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The Other Side of Ivan Payne

Added to on January 3, 2007

Sunday Independent, 24 November 2002

Anton Savage's childhood admiration and affection for now convicted paedophile Fr Ivan Payne forces him to reflect on the complicated nature of good and evil

WHEN I was growing up, there were three priests in my parish. One was an old-style parish priest, all benign greetings and Muscovite hats. One was a young thrusting Renaissance priest great guy, but you could tell his mind was filled with strategies for the parish and revolutions in ministry. But there was one priest who was all that the church should be for a young boy. Gentle, funny, interested, warm. The priest you wanted to tell about your silver medal in the sports day, because you knew he'd be proud of you. The priest who always had a queue at confession, because he'd understand. The priest who made the church real.

His name was Ivan Payne. Child molester. Paedophile. Sex criminal. The man of 100 headlines. The shame of the church. The face of evil. And a good, kind and decent man.

Funny thing about that last paragraph is that the words that will shock are not the ones that should. The shocking words are the ones that talk about his humanity. Because we've spent years being taught that he has none. We've been taught wrong.

Only one priest in the parish remembered everyone's name. Even if he hadn't met you for months, even years, he remembered you. The others knew your face, knew you were in their parish and smiled. He knew who you were. Only one priest who remembered your successes and always mentioned them, no matter how long since he'd seen you.

His name was Ivan Payne. Paedophile. And one of the best priests I've known.

I met him a week after charges were brought against him. In the local garage. The man who was always surrounded by warmth, the man you always queued to talk to because other parishioners would always be there first was now in a bubble of solitude.

People turned the other way. They stared at the sweet rack, using a Dairy Milk fixation to make him disappear. He was invisible.

I said hi. I liked him. So I said hi. He hadn't seen me in years. I was two feet taller than the last time we'd met. When I greeted him he looked at me in horror. A face that had never been anything but kind was hunted. Frightened. But as soon as he saw I was friendly he started to talk. He asked me about my last success, he asked me about my family. He asked me about me. As people parted around us like water around a rock, he remembered and he cared.

His name was Ivan Payne. Criminal. And a good man.

Now you tell people about how good he was and they sneer. "You were being groomed." "It was a cover." "He's evil." It's tempting to surrender to the consensus.

BRENDAN Smith was an easy paedophile to deal with. Leering at children as the Garda loaded him into a paddy-wagon, his crimes summed up his character. That's not true of Ivan Payne. I'd love to hate him. I'd love if he was uncomplicatedly evil. Then, it'd be easy. But he's not.

The media have had a good stab at painting him that way. "He refused treatment." Only he didn't. "He was arrogant." Only he wasn't. "He's evil." Only he's not.

Nothing about the Ivan Payne I knew excuses his crimes or indicates any lack of sympathy on my part for his victims.

Right now, several priests are standing in the wreckage of their own lives. Some have been dragged into prison, showing no remorse. Some, though, know the horror they have caused.

They see the pain they struck down on to the most vulnerable. They accept it. They are shamed by it. And they have paid the price the state required.

One of them will never stop paying, because we won't let him. We have had our pound of flesh and we want more. There's one who will suffer our vengeance as long as he lives. His name is Ivan Payne. Perpetrator and victim. Good and evil. And my friend.