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Archive for August, 2010

A Moral Dullard

The primary cause championed by the current pope is opposition to ‘moral relativism’. In fact, this is what the church he heads specialises in.

‘What more could Cardinal Conway have done?’
This question was voiced by Cardinal Sean Brady when faced with the charge that the Catholic church had colluded in helping a priest suspected of murder to evade prosecution.
Well, it is an important question and it is important that Sean Brady should show himself well able to answer it, if indeed there was some measure, taken or not taken by his predecessor, which disgraced his office.
For Cardinal Brady is himself under criticism for having concealed crime. He, like William Conway, was notified of crimes committed by a priest. He was told of the abuse of children by Father Brendan Smyth.
And he covered up those crimes, swore to secrecy the young people who had brought accounts of them to him, and held his silence for decades afterwards, while the odious Smyth cut a swathe through Irish children.
He was himself in a similar position to that of Cardinal Conway, notified of a crime and involved in the concealing of it and the release of the offender among Catholic communities in which he would be trusted because the church that sent him was trusted.
Sean Brady holds onto office, against calls for his resignation over the Brendan Smyth affair, and he justifes this by assuring us that he has understood the lessons of experience and that no cover up of abuse can be allowed under his watch.
Yet he says: ‘What more could Cardinal Conway have done?’
If Sean Brady does not understand the grotesque violation of innocence at the heart of Cardinal Conway’s handling of James Chesney, then he has hardly proven to the Catholics of Ireland that he even yet grasps the moral responsibilities attendant on his office.
So, let it be spelt out for him.
Cardinal Conway believed that James Chesney, a priest in the Derry diocese, was a mass murderer. He had met the Secretary of State William Whitelaw and had had that explained to him. His own description of Chesney as a ‘bad man’ confirms that he had believed what he was told.
And he can not be held solely responsible for the initiative to spirit Chesney away, any more than sean Brady can be held accountable on his own for the transfer of Brendan Smyth.
But Chesney, like Smyth, was not a postman being transferred to some quiet town out of harm’s way.
Chesney was a priest and he was sent to a parish to function as a priest and where his arrival would be understood to have the approval of the church.
There he would baptise babies. He would prepare small children for their Holy Communion. He would hear their confessions. He would marry young people in his church. He would receive the trust and even reverence of people who accepted him as an emmissary of the church they were born into and raised in.
Conway’s decision to have Chesney sent to work like this among people who would be kept in ignorance of his appalling crimes says a lot about the man.
It says that he had nothing but contempt for those people. That the insult of providing a murderer as a moral exemplar to them was untempered by either theology or respect.
It is one thing to imagine a hardened and pragmatic RUC Chief Constable, faced with a horrible quandary, assenting to a priest being shuffled off to a distant parish. He hasn’t any responsibility for the souls that the beast will patronise. He has problems enough.
But Cardinal Conway did have a responsibility to Catholic parishioners, as had Bishop Neil Farren of Derry, who directly ordered the transfer, and the fact of their imposing a murderer on unknowing parishioners in Donegal shows that they had no real sense of pastoral concern for those people.
They were prepared to dump a murderer on them as the expedient solution to an undoubtedly grave problem.
This was as cyncial a move as you could ever credit an arrogant prince of the church with making.
That is all plain to anyone who gives a moment’s thought to what Conway did, but his successor Cardinal Sean Brady doesn’t get it.
He asks: ‘What more could Cardinal Conway have done?’
Well maybe he could have had Chesney sent to Rome to work in an archive or something if he hadn’t the backbone to sack him and denounce him and to pass the problem back to the police where it belonged.
And if Sean Brady doesn’t understand the real offence that Conway and Farren committed against trusting and obedient Catholics, as he doesn’t wuite get what was horrific about his imposing an oath of secrecy on raped children, then he should be thinking again about his decision to remain in office after that scandal.
Or, perhaps, since it appears he really is a moral dullard, it is for those around him to explain it to him and to ask him to go.

