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Danger of Media Intoxicated by Their Power


Irish Times, 26 October, 2002 by Breda O'Brien

Like most people, I was stunned and horrified by the litany of abuse covered in the recent Prime Time programme, Cardinal Secrets.

The account given by one young man of being raped as a child by Father Tony Walsh was almost too painful to watch. We have not even begun to adequately hear the pain of the victims and there is so much more which needs to be done for them.

Yet I was also disturbed by another aspect of the programme and this time in a way which would not be universally shared. I am cowardly enough to have contemplated not writing about this latter aspect at all, rationalising that perhaps society is not ready to hear this and that it might be seen as taking away from the agony of the victims, who so deserve to be heard.

I refer to the segment of the programme which dealt with Father Frank McCarthy..

It was implied that he had been part of a paedophile ring, an allegation which was queried quite strongly on Liveline last Thursday by someone very familiar with his case.

The distinct impression was given by Prime Time that he was being harboured by the Archdiocese, because he was not laicised and was given work in the Dublin Diocesan communications office. It was not made clear that his role involved filing newspaper clippings and sub-editing, not working as a press officer. Not only was his workplace revealed, complete with aerial video, but his home address was also announced.

Given the passions inflamed by the programme, this was highly irresponsible.

There was no acknowledgement in the programme that there can be few clerical abuse cases which have been dealt with better from an administrative point of view than the one involving Father Frank McCarthy. The diocese immediately removed him from ministry, informed parishioners in every parish he had served in, sent letters to parents in all the schools with which he had contact and involved Eastern Health