Irish reflections in a jaundiced eye

The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has been having a run of bad press of late. The clergy pedophile scandal and the church’s inadequate response has left it deeply wounded. The latest scandal involves Cardinal Seán Brady, the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, and his actions in the Brendan Smyth case.

Outrage over the Smyth case led to the collapse of the Irish government in 1994 and may force Cardinal Brady to step down. Smyth, a Norbertine priest who abused more than 100 children in Ireland and the U.S. over the course of 40 years, died a month after he entered prison in 1997.

In a 1 May 2012 documentary entitled “The Shame of the Catholic Church”, the BBC reported that as a young priest in the early 1970′s, Brady served as the notary to an investigative committee that reviewed complaints that Smyth had abused a 15 year old boy. Brady interviewed the 15 year old and reported the victim’s testimony of abuse to his bishop. However the boy’s parents were not informed. Smyth remained a priest and abused children for a further 13 years.

This is a terrible story of abuse, incompetence and inertia. Watch the BBC documentary if you can. But that is not the focus of this post. Newspaper reputations are established by consistently good work. When a newspaper engages in advocacy journalism on small stories, its readers are less likely to accept its version of events when the blockbuster stories come along.

The Brady/Smyth story is a blockbuster. But its importance — and the Irish Times‘ credibility –  some would argue has been damaged by what has come before.

Last week’s news article entitled “Fr D’Arcy ‘saddened’ at Vatican censure over articles” reports on moves against a priest with a newspaper column. The lede introduces us to Fr. Brian D’Arcy who reports he was:

“saddened and disappointed” at his censure by the Vatican over articles he wrote for a Sunday newspaper. The cleric and media commentator writes for the Sunday World, where he has been a regular columnist since 1976.

It emerged yesterday that he had been censured by the Vatican over four articles he wrote in 2010. The four articles by Fr D’Arcy concerned how the Vatican dealt with the issue of women priests; why US Catholics were leaving the church; why the church had to take responsibility for clerical child sex abuse; and homosexuality.

The Vatican is also understood to have complained about headlines on some of the articles, which would have been written by editorial staff at the Sunday World. Currently, in instances where he addresses matters of faith and morals in his writings or broadcasts, he must first submit these to a third party for clearance.

The article cites a statement from Fr. D’Arcy that speaks of his having to live with the “the pain of censure for 14 months and will have to live with it for the rest of my priestly life.” The priest defends his journalism and his “ministry in communication,” while the article notes that news of the censure came via the head of his order, who was summoned to the Vatican for a dressing down. A fellow Irish priest then speaks (in support of Fr. D’Arcy).

Fr Peter McVerry branded the Vatican’s actions as “horrific”.

“They are terrified that if they speak publicly they will get their heads chopped off,” he said.

And the article then closes with the names of five other Irish clerics censured by the Vatican. What the story does not have is any comment or explanation from the hierarchy or the Vatican.

Nor does the article question or substantiate the claims of censorship. A quick run through the archives of Fr. D’Arcy’s articles shows that he has not been shy of criticizing the Catholic Church’s leadership in Ireland and in Rome. If someone from the chancellery is reading Fr. D’Arcy’s articles before they are published with an eye towards reigning him in, they  have been somewhat lax. In a 23 April 2012 column that discusses popular attitudes toward married priests, Fr. D’Arcy states the hierarchy is deaf to the concerns of the laity:

Sadly in our church now, it has become impossible to be open and honest about what good people are convinced of. It’s as if merely stating unpalatable facts is in itself disloyal.

In this article, an assertion is made, facts and opinion from one side are offered in support, but no contrary views are presented nor are the claims tested. On one side we have a supporter of Fr. D’Arcy saying his treatment has been “horrific” and that critics of the church’s party line will have their head chopped off. Against that we have — nothing. What are we to make of Fr. McVerry? Is he an idiot? Is he being prophetic? What is clear is the bias against the Catholic Church from the Irish Times.

Now we are in the midst of a newspaper feeding frenzy over the fallout of the Shame of the Catholic Church. What trust should a reader place in the Irish Times‘ coverage? The stories from the newspaper’s religion correspondent Patsy McGarry on the Brady/Smyth affair are well written, well sourced and eminently readable. McGarry is a pro whose work I have enjoyed for many years.

But his latest round of stories will be read in conjunction with his 18 April 2012 opinion piece. In this pre-Shame of the Catholic Church story, McGarry takes a hammer to Pope Benedict XVI and beats.

Benedict was a “divisive figure” possessed of “rigid certainties” whose election  “represented the final defeat of that liberal Catholicism ushered in following Vatican II.”

