The Best Catholics in the World: The Irish, the Church, and the End of a Special Relationship, by Derek Scally, Sandycove, 336 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1844885268
Not long after I joined The Irish Times in 1963, I was talking to the then editor, Douglas Gageby, and ‑ greatly daring ‑ asked him how he would define a journalist. He thought for only a moment before replying, with his trademark brusqueness. “A journalist,” he said, “is a reporter who’s out of work.”
One of the ironies of the modern age is that, despite the apparent proliferation of sources of information and means of communication, reporting ‑ in the sense that Douglas Gageby used the term ‑ has to undertake the Sisyphean task of telling us what we need to know about the world in an era when so many of our channels of communication are clogged, sometimes overwhelmed, or distorted by commercial or political pressures.
I must declare a personal interest. One of the events recorded here is the broadcasting of the late Louis Lentin’s RTÉ documentary Dear Daughter. This focused closely on the experience of Christine Buckley in the Goldenbridge orphanage in Dublin. Michael Foley of The Irish Times wrote about it at the time, criticising its lack of journalistic scepticism. I doubt that Derek Scally is aware that, after the broadcast, when I was teaching journalism in DCU, I was asked to review the programme for the Sisters of Mercy (the religious order involved), no doubt because it reflected badly on their management of Goldenbridge.
It was a deeply disturbing programme to watch, as I reported, but not only because of what Christine Buckley said. I was also concerned, frankly, that her evident distress, undeniably related to her experience in the orphanage, had been presented, and possibly exploited, in a dramatic, highly personal context (Louis Lentin was justly renowned for his television drama work) rather than in a journalistic framework within which evidence could be tested and responsibility interrogated. I never found out what the order concerned thought of my commentary, and indeed, and probably wisely, they took no action to challenge RTÉ about it. These factors may in turn have contributed to the fact that the whole topic failed to catch fire until the broadcasting of a later, two-part documentary by Mary Raftery lit the blue touch-paper. The rest, as they say, is history.
This book is history too, but of a particularly valuable kind, the kind of journalism once described by the underrated US reporter Gene Fowler (1890-1960) as “history shot on the wing”. The index alone fills a dozen pages, even without revealing the identities of the occasional sources over whom Scally has cast the benevolent cloak of anonymity. But his discretion is more than counterbalanced by the willingness of many with whom he spoke, from the most unknown survivors of our dreadful systematic oppression in the name ‑ ostensibly ‑ of Christian morality, to the princes of the church in Dublin, Armagh and Rome itself who agreed to the recording of their names as well as their views. There is evident humility, even contrition, here and there, though not everywhere.
There are, in effect, two ways of looking at this book. The first is to evaluate it on its content and its workmanship (I have always considered journalism as a trade rather than a profession, and indeed few trades have a lower bar to entry). The second is to consider its wider relevance, culturally, socially and politically for the society and the island on which we live.
The opportunities for what has been described as “shoe-leather journalism”, both in Ireland and elsewhere, are visibly shrinking, and this is why it is so gratifying to see them re-emerging ‑ being reinvented almost ‑ in a book which doesn’t cost much more than a week’s supply of any newspaper. Indeed there is almost a sense in which the traditional market for newsprint is being eroded at both ends: by the blogosphere, and by the financial anaemia related to the migration of advertising to the electronic media.
And this also raises the question, not only of content, but also of methodology. Scally’s choice of his sources ‑ many of them, unlike most contemporary media sources, decently obscure ‑ and his ability to win their confidence, are in themselves a master class for the trade. But he also went digging where digging was needed. It took him no fewer than four interviews to peel away at least some of the protective layers that swathed Cardinal Brady. What busy, overstretched and understaffed media organisation can still make that kind of investment in extending their focus beyond primarily middle class issues when editors are demanding copy and the directors are demanding profits?
I started taking notes as I was reading this book, but quickly gave up in despair, so here are a few samples, chosen almost at random, to illustrate the depth, complexity, and even-handedness of Scally’s approach. The latter is still a rare enough commodity in the mass media.
There is one quote from the cardinal among many memorable ones which leap out of the page, all the more so because it is unadorned with (and would have been impeded by) any superfluous context or moralising, although it is criticised directly, and fairly, elsewhere in the text.
How would I reconcile that (going to the police) with my view? That the good of the church would be important in my eyes, that this was something the Pope thought sufficiently serious to have excommunication.
