I have just returned from a foreign absence blessedly out of touch with the internet. I came back to find an email from the Herald asking if I wanted to appear on Radio Leeds to talk about Sir Jimmy Savile. Why me, I thought at first: and then, sickeningly, I remembered: in November last year, at the time of Savile’s death, when everyone was lauding his apparently selfless charity work and all the good he had done, I had written a piece (long since forgotten by me) complaining that one thing everyone had kept very quiet about was his Catholic faith: my now deeply embarrassing headline was “Jimmy Savile’s obituaries mentioned his charity work: but why the conspiracy of silence about his faith?”
Just how wrong did I get it? There’s still a question to be asked about all this. Was Jimmy Savile a deeply conflicted human being, torn between his impulse to do good in the world and his compulsion towards a particularly repulsive kind of human sinfulness? We are all a mixture of good and evil instincts: what Catholics think of as their commitment (sometimes strong, at other times weak) towards sanctification of life is a continuing process of attempting to weaken their habitual sinfulness and strengthen their commitment to their love of God. Is that what was going on here? Or – a truly horrendous possibility – was all the good he did in the world simply a means of getting access to the young girls he abused? Would it really be worth all that time and trouble? Maybe to someone so obviously compulsive in his sexual instincts it really was. Think of those flats in hospitals he was provided with (and whose idea was that?), places he could take his victims: is that what it was all about?
I assumed at the time (not, under the circumstances, surely, entirely unreasonably) that the motivating force for all the good he did was his faith: so I reproached his obituarists (who were no less fulsome in their praise for him than I or anyone else was) for ignoring it: “Why not,” I asked, “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.” Oh dear.
What was going through his mind as he sat there, having slipped quietly into the back of Leeds cathedral, during those daily Masses? Was he praying for strength to resist his sexual compulsion? What did he tell his confessor? A psychologist, asked this question in one of the endless series of radio discussions about this horrible story last week, replied “probably he told him nothing: these people have an almost endless capacity to convince themselves that they have done nothing wrong”.
I remain confused about all this. Which was it: was he simply and damnably an evil man, who did good in order that the opportunity for evil might come from it? I pray that that was not the source of all the undoubted good he really did do; I really hope that he was a man torn between good and evil whose faith in the end brought him true penitence. I note that most of the cases now emerging date back to the 70s and earlier: does that mean that towards the end of his life he had changed his behaviour? I simply don’t know. Does anyone?
I usually go on for much longer than this: this time, though, I am simply reduced to silence. Thank God we are told not to judge others lest we ourselves come under judgment for it. This time I have no confident conclusions, I have nothing to say: only questions.