Cardinal Ratzinger was an enemy of the “porous, inclusive Catholicism of the previous generation.” As Pope John Paul II’s “enforcer” he “closed many windows thrown open by Pope John XXIII and Vatican II” through such action as “infamous Dominus Iesus document of 2000.”

On celibacy, women priests or women in the diaconate, he was immovable. Similarly on the use of condoms even to combat Aids. On homosexuality he was virulent. In 1986, he described it as a “strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder”.

Where dissent was concerned he brooked no hostages. It extended to former colleagues such as Hans Küng. In 1966, at Küng’s instigation, the Catholic faculty at Germany’s Tübingen university appointed Fr Ratzinger professor of dogmatics. In 1979, Küng was stripped of his licence to teach because he challenged papal infallibility. In 1981, when Ratzinger became dean of the CDF, he upheld that decision.

The pope continues to take a pounding from Mr. McGarry. But the story then takes a turn towards the Irish church where she speaks to the “silencing” of Irish clergy who had “sought their way to a more compassionate, Christian understanding of human life.” He adds that:

In each case too, those of us in the media aware of it were asked not to write about this lest the sky fall and bring further misery on the already crushed. So Rome has had its way and through exploiting finer human emotions such as loyalty and respect. Clever? Yes, but hardly Christian.

Strong stuff this. One could say extraordinary when you consider that this was penned by the newspaper’s religion correspondent. If this is the worldview through which the newspaper’s religion reporter views the pope and the Vatican, how then should one read the Irish Times‘ news coverage of the Catholic Church?

The approach taken by the Irish Times has been self-defeating. By engaging in advocacy journalism, letting opinions drive the story rather than the facts, readers who are well disposed to the Irish Times editorial voice will find their views confirmed.

Those who object to its characterizations and treatment of the Catholic Church may respond to these latest scandals with a “well they would say that, wouldn’t they” about the Irish Times‘ coverage.  The truth winds up getting lost in advocacy journalism and it ultimately fails in its mission as no minds are changed or views shifted.

Read the Irish Times on Catholicism — but read it with a jaundiced eye is my advice.

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About geoconger
  • John

    Spot on! Having McGarry, a self-confessed atheist, as the IT religious correspondent is like having a vegan reporting on the meat industry.

  • Martha

    Where to start with this? From the Irish end of things, what is going on here makes the American scandal look straightforward.

    Okay – one partial, biased and uneducated quick ramble through matters as they appear to this person: you probably have no idea of the influence of the clergy and the Church in Irish society. No, whatever you think you know, you don’t realise the extent of it. I don’t want to be the cliché Irish person who, in response to a question about what is going on in the North, starts off the reply by going back to the 11th century, but let’s just say that with the 19th century and the response to liberalisation (relatively speaking) on the part of the British government regarding the rights of Catholics, the Irish hierarchy responded by assuming the most rigid aspects of Victorian respecatability.

    Also, there was (is?) a very strong tendency to Jansenism in Irish Catholicism, which means that for over a hundred years we had a rigid, top-down, sexually-conservative, socially-respectable, these-are-the-rules kind of Catholicism intimately entwined with every aspect of Irish life. Since the hospitals, schools, orphanages, etc. were mainly established and run by religious orders, they remained in their hands after independence.

    Add in that the traditional prospects of employment in Ireland were “nil”, so the choice for families was one or two children would stay at home (in the case of rural families, one son would inherit the farm) and the rest could go to England or America or elsewhere. No work + social cachet of having a priest or a nun in the family = a lot of unsuitable people joined religious orders.

    I’m not talking about paedophiles here, either; the Irish abuse scandal has never been a purely sexual one, but involved accusations going back decades of neglect, physical and emotional abuse, exploitation of children in the orphanages and industrial schools and reformatories, on top of sexual abuse. Women and men who had no training, put in charge of large groups of children, in an atmosphere of ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ and no oversight; where any complaint against a priest or a nun was literally unthinkable to be considered, let alone believed; bad things happened.

    Then came the belated liberalisation of Irish society, which only took place starting in the 80s and 90s (everywhere else had the Sexual Revolution in the 60s but as ever we were thirty years behind the times). It wasn’t until we started getting economically secure (the infamous ‘Celtic Tiger’) that we felt able to leave the church behind, and then the backlash happened – huge falling-away from the practice of the faith in my time, atttitudes to sex outside marriage, divorce, contraception, having children out of wedlock, co-habitation, and so forth doing a complete reversal (helped along by scandals such as the Kerry Babies Case and the Ann Lovett case).