The answer, I would have thought, is fairly simple: “If you think it necessary to refocus on the good of the church, try reacquainting yourself with the Scriptures, and especially with the Sermon on the Mount.” Scally here records the cardinal’s words without comment; but he does adjudicate elsewhere in these pages on these and other scandals in effective and skilfully chosen words whose clarity and honesty add a pile-driver’s force to his assessments.
The problem, of course, is not that Brady is a bad person, which he evidently is not, but that he and so many hierarchs are like Gulliver, tied to the ground by myriad strings of custom, of misunderstood responsibilities (not least to bricks, mortar and bank accounts), and by a fatal attraction to the seductions of secular power. This compartmentalisation of morality, and its forced employment as the handmaiden of wealth and agency, is a betrayal of ‑ among many other things ‑ the Christian presence in the world.
A priest with whom I discussed these problems many years ago, when they were only beginning to break surface, suggested to me ‑ by way of explanation, not by way of excuse ‑ that the priests and others who were engaged in sexual assaults on children knew that it was a sin … but they never recognised that it was also a crime. Or, as Judge Murphy put it succinctly on another page: “Things in Ireland were known, in various silos, but nobody was able or willing to put things together: priest-sin-crime. That took a long time.”
There also is a wonderful quote from Joe Lee, paraphrased by the author: “Sex was denounced as a ‘Satanic snare’ because it posed a far more severe threat than the landlord to the security and stats of the family.” This, although it refers to the Victorian period, is a timely reminder of how much the spread of middle class morality, especially on social and sexual matters, its worship of property values and its obeisance to a hierarchical society, underpinned a latter-day Jansenism here. It has also demonstrated a nuclear half-life that is still with us, polluting our politics and chipping away remorselessly at the battered outposts of social and public responsibility.
In this context, it could be argued that one of the greatest public policy failures of the twentieth century was the unwillingness of the Commission on Emigration, which reported in 1954 after considerable subterranean disagreement, to address the related issues of family size and inheritance law as twin drivers of the mass emigration of those decades. Irish Catholic bishops were not to the fore in analysing these aspects of Irish society, let alone offering solutions for them. I am reminded of a Dutch missionary bishop I met in Rome in the 1960s who derided the traditional Catholic approach to morality in the confessional: “All they ask,” he said, “is ‘what did you do to her, and how often?’”
There are conflicts of evidence here that, in our Irish way, may never be satisfactorily addressed. On the infamous compensation scheme for survivors of clerical abuse, Michael Woods, the Irish minister responsible, told the author that attorney general Michael McDowell’s office “was there all the time”. This cannot be reconciled easily, or perhaps at all, with the implication by McDowell that responsibility for effectively writing a blank cheque to the religious orders was Woods’s doing, and his responsibility alone. This may well be true in a narrow, political sense: but the implication that the rest of that government watched the process like nodding donkeys is, to put it mildly, difficult to accept.
Derek Scally’s suggestion now is that all these events should be the subject of a citizens’ assembly. Easier said than done, I fear, but it is certainly an idea worth teasing out in some detail, if only to see how those most directly involved in these events would react. In this context, of course, one of the largest obstacles to any successful resolution of these issues is the legendary Irish litigiousness, which a citizens’ assembly might further inflame, and which might in turn lead to an irreconcilable stand-off by people unwilling to give evidence or reply to questions. A model along the lines of the South African Truth Commission might be more effective ‑ though no less painful ‑ if anyone could be found who would pay for it.
If there is a lacuna in the book, it is the absence of any discussion of Northern Ireland and those parts of its own, distinctive culture which are specifically Catholic in origin or emphasis. But perhaps that would have been expecting too much.
I was impressed, at the end, by Scally’s words of thanks to the many who volunteered their views and their memories and were happy to put their names to their contributions to his research. I was also struck by his frank admission that in the Dublin parish of his childhood, he still witnesses “the lingering silence of clerical sexual abuse, and the unspoken taboos over religion, power and class”.
Some questions about the role and place of religion in Ireland, and about the social and political maturity of Irish society as a whole ‑ not all of them related to the issues explored in this book ‑ still remain to be answered. Are there any grown-ups in the room?
John Horgan is a former journalist, politician and professor of journalism at Dublin City University. He was a member of the Seanad, Dáil and European Parliament between 1969 and 1982, and served as Ireland’s first press ombudsman from 2007 to 2014.