I begin by quoting an article by Jenny McCartney in this week’s Sunday Telegraph. Firstly, because she is normally a fair-minded and well-informed commentator; secondly because she sums up well enough what seems to be the general tenor of the obloquy now raining down on the head of Cardinal Seán Brady. Jenny McCartney puts it like this: “It has become a painfully self-evident truth – surely, even to the silent onlookers at the Vatican – that the longer Cardinal Seán Brady stays in place as Primate of All Ireland, the greater the damage inflicted on the reputation of the Catholic Church in Ireland and beyond.”
I wonder, I really do wonder, if anyone has really thought through the implications of all this. What we have here, it seems to me, may well be nearer to the phenomenon we call today a “witch hunt” than to a common understanding based on an equitable understanding of the reality of the situation. The mass psychology of these affairs is rarely based on reason or justice; and such, I suggest, is the case here.
It may well be that Cardinal Brady, who is 72, should take early retirement, given the wholly intractable nature of the situation that has now arisen. It coud be that this is the only way forward, since fighting on is likely only to exacerbate the situation: he cannot expect to be listened to now, however reasonable his self-defence may be. Fr Vincent Twomey, the eminent retired professor of moral theology at Maynooth, says with some justice: “There is a sense of a Greek tragedy in all of this. In the Greek tragedy, people do things intending to do the good thing but instead some awful, dreadful things happen as a result of their actions and they have to pay for it… I think for the good of the Church, I’m afraid I am of the opinion that he should resign….”
But even that perpetuates the notion that it was because of something the young Fr Brady actually did, or failed to do, that Brendan Smith carried on abusing children, as though Fr Brady had episcopal responsibility even then. But he wasn’t the bishop, he was the bishop’s secretary: I wonder how many of those calling for his resignation have read in full the statement he issued following the BBC programme which triggered off this furore:
The commentary in the programme and much of the coverage of my role in this inquiry gives the impression that I was the only person who knew of the allegations against Brendan Smyth at that time and that because of the office I hold in the Church today I somehow had the power to stop Brendan Smyth in 1975. I had absolutely no authority over Brendan Smyth. Even my bishop had limited authority over him. The only people who had authority within the Church to stop Brendan Smyth from having contact with children were his abbot in the Monastery in Kilnacrott and his religious superiors in the Norbertine Order. As Monsignor Charles Scicluna, Promoter of Justice at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, confirmed in an interview with RTÉ this morning, it was Brendan Smyth’s superiors in the Norbertine Order who bear primary responsibility for failing to take the appropriate action when presented with the weight of evidence I had faithfully recorded and that Bishop McKiernan subsequently presented to them…
As he says, the documentation of the interview with the first child to be identified as a victim of Fr Smyth identifies the then Fr Daly simply as the “notary” or “note taker” of the proceedings. He did not formulate the questions asked in the inquiry process. He did not put the questions. He simply recorded the answers.
Even within the more stringent state requirements exiting today in Ireland, he would not, as he says, have been what is now called the “designated person” whose role would now be to report allegations of child abuse to the civil authorities. There was no such defined role, of course in the 70s, when all this happened; and it is worth remembering that that wasn’t the only thing that was utterly different then. It seems incredible to think of it now, but in this country, quite respectable people (some of whom later became prominent politicians) campaigned for “paedophile rights”: you can read about one such in the Daily Telegraph here, who wrote in 1978 that a proposed new law tightening the laws on child pornography could lead to “damaging and absurd prosecutions” and “increase censorship”, and that a pornographic photograph or film of a child should not be considered indecent unless it could be shown that the subject had suffered, and that prosecutors would have to prove harm rather than defendants having to justify themselves.” This was the decade in which organisations such as Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) and Paedophile Action for Liberation became affiliated to the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL, today known as Liberty). NCCL itself campaigned to reduce the age of consent in the United Kingdom and argued that court cases could do more damage than the acts themselves, arguing that “childhood sexual experiences willingly engaged in with an adult result in no identifiable damage”.
None of that, of course, applies to the Church, within which such sexual activity has always been considered deeply sinful: I refer to the contemporary secular understanding of the matter simply to recall the fact that it was a different era entirely in our understanding of this phenomenon: it was little understood then, for instance, that paedophiles are rarely “treatable”; many cases of clerical sex abuse went effectively unchecked because a clerical sex abuser’s superiors thought that his apparent penitence and resolutions of reform could be taken seriously: after all, Christianity is the religion of the second chance. We now know that paedophiles must never be given a second chance. And in case anyone thinks that I am thinking up excuses for the abuses of the last 30 years, I’m absolutely not doing anything of the kind. Whatever mitigating circumstances may exist in particular cases, there is ultimately no excuse: this is something we should have cleaned up many years before we did.
As Dr Pravin Thevathasan wrote in his book “The Catholic Church & the Sex Abuse Crisis” (CTS) “It is true that the abuse of minors is rife within society. But we claim, by the grace of God, to be members of the one Church founded by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and we are therefore called to a higher standard than that found in society at large.” But that doesn’t mean that this is a problem that can be seriously addressed by mounting witch hunts against senior clergy for what they did or failed to do 40 years ago: particularly when it is absolutely clear that they had no direct responsibility for making decisions in the particular case concerned.
There is much more that could be said in defence of Cardinal Brady: but who would listen? I fear that his position is now irretrievable, and that for the good of the Irish Church, it would probably be wise for him to ask for the Holy Father’s permission to take early retirement. It seems to me, nevertheless, that he has suffered, at the hands of the This World programme, a profound injustice (which he has eloquently rebutted in his official response to it); and that when he finally does bow before the storm, as he almost certainly must, it should be well understood that this is one of those resignations for the greater good which have nothing to do with any culpability on the part of the person resigning.