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Bless me, Father…

When the Secretary of State, William Whitelaw, met Cardinal Conway to discuss the case of James Chesney, the bomber priest, an appalling prospect loomed before them.
It was that the public disclosure that a Catholic priest was an IRA bomber would confirm the prejudices of Loyalism against the Catholic church and make all priests legitimate targets.
Chesney was a nasty piece of work, in the view of both the police and the church. He had directed the bombing of the Village of Claudy on the day of Operation Motorman, when the army moved against the no-go areas. He had killed nine people, including little children. And he had shown himself up as an incompetent. He had not, presumably, wanted to kill children, but the bombers had scurried around after they’d left the bomb to find a working phone to make a warning call. They couldn’t find one because the IRA had bombed the telephone exchange the day before.
Neither the police nor the government nor the Catholic Church was ready for radical action against Chesney.
The police asked the NIO to talk to the Cardinal and Cardinal Conway transferred Chesney to a parish in Donegal, where he might continue to lead the faithful in prayer and administer the sacraments to them.
It was the only solution any of them had the stomach for in those dangerous times, though the Chief Constable, Graham Shillington, aired the view that it would have been better if Chesney had been sent to Tipperary. Donegal was hardly out of range of the IRA command structure.
The potential that they all had reason to fear was of a massive escalation of sectarian warfare, triggered by the disclosure that a priest was a suspected IRA killer, and this at just the moment when it seemed as if the mayhem was coming under control and political negotiations were starting.
This fear may never have been realised, of course. Loyalists often talked as if they believed that the Catholic Church was their enemy but they did not conduct their backlash against the Catholic community primarily on that premise.
Some priests had been killed, but not by Loyalist paramilitaries. Two had been shot by the army, by soldiers who perhaps had had no idea that their targets were clergymen.
But the rhetoric of Loyalism said that the church was the enemy and Chesney might have appeared to many as the embodied proof of that.
Rev Martin Smyth, later a Grand Master of the Orange Order, is reported as having told an Ulster Vanguard rally in the spring of 1972, that all the troubles would come to an end if the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, would put his house in order. An absurd notion.
And the greatest champion of the idea that the Catholic Church was conspiring to absorb Ulster into a Catholic Ireland was the firebrand preacher Ian Paisley, later to be our First Minister.
There have been reports and rumours of other priests aligning themselves with the IRA.
The novelist Brian Moore painted a plausible picture of an unctuous provo priest in Lies of Silence.
Sean O Callaghan, the police agent inside the IRA, wrote of meeting a priest who helped IRA operations in the North, and there was a widely believed understanding that IRA activists in the early days, when leaders were religious men and women, would receive confession and communion before going out to shoot people.
There have been priest activists and agitators and rumours of other real provo priests, but the tricky line that campaigning priests like Des Wilson, Raymond Murray and Denis Faul trod was in opposition to the methods of the state without endorsing the IRA.
Fr Wilson pointedly refused over and over again to condemn the IRA, while criticising the actions of the army and blaming the state for creating circumstances in which people would understandably express their wrath with violence.
Raymond Murray, when in Armagh, was a campaigner against the SAS and had documented, along with Denis Faul, numerous cases of attacks on republicans.
Denis Faul himself was a long time campaigner for prisoners and argued what seemed for years the eccentric case that easing life for the men inside would reduce tension on the streets. He fell out with the Provisionals over the hunger strikes campaign which he believed was prolonged for Sinn Fein political party advantage.
Another campaigner was Fr Joe McVeigh of Ederny in County Fermanagh who argued that the church should be siding with the oppressed people.
None has been the headache than James Chesney was. It is now clear that the police, the Secretary of State and the Catholic Church authorities believed that he was, in Cardinal Conway’s words, ‘a very bad man’.
The compromise that the Cardinal and William Whitelaw reached was that Chesney be posted to Donegal. This is the same strategy the church used until recently in removing the embarrassment of a priest caught sexually violating children.
The outstanding injustice, of course, is that Chesney was never charged, the Claudy victims were denied truth and Chesney himself was never given a chance to clear his name.
But what is almost grisly to contemplate is that this man, whom the Cardinal accepted was a mass murderer, a slayer of little ones, was sent to a Donegal parish to hear the confessions of children and mediate God’s forgiveness to them for their own peccadilloes.
The Ombudsman indicts the RUC of collusion in seeking to address the Chesney problem through the Government and the church rather than arresting him.
One of the shocking findings of the report is that it was the police themselves who initiated the process by which this suspect was transferred across the border.
The Ombudsman gets the point that there might have been serious consequences following the arrest of a priest. He doesn’t spell them out.
The first is probably that the Loyalists would have turned on the Catholic church.
Another is that a protest campaign might have rallied around Chesney, seeking to portray him as an innocent victim of an anti Catholic state.
Whitelaw would have worried that, just having taken over from Stormont, to rule Northern Ireland in a conspicuously non sectarian fashion, he would have been branded as having failed to curtail bigotry in the RUC.
And with the SDLP being gently coaxed towards talks at Darlington and Sunningdale, Whitelaw may have feared that the arrest of a priest would have raised a popular issue that would have mobilised opinion against their participation, and especially if Chesney had been interned, a clear option at the time.
The RUC, of course, may have judged that interning Chesney or charging him and then seeing him acquitted would have done worse damage than merely ushering him away.
They may even have been just at the end of their tether in the face of the charge that they were a sectarian force and lost all hope of being able to pursue a case like this and be trusted to be acting from good motives.
They hadn’t the credibility in the Catholic community to carry it off; it is probably as simple as that.

