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Fr Cleary Less of a Hypocrite than the Media, Church Leaders and Society

Irish Examiner Saturday, September 08, 2007 :

THE late Fr Michael Cleary has been pilloried all week in the media since the riveting RTÉ documentary on Monday night.

“Cleary was always a fraud, far more interested in his own profile and feeding his gargantuan ego than in showing any humanity towards the people he wounded, despite his image as a man of the people,” Diarmaid Ferriter declared in this paper.

Words like liar and hypocrite flowed freely this week. His son Ross came across as a very articulate young man in an interview on the Marian Finucane radio programme. If he had not said so, you would not have known that he did not finish his secondary education.

He is clearly deeply scarred by his experiences, losing his father in such circumstances and then his mother shortly afterwards. Although she ultimately succumbed to cancer, she went in a slow, self-destructive way, which must have been even harder for Ross to watch. Was all of this Cleary’s fault?

I met him once in early 1979, at a fundraising dinner in Ballybunion. Addressing the gathering on the differences between Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera, I mentioned that de Valera had tried to send Collins to the US in 1921 but the Big Fellow vowed, “That Long Whoor won’t get rid of me as easy as that.”

Cleary spoke next. “In Dublin,” he began, “they think the Long Whoor is Bomber Liston.”

A few months earlier Eoin ‘Bomber’ Liston blew the Dubs out of Croke Park with three second-half goals in the 1978 all-Ireland final. Memories were still fresh and nobody had to explain Fr Michael’s quip. The function was in the Bomber’s hometown, across the street from his home.

The gathering was largely made up of middle-aged and older people who paid generously to attend. Cleary went on to say he had been out drinking with three nuns the previous evening. When they got back to the convent, the gates were locked, so they had to scale the wall. He gave each of them a leg up.

“There is nothing wrong with giving a nun a leg up,” he said, “so long as you don’t get into the habit.” This went down well but it would have gone down like a lead balloon with that audience if it had been told by anyone other than a priest wearing a Roman collar.

Things have changed a lot in this country since. Cleary was a victim of the times. Of course, he made mistakes. Who hasn’t? He may have been hypocritical at times and he told some lies but if only those who had never done either were allowed to criticise him, you can bet there would be no criticism. When people who knew him talk about him, the most common comment is about his humanity, and nobody is ever likely to credit the Church leaders with showing humanity in their dealings with Phyllis or Ross Hamilton.

Ironically, Cleary was portrayed as being so human, yet he is condemned for being so human. He was a performer who used his collar. He liked the adulation of the audience. What performer doesn’t? Of course, he should have acknowledged his sons. He did ultimately tell Ross he was his father. For the sake of his son, people argue, he should have done the decent thing and acknowledged him publicly, but he was clearly afraid to do so.

We are looking at the situation in hindsight but we can also see what happened when the truth came out — the outrageous reaction of the church leaders, the media, society generally and even of his own family towards Phyllis Hamilton. She was a victim. She had effectively just lost her husband and job, but got little sympathy. Instead, she was pilloried and victimised. If stress contributes to cancer, she was probably driven to an early grave.

Ross dropped out of school and went off the rails for a time, according to himself. Society and the media were largely responsible for his victimisation, not Cleary — he was already dead. Condemning him now as a hypocrite is the epitome of hypocrisy. Those who were condemning Cleary over his behaviour towards Ross did not give a damn about that young man. Cleary was a father to the boy, and their mock concern is the real hypocrisy.

Cleary was greatly disturbed by the Bishop Casey affair. Maybe what troubled him most was the reaction of the church authorities and society. The reaction was almost unprecedented in this country — not because such things did not happen before, but because the hierarchy had been able to keep the lid on them. Casey blew the lid off of that Pandora’s box.

As early as 1959, Fr Brendan Smyth was reported to his superiors for having committed paedophile offences, but he was not prosecuted when the allegation of a cover-up effectively brought down the government in 1994. In spite of all the scandals involving paedophile priests like Smyth and Ivor Payne, Archbishop Desmond Connell of Dublin described the Casey affair as a low point in his term as archbishop.

It was not “the initial revelation” that was so disturbing, but “the subsequent behaviour of Bishop Casey”, he explained. Casey came to Cork to the funeral of his invalid sister’s husband. Later, he was seen at one of Ireland’s World Cup soccer games in the US.

“People were utterly shocked when they saw him appear in episcopal insignia in Cork,” the Archbishop said. “The scandal is there. He turns up at the World Cup and the scandal is reinforced.”

The Archbishop of Dublin actually denounced Bishop Casey for showing his face in public. The Catholic church preaches Christian forgiveness, and the gospel with the parable of the prodigal son is read at Mass annually. But they did not want to welcome Casey back. They would rather have castrated him than kill the fatted calf to welcome him home.

NOW he is back in Galway, Casey has effectively been silenced and is not allowed to practise as a priest, because they are supposedly investigating some charges made against him by a woman who has already made charges against a number of people, which have proven false. Of course, her allegation should be investigated, but everybody else in society is entitled to a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Why is a different standard being applied to Casey? Because he embarrassed the hierarchy and they are now getting their revenge? Not a very Christian attitude, is it? There was a time when none of the media would have spoken out against such double standards in the hierarchy, but that has changed. Yet we hear very little about the persecution of Casey. In this instance, the media and society are guilty of double standards.

Cleary, meanwhile, was perhaps afraid he would not get a fair or sympathetic hearing in the early 1990s. His lack of faith in our sense of justice was undoubtedly proved right. He wasn’t a fearless trailblazer but yet he may have blazed a trail.

Now, the overwhelming majority of Irish Catholics believe priests should be allowed to marry. Benedict and company should take note.