  • Bill

    Martha, thank you. I was hoping you’d weigh in. Things never happen in a vacuum. Would you elaborate further?

  • Martha

    That was only the first half of the background, here’s the second quick canter (yes, this is what passes for “quick” where I’m concerned).

    So – sex scandals and the clergy, backlash against the power of the church and the desire of the progressive element in Irish society to copperfasten its gains all means that the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme. We have two atheists in the present coalition government (the Tánaiste or Deputy Prime Minister, Eamon Gilmore, leader of the minority partner Labour Party and Minister for Foreign Affairs – in which capacity he closed down various Irish embassasies abroad on grounds of expense, one of which is our embassy to the Vatican, a decision that sparked some controversy – and our Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, also a member of the Labour Party who, fairly or unfairly, is being seen as overseeing the removal of religion teaching from Irish schools and the influence of the Church as patrons and boards of management of primary schools).

    To give a bit of context, in the same week that these stories about calls for Cardinal Brady’s resignation are all over the newspapers, there was also the report on our national state broadcaster, RTÉ, was fined by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland for a current affairs programme documentary entitled “Mission to Prey” alleging that an Irish missionary priest in Africa raped a girl, fathered a child on her, paid support for the child for years, and was now back in Ireland as a parish priest. This all turned out to be wrong, and they lost a libel case. But the fine was not for losing the case, it was for the lack of control and accountability when making the programme – the priest was doorstepped by the camera crew at a First Communion Mass in his parish, when his lawyer offered the programme proof that the allegations were false the reporter said her source was better and more reliable and the editorial team apparently backed her to the hilt.

    So yeah – there’s a lot of tangled history behind what looks like a straightforward ‘resign or not?’ story which means that emotions are heated and there is little to no chance of a dispassionate judgement of the matter.

  • Martha

    Also, speaking of background – the “Irish Times” (likes to think of itself as) the newspaper of record in Ireland.

    It started off as a Protestant Nationalist newspaper, but fairly soon became the Irish Unionist paper. Although the Protestant identity has been heavily diluted in recent times (it has long had a majority of Catholic or lapsed/ex-/progressive Catholics as reporters and staff), it still leans as liberal and progressive.

    In other words, if the late and long-lamented “Irish Press” was the Fianna Fáil paper (literally – it was founded by Éamon de Valera, founder of Fianna Fáil party, leader during the 1916 Rising, Taoiseach and eventually President of Ireland and that’s the paper we always read in our house) and the “Irish Independent” was the Fine Gael paper (informally; taken over and re-launched by the Nationalist Party MP William Martin Murphy most infamous for organising and leading Dublin employers against the trade unions led by James Larkin, culminating in the Great Lockout of 1913), then the “Irish Times” was the paper of the Ascendancy.

    And being chock-full of ex-Catholics who are also liberal and progressive, well – that’s the reason their coverage of the Irish Catholic Church is what it is :-)

    (I realise I’ve probably libelled, slandered or otherwise detracted the good names of all these papers, but sure, that’s what Wikipedia is for – so you all can check out what I’m saying!) ;-)

  • Daniel

    What we have in advocacy journalism is what has so often been trumpeted as the downfall of science, the proclamation of untested theories.

  • Bill

    Again, thanks, Martha. I always appreciate your posts and look forward to your thoughts from the auld sod.

    If I might put you on the spot, how do you think this story will unfold over the next decade or two?

  • Martha

    And just to complete the ignorance, Fr. Brian D’arcy is widely considered to have been the inspiration for the late Dermot Morgan’s portrayal of “Fr. Trendy”, a late 70s-model young priest best described as follows from the Wikipedia article:

    “Father Trendy, an unctuous trying-to-be-cool Catholic priest given to drawing ludicrous parallels with non-religious life in two minute ‘chats’ to camera.”

    Fr Peter McVerry is best known for his work with the homeless and with the socially disadvantaged, particularly young people. He’s an activist priest in the social justice model, so he’s always been more or less critical of the hierarchical structure of the church and has leaned more and more progressive on some matters – he’s a Jesuit, after all! :-)

    But he has done, and continues to do, solid work for the dispossessed, so I will always cut him that much slack.

  • Martha

    I’ll shut up after this, I promise.

    geoconger, you said “If someone from the chancellery is reading Fr. D’Arcy’s articles before they are published with an eye towards reigning him in, they have been somewhat lax.”

    Fr. D’Arcy is not a secular priest, he is a member of the Passionist order, so ‘reining him in’ would be a job for his superior – who happens to be himself, as he is Superior of St. Gabriel’s in County Fermanagh.