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Claudy

For the day that we learnt that a priest had bombed Claudy and that his cardinal, the bishop, the police and the Government all knew and all agreed to transfer him to another parish instead of prosecuting him.

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Journos Vs Bloggers

It used to be that the main worry for a freelancing radio journalist like me was television reporters and some of the more famous big shots who can squeeze to the front ahead of you.
Now there are other rivals for the attention of a potential interviewee, the bloggers.
Practically the entire internet now is composed of blogs and social network sites. Everywhere there are citizen journalists, from people who send pictures of fires from their mobile phones to television stations, maybe only once, to ardent amateur media specialists who are trying to change the character of journalism with their online creativity and agitation.
Sometimes you are the potential interviewee yourself, at a book launch or arts festival, and you are flattered to be asked for an interview, then it registers that you are dealing with the editorial outreach arm of a blog with six readers. Or you might be sitting in a panel on a stage and look up through the audience and see that a little camcorder is pointing at you. And sloppy as the audio might be, it will go online and reach an audience.
And, were someone there to get so irate that he lunged forward and shot you, then news outlets around the world would take that footage, no matter how bad it was.
Blogging aspires to being the new journalism and journalism in the traditional media wants to argue that it has professional standards to defend but there is one big flaw in the perception that bloggers and journalists are at war with each other; they actually feed off each other. They have a symbiotic relationship, and it is changing.
It used to be that journalism was a coherent and well demarcated profession.
The job was defined by the National Union of Journalists, as much as by the employer. So, as a newspaper reporter, when I started, I would have caused a strike if I had carried a camera. I use a camera for blogging. The bloggers define their own functions and play with whatever technology suits them.
And most don’t worry about quality. It seems almost in the intrinsic character of blogging that the background noise is too high and that the audio hisses.
As a radio journalist, in the days of tape recording, I was not allowed to edit my own tapes but had to work alongside an audio engineer.
Now, even in the BBC, I can edit everything. In fact, I edit packages for Sunday Sequence at home. I often record talks for Radio Scotland and email them to the producer.
So, bloggers are not to blame for the broadening definition of a journalist; it is happening anyway. But there remain some vital differences between a journalist and a blogger.
The journalist has to deliver on time. There are deadlines. The blogger can go to the pub and upload the recordings later, maybe even the day after the next if a hangover intervenes.
The journalist has backing. When harassed by abusive calls and threats of libel, the newspaper or broadcaster should take the heat. The blogger alone will more readily succumb to pressure.
Once I commented on a blog that reviewed a book and the blogger immediately wilted and withdrew his piece. I didn’t want him to do that. No one else had gone to so much trouble to critique the same book, but he hadn’t the thick skin a journalist would have had.
And the problem for a blogger is that the publishing model is vulnerable.
An article online can be removed in a way that a broadcast item or a newspaper article can not. Once they are out, the damage is done. The blogger may have to defend a piece every day or remove it. And there is unlikely to be support from the host server who has no editorial principles to defend.
I have myself broken under the pressure of harassment and threats from an interviewee, to remove material from a blog, just to get rid of the headache, while knowing that if I had published the material in a newspaper or broadcast it on air I would have been completely safe.
Blogs are more interactive than traditional journalism and the debate routinely turns cantankerous and nasty.
Some blogs, like sluggerotoole and the blogs attached to the BBC and the Guardian are strongly moderated to weed out offence and libel; even there the exchanges are more robust than you would get on Nolan or Talkback.
But there is freedom in the relaxed standards of journalism on blogs. I recently recorded a vox pop on the Shankill Road, about health, hoping to include it in an item for Sunday Sequence. Some of it was unusable on the BBC because it affronted their very sensible guidelines. First, there were swear words: no problem on the internet. And two young men spoke under the clearly admitted influence of drugs. I had, therefore, recorded them in the commission of a crime, another basis for not broadcasting. But I posted the whole lot onto thestreet.ie.
Traditional broadcasting always offers tightly edited versions of interviews, but even they now will post the raw material or at least a greater part of the original interview online, where the rules are slacker and where listeners and viewers have the opportunity to judge the editorial approach to the broadcast and decide if they would have cut it differently.
And while the big stations continue to broadcast, blogging can thrive by narrowcasting, targetting niche markets. I run a blog called artstalk.net to podcast poetry readings and arts related interviews and pictures. The Ottawa based blogger Evan Thornton is developing hyper local journalism on the theory that if you run a blog about your street you will get more readers than you will if it is about your city, because everyone on the street will follow the local news while only a few citizens will bother with yet another metropolitan outlet.
The parameters between traditional journalism and blogging are fluid and changing but if newspapers and broadcast outlets collapse it is still more likely to be because they ran out of money in a diversifying market than because bloggers alone provided a viable alternative. There should still be room for both.

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