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By NICK LOWRY, The Brandsma Review, July - August 2010

I HAVE found it impossible to take John Cooney's credentials as a "Religion Correspondent" seriously since he first perpetrated the elementary howler of referring to "the Immaculate Conception of Jesus" when referring to the Virgin Birth. That would be a pardonable error from a semi-agnostic hack reporter, but not from a seasoned journalist specialising in Catholic affairs.

Mr Cooney, of the Independent Newspapers group, achieved a degree of notoriety over 10 years ago with his book John Charles McQuaid, Ruler of Catholic Ireland.This was mercilessly slammed by the critics, and reputable historians did not take it seriously (He says the political, church and media establishments attacked him with "with ravenous relish"--which is surely somewhat paranoid.) Now he is writing another book on the same subject, to be entitled--would you believe?--The Curse of McQuaid.

He feels he is entitled to another bite at the cherry because the Ryan and Murphy reports were undeniably critical of the way Dr McQuaid handled allegations of clerical sex abuse during his tenure as Archbishop of Dublin.

Impure and simple

Mr Cooney gave a sneak preview of the contents of his new exciting exposé to the Daniel Corkery Summer School in Inchigeelagh, Co. Cork in July this year. It would be foolish to dismiss all his allegations out of hand until one has a chance to read the book. But his address to the summer school was a frenetic, self-obsessed rant--so it seems rather unlikely that The Curse of McQuaid will prove very enlightening.

There were so many points in Cooney's diatribe that are open to question. He made a lot of allegations without giving the evidence on which they are based, claiming that it will be in the new book. But it is clear that much of what he is saying is rehashed from his original book and repeats its flaws.

There is no doubt in Cooney's mind that John Charles McQuaid was a pederast--impure and simple. That is an empirical question--either he was or he wasn't--and it stands or falls on the evidence adduced for it. Certainly he was not flawless; the Murphy report shows he made serious errors in handling clerical sex abuse.

There is evidence, too, that he may have been unduly tolerant of anti-semitism. The late Lady Jakobovitz, widow of the former Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, thought so--and her views should certainly be taken seriously when one recalls that some Irish Jews considered she had a tendency to downplay the extent of anti-semitism in 1950s Ireland. (I tend to be prejudiced in Lady Jakobovitz's favour because of her husband's excellent record on pro-life issues, and his efforts on behalf of Judaeo-Christian sexual ethics in general.)

Servility and arrogance

The only time I crossed paths (it would be over-dramatic to say "swords") with the archbishop was as a newly-recruited sub-editor with the Irish Press in 1967. The deputy chief sub-editor handed me a report from Archbishop McQuaid's office, of a speech in response to criticism which had been voiced of the Christian Brothers. "Cut that back; it's not worth more than a couple of paragraphs," said the DCSE. I remember very little about the story, apart from the obvious indignation of His Grace: "How little your critics know of the selfless care and devotion you devote to the boys in your care," he said--or words to that effect. I performed a hacking job, handed the story in, and thought no more about it.

Until the following day. The chief sub-editor was worried because a note had arrived from Dr McQuaid's press secretary Ossie Dowling complaining of our cavalier treatment of the Archbishop's speech. "Please carry the address in full," he wrote. "It is not over-long." To my amazement and chagrin (I was newly arrived from England) I was instructed to do just that. I thought then, and I still think, that this was insufferable arrogance on the part of Dr McQuaid, and evidence of an unhealthy servility on the part of the Irish Press.

It is agreed in most quarters, conservative and liberal, that Dr McQuaid was rather a prude. I am reliably informed that once, when walking with a friend in the Phoenix Park he glanced at some courting couples, sighed, and remarked sadly: "These poor young people, all in mortal sin." His concern with the sins of the flesh may well have been excessive, but in view of the present general meltdown of sexual morality in Ireland there is a good case to be made that he was something of a prophet. Remember his assertion that contraception would be "a curse upon the country"?

Defective approach

Anyway, whatever Archbishop McQuaid's faults, Mr Cooney's whole approach is defective in several serious respects.

In the first place, he claims Dr McQuaid covered up for abusers because he was an abuser himself, and that he was already an abuser when he became archbishop. He cites the Murphy report about McQuaid's mishandling of this issue--but he doesn't mention that the Murphy Report states that in the earlier part of his episcopate McQuaid did in fact mount canonical trials and impose canonical penalties on abusers. His later failure appears to have reflected the wider uncertainty in the church's handling of the issue and the unfortunate contemporary medicalisation [1] of the problem--as well as, I suspect, a reluctance to be harsh with members of the clerical club whom he would have known personally [2].

Second, Cooney relies very heavily on oral testimony, much of which is of pretty uncertain provenance, and seems to accept it uncritically without subjecting it to critical analysis to test its plausibility. Any argument is only as good as its sources and those sources ought to be tested as thoroughly as possible, which Cooney fails to do.

Innuendo and supposition

Let's take the most prominent example: the story recorded by Dr Noel Browne that a stranger--whom he could not subsequently identify--told him that McQuaid had assaulted a boy in a Dublin public house. Cooney declared in the summer school talk that although the story could not be checked, Browne must surely have made every effort to validate it and it must therefore be reliable. He has accordingly presented it in the McQuaid biography as unquestionably authentic and the key to his whole understanding of McQuaid, and he uses it as the foundation for a vast structure of innuendo and supposition.