  • geoconger

    Let’s focus on the journalism — not the subject please.

  • Martha

    Bill – that’s a very good question. In the Cardinal Brady story, please note that we’re talking about events that happened over thirty years ago. I think that in the next ten to twenty years, the last of these will still be uncovered, but anything past (say) the 80s will be unusual and singular.

    In a way, Cardinal Brady can’t get a fair shake, because the Fr. Smyth case was horrific – I want to emphasise that, because I don’t want to sound as if I’m trying to downplay it or say he didn’t offend as badly as all that or to ‘blame the victims’; the man was a true paedophile who preyed on both boys and girls and abused the position of trust and authority he had as a priest.

    On the other hand, Cardinal Brady was not a cardinal back then; he was a note-taker. People want heads to roll, and since those in authority back then are dead or long retired, he’s the next best thing. If he were still Fr. Brady, there would be outrage but no calls for him to resign – and again, to put it in context, the day I heard this on the radio lunchtime news there was also a story about HSE officials in Dublin who had placed a convicted rapist with other vulnerable teenagers in a carehome (the youth in question is 18 now and was convicted of a violent rape when he was 14). There are no calls for the Minister for Health to resign, even though he’s the ultimate one in charge. So the anger against the Church is coming out in all these calls for resignation.

    As to the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland – well, that’s anyone’s guess. The former power and influence is broken, but there are still people alive who resent (for good or bad reasons, some genuinely suffered under the cultural climate of the past) that power and over the next twenty years will still oppose ‘the Vatican’ and will either be disinterested altogether in religion of any kind or will be calling for a liberal, progressive, reformed Catholicism. The generation born in the 80s, who are coming into adulthood now, have a different experience of the Church, where it is irrelevant to their lives (apart from, say, having a church wedding to keep the parents happy or maybe having their child baptised but never darkening the door of a church afterwards). How they, and those after them, will react to Catholicism in Ireland – I genuinely have no idea.

  • AuthenticBioethics

    I’d like to focus on something else that the article in question and the post itself are guilty of. That is, characterizing the actions of the Smyth as “pedophilia.” The DSM-IVTR (not a wonderful book, but useful in some respects) defines this term as an interest of those aged ~16 or older in “prepubescent” children, usually younger than 13. The article notes two of the victims interviewed by Brady in 1975 were boys aged 14 and 15, not likely to be prepubescent. While Smyth may have gotten involved with both boys and girls, many others had a particular preference; whether he was a “true pedophile” as some assert depends on the physical maturity of the victims.

    The questions are: Is this really a scandal of pedophilia? Or is it something else that is not getting enough press? And what does that have to do with the religious dimension? If it’s about protecting children, exactly who are we protecting (little kids or young men), and from whom (pedophile or…)?

    • geoconger

      Smyth’s victims were male and female — aged 6 to 16. He was a pedophile who molested pre-pubsecent children. He was a hebephile who molested children on the cusp of adolescence. He was an ephebophile who molested adolescent children. But then again these medical and pseudo-medical terms are not universally acknowledged but are an American classification system. Whatever the classification, Smyth was a child molester.

      All of which is besides the point of the article in question, which asks questions about the press coverage — not the underlying scandal.

  • Dan Crawford

    I take it that Fr. Conger objects to the following sentences:

    In each case too, those of us in the media aware of it were asked not to write about this lest the sky fall and bring further misery on the already crushed. So Rome has had its way and through exploiting finer human emotions such as loyalty and respect. Clever? Yes, but hardly Christian.

    Given Fr. Conger’s description of the scandal and the reporting of it in the Irish press, is this really that objectionable? The Vatican and the hierarchies of the United States and Ireland have not exactly covered themselves with integrity, compassion for victims, or concerns with the truth in their handling of these scandals. One can appreciate Benedict XVI’s speaking out about this, but it is too little, too late in the eyes of many observers, many of whom happen to be Catholics, even conservative Catholics.

  • tioedong

    The Irish establishment, including their media, has long been anti Catholic, because the church stood in the way of Ireland becoming “modern” (read divorce, birth control and abortion). The “abuse” saga is a godsend to them to destroy the influence of the church, which was standing in the way of a modern forward looking culture. Perhaps this is why the story is made to sound as if the church is again being it’s old stubborn old fashioned self.

    As for abuse, ironically, only an athiest like Brendan O’Neill at “Spiked” magazine dares to point out that the actual numbers as a percentage of the whole are small (300 plus over 85 years), and that many cases were by non clergy or other students.