for a long time.