It so happens that John Horgan, whom not even Cooney will mistake for a traditionalist Catholic or apologist for McQuaid, discusses the story in his biography of Browne. Horgan states that Browne was indeed seen talking to a man on the occasion in question, and that after losing the man's name Browne got the journalist Mike Milotte to try to trace him. In other words, it appears that the meeting did take place and Browne recounted the story in good faith.

The trouble is that, as Horgan points out and Cooney does not, Browne makes it clear that his record of the story is written in fictionalised/imaginative form, so that its details are impossible to check because we don't know what derives from the informant and what is Browne's imagination. We don't even know whether the informant claimed to be describing a personal experience or to be passing on a story heard from someone else. Horgan also states that when Milotte asked Browne if he believed the story, Browne simply shrugged his shoulders (though he subsequently presented it as unquestionable proof of McQuaid's alleged perversion). Furthermore, as Horgan shows, Browne habitually assumed that anyone who opposed him (even if they were longstanding friends and allies) must necessarily be acting in bad faith, and those who recall the eulogies he used to deliver in his last years on how much better life was in the Soviet bloc than in the West may not form the same favourable view of Browne's critical abilities as Cooney does.

The new material which John Cooney has, appears to rest on oral testimony and it can't be properly assessed until we know more about its source. He claims to have evidence of suppressed Garda investigations into Archbishop McQuaid. Does this evidence derive from Garda’ directly involved? From their relatives and descendants? From other unspecified sources? Claims made by a direct participant would obviously be much weightier than something second or third hand.

Questions of interpretation

There are also questions of interpretation involved in this material. For example, the late Fr Martin Tierney--again, not a McQuaid apologist--in his memoir No Second Chances refers to McQuaid's rather grand surroundings but states that the archbishop personally lived rather modestly and maintained his grand trappings as an expression of the office rather than personal desire for luxury [3], and while he mentions McQuaid's habit of lecturing seminarians about sex he does not place any prurient interpretation upon it.

The archbishop was surely wise to ensure that the seminarians knew "the facts of life" in detail. If they were ignorant of such matters, they would have been incapable of taking a meaningful vow of celibacy, or of counselling in the confessional. As for their being warned by older colleagues to plead ignorance when Dr McQuaid questioned them about their knowledge of sex, does it not occur to this rather humourless Glaswegian that maybe the older seminarians were indulging in a leg-pull?

Cooney rants at length about McQuaid's reading of confessors' manuals and psychosexual textbooks while at the same time believing that these should not be made available to the general public--and claims that McQuaid must have been a hypocrite who was using them as pornography. The fact is that the use of confessors' manuals by priests while restricting access to them for the laity was standard practice then and long before. [4] In the same way doctors have access to certain drugs which are not freely accessible to the general public, and this creates a danger that some doctors may abuse that access as some confessors no doubt abused the manuals. But Cooney's argument is akin to saying that because a doctor has access to certain drugs for medical purposes, he must necessarily have abused them, and that if the doctor opposes the sale of such drugs to all and sundry on every street corner he must necessarily be a hypocrite.

Simon Elwes portrait

Cooney even suggests that the distinguished painter Simon Elwes somehow sensed that Dr McQuaid was sexually evil, and depicted it symbolically in his portrait of the Archbishop. The quotation that follows is not very nice--in fact it's not even a bit nice--but it's a fair illustration of Mr Cooney's fixation about McQuaid, as expressed in Inchigeelagh, so I have decided to include it, even though some readers--or rather all, I hope--will find it offensive:

Ladies and gentlemen, John Charles McQuaid was "a pederast, really". Of this I have no doubt. Nor did Simon Elwes have any doubt in his 1970 National Gallery portrait of Archbishop McQuaid which adorned the front cover of my hardback edition. My critics failed to see its symbolic significance. The clue stares us all in our faces. Look closely at McQuaid's hands fondling his biretta. The tassel is his bush. The spine of the biretta is his penis. Inescapably, the horrific crimes catalogued in the shocking Ferns, Ryan and Murphy Reports only become comprehensible when the scales fall off the eyes to see that McQuaid is their ultimate enabling cause. The Irish people need to wake up to this McQuaidean nightmare of which today's churchmen are still in denial.

My first comment on this smutty, hysterical and ludicrous thesis is to note the sheer implausibility of an establishment painter like Simon Elwes risking his reputation by engaging in such lavatory-wall antics. And even if he had intended to make some sort of message, by what cabbalistic technique could he have seen into the archbishop's soul?

Supposing Elwes had decided that McQuaid was guilty of serious sexual sins and offences, why does Cooney maintain that Elwes thought he must necessarily have been a pederast? One can think (if you have a nasty mind like mine) of all kinds of perverted practices to which he might have been addicted.

