ARCHBISHOP JOHN CHARLES McQUAID AND JOHN COONEY: LAST POST
Article by RONAN FANNING, PROFESSOR OF MODERN HISTORY UCD
[ John Cooney was once Religious Affairs correspondent for the Irish Times and now performs a similar role for the Irish Independent. He has also made false allegations of child abuse against the best known Irish Bishop of the 20th century. Thus we are not talking about an isolated individual who decides to make a name for himself by jumping on the child abuse bandwagon. John Cooney is one of the people who built the bandwagon in the first place. His behaviour is a clear indication that we are dealing with a Salem style witch-hunt and not with a child abuse scandal. Or rather the main scandal IS the witch-hunt!
29 January 2008 ]
The Boy And The Bishop: A Tale Found Wanting -
Sunday Independent November 7th 1999
The allegation that the late Archbishop John McQuaid attempted to seduce a child in a pub is unbelievable for a number of reasons, argues Ronan Fanning
ALTHOUGH I do not usually find myself in the position of endorsing the spokesman of the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin, Father John Dardis got it right when, in the course of being interviewed by Marian Finucane on the furore about Archbishop McQuaid, he pointed out that we are all being controlled in our responses by the commercial agenda of the Sunday Times.
For one thing alone shines out through the welter of hearsay and speculation: the headline on the front page of last week's Sunday Times (`Book portrays McQuaid as Gay') and the even more outrageous headline on the back page (`Book hints McQuaid was paedophile') have nothing to do with the search for historical truth and everything to do with selling more copies of the Sunday Times and more copies of John Cooney's forthcoming biography.
In one sense there is nothing surprising in that; the abandonment of factual evidence for the smear by innuendo strategy embodied in those two coy verbs `portrays' and `hints' merely confirms the continuing degeneration of Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times into a sensationalist tabloid masquerading as a serious newspaper.
What is surprising is that a significant part of Mr Cooney's defence against attack from fellow journalists such as Marian Finucane, Eamon Dunphy and Vincent Browne for basing such serious allegations against Dr McQuaid on skimpy and insubstantial evidence has been to cloak himself in a claim to be a serious historian.
For Mr Cooney asks to be judged not on what appeared in last week's Sunday Times but on his book as a whole, and so he shall be; but that cannot happen until his book becomes available. I have some sympathy for Mr Cooney inasmuch as I know that he has done extensive and original historical research extending over six years during which time I have occasionally had the opportunity to talk to him about some of his findings but not, let me hasten to add, his alleged findings about Dr McQuaid's alleged homosexuality and paedophilia about which I knew nothing until now.
I had believed that his book would be an important contribution to historical knowledge and I still hope that may be so. In the meantime, however, while we await the publication of his book, Mr Cooney cannot reasonably complain if historians scrutinise the methodology underpinning last week's allegation of paedophilia for which he claims documentary foundation.
That allegation is as follows: that at a date unknown, but probably on a Sunday after a big match in Croke Park in the late 1950s, in a private room upstairs in an unidentified public house in Drumcondra, Dr McQuaid ordered a Jameson Crested Ten and sexually molested the unidentified son of the unidentified publican who brought it to him; that the boy and in what follows I am quoting from the Sunday Times ``escaped from the bishop's clinch and fled the room. [That] McQuaid is said to have been confronted by the publican, told he was a disgrace to the church, ordered out of the bar and told not to come back.''
Before analysing the documentary evidence for such a scenario, let me outline the circumstantial evidence why it is so utterly unlikely. Dr McQuaid was an aloof, austere and proud prelate who disapproved of his clergy frequenting theatres or race meetings, let alone public houses.
Some members of the Catholic Hierarchy have unquestionably been fond of hard liquor, but Dr McQuaid was never reputed to be among their number; the most he ever drank was wine and then only in small quantities. Given Dr McQuaid's bad press over the last 30 years, moreover, it is inherently improbable that, if he had a weakness for whiskey or a penchant for pubs, it would have escaped public attention.
BUT let me explain more bluntly, in the colloquial language of one of my own drinking companions over a pint, why the historical imagination boggles: if we are to believe the Sunday Times story we have to be able to believe that someone of Dr McQuaid's personality and temperament would slip out of Archbishop's House, make his way through the crowds from Croke Park to a nearby pub and say to the proprietor: ``Tell the lad to bring me up a ball of malt!''
The documentary evidence is equally unconvincing. It consists of an essay in fictional form written by Dr Noel Browne entitled A Virgin Island which tells the story of the episode in the public house. Mr Cooney says that Dr Browne was told about the episode by a retired Department of Education inspector who first approached him at Sean MacBride's funeral in 1988 and he lays great store on stressing that Dr Browne, ``a major figure in Irish history, believed this to be true.'' But the document is not, as Mr Cooney claims, a primary source: it is, at best, a secondary source. Mr Cooney's source is Dr Browne who is dead, and Dr Browne's source is anonymous and either dead or unidentifiable or both.
I have two difficulties with the Virgin Island document: the first is that Dr Browne, his own historical stature notwithstanding, was also, as Mr Cooney himself acknowledges, Dr McQuaid's old and bitter enemy. At the very least, he must be treated as a hostile witness, which brings me to my second difficulty.
Given the understandable depth of Dr Browne's animosity for Dr McQuaid, as the leader of the episcopal cabal which destroyed his political career over the Mother-and-Child scheme, I find it difficult to believe that Dr Browne would not have made the allegations public if he had believed them to be true.
By the same token, I find it impossible to believe that he would not have left a straight-forward factual account of the schools inspector's evidence for posterity if he had believed it to be true. Yet Mrs Phyllis Browne tells us that her husband believed ``that making the allegations public was not the right thing to do.''
I find Mr Cooney's argument that Dr Browne feared he would be seen as vindictive and that the allegations would not be believed unpersuasive. Although Dr Browne's judgement was frequently faulty, his integrity and moral courage were beyond reproach; the only plausible reason why he concluded that the story would not be believed was because he recognised that the story was inherently unbelievable. And so he cast it in the form of a fantasy.
Readers who have a copy of Dr Browne's autobiography (Against the Tide) should turn to page 151 where he writes of ``drowsily fantasising ... in a mixture of dream and nightmare'' while watching Dr McQuaid lead an ``imposing and fearful procession'' at High Mass in the Pro-Cathedral for a not dissimilar fantasy.
There are two ironies about all this. The first is that, within 48 hours, the Sunday Times and John Cooney have succeeded in winning more sympathy for the memory of Dr McQuaid than he has enjoyed for over 30 years.
The second is that Mr Cooney rather than Dr McQuaid may ultimately be the big loser; for although his book has achieved notoriety in advance of publication, there is a real danger that his reputation as a historian may have been so discredited by his allegations about Dr McQuaid's sexuality that other aspects of an important book may now be denied the attention they deserve.