Elwes was a scion of a very distinguished English Catholic family. One brother, Sir Richard, was a High Court judge; another, Guy, was a gifted architect and a third, Monsignor Val, was the Catholic chaplain at Oxford University. Simon Elwes was very popular with the royal family and much admired by Winston Churchill. There were rumours that he was something of a ladies' man, but never any suggestion that he ever wavered in his Catholic faith, or in respect for the Church's representatives.

The issue of McQuaid's personal guilt or innocence is one thing; but Cooney is using this in the service of his own wider agenda. He is presenting "traditional" Irish Catholicism implicitly and explicitly as the product of McQuaid's alleged corruption and obsessive prudery in order to denounce it en bloc. He rants about McQuaid's "Renaissance Papal Borgia ring" as if wearing a ring to symbolise the bishop's union with his diocese was some sort of Renaissance corruption.

Legion 'pious pimps'

He sneers at the Legion of Mary--a mass movement if ever there was one--as an "elite" of "pious pimps". Although its founder Frank Duff clashed with Dr McQuaid over various issues, including ecumenical dialogue and the autonomy of lay Catholic movements, Cooney accuses him of servility because he used the traditional deferential forms in addressing the archbishop. This was surely motivated by respect for the office as distinct from the man, or even a sense that despite their disagreements McQuaid might be entitled to personal respect--something which of course Cooney regards as unthinkable.

Cooney asserts, directly or by implication, that the Republic fought for in the early 20th century should necessarily have been a purely secular one on the French model. Anyone who studies that period knows that while there were people involved who did desire a French-style republic, there were many others who worked for Irish independence because they saw the Irish as a virtuous and religious people who were being corrupted by British vice and irreligion, and because they believed that an independent Ireland allowed to express its true Catholic instincts would blossom forth as a renewed isle of saints and scholars. Clearly there was a lot of self-deception in this view, but it was nonetheless a significant part of the independence movement and to deny its existence is to falsify history.

He also insinuates that so long as we do whatever we do with consenting adults, our sex lives are purely our own business and not subject to any external judgement whatsoever, and that any criticism thereof by Church or State constitutes a tyrannical intrusion. Tell that to the victims of adultery and divorce!

One of the nastier features of a certain type of oldstyle Irish Catholicism was a brand of journalism-- represented, for example, by the old Catholic Bulletin--in which the opponents' bad faith was assumed and they were considered not to be entitled to even the commonest courtesy; in which, for example, it is assumed that Protestants are not merely deprived of the full benefits of the Catholic Faith but that they lack any supernatural or natural virtue whatsoever.

It is further assumed that any criticism made by them of Catholicism or individual Catholics must necessarily be dishonest, while any Catholic who disagrees with this view is not really a Catholic at all. The reader is treated not as a person able to make up his mind on the basis of reasoned argument, but as someone to be battered into agreement by vitriolic assertions and personal abuse.

Now this is exactly the style of argument we find in Mr Cooney, and it is just as disgraceful when used by him as it was when used by the Catholic Bulletin. He owes it to his readers--and, if his allegations are true, he owes it most of all to the victims--to set out his claims in a clear and rational manner so that their truth may be determined by further investigation. That would surely be better than confusing the whole subject by a raging ego-trip and presenting the numerous historians who have questioned his defective argumentation as engaged in some sort of coverup--even though they have no brief for John Charles McQuaid.

Mr Cooney is mightily pained by the fact that all the mainstream media ignored his Inchigeelagh speech. However, The Phoenix--that rather anaemic imitation of the British Private Eye--rushed to his defence, referring dramatically to a "secular fatwa" and describing Cooney deferentially as "easily the most senior and long-term" religion correspondent. (It refers admiringly to his "thundering peroration".) Even liberals at RTÉ and the Irish Times, says The Phoenix, appear to have been repelled by his accusation that McQuaid was a pederast. I would have thought these liberals would be delighted if Cooney could make a plausible case to that effect!

I well remember that at the time of Archbishop McQuaid's death RTÉ News brought in Louis McRedmond--Dublin correspondent of The Tablet, one-time editor of the Irish Independent and certainly no religious conservative--to handle Dr McQuaid's obituary. After outlining the archbishop's career, McRedmond concluded that of him it could truly be said "Ecce Sacerdos Magnus".

Nothing so far proved against the archbishop can cast doubt on that verdict. However, it will be interesting to see what new material Mr Cooney can come up with in The Curse of McQuaid.


1 - By this I mean the prevailing practice of treating paedophilia as primarily a medical/psychological problem, rather than a moral and criminal one.

2 - From time immemorial the Church had tended to assert a right to deal with its own miscreants in its own way, often in a separate court system usually more lenient than that of the State. This was known as "benefit of clergy". In the 16th century Pope St Pius V departed from this tradition by ruling that this "benefit" did not apply to clerics accused of sexual crimes, who should be dealt with by the "secular arm".

3 - It is recorded that St Charles Borromeo, when Archbishop of Milan, lived a deeply ascetic life while surrounded by pomp and splendour.

4 - It should also be borne in mind that a bishop would have special concern for psychosexual matters in relation to absolution of reserved sins, dispensations, annulments etc.

I would like to express my thanks to our writer Hibernicus, who read Mr Cooney's address and sent us his own critique of it--on which a fair portion of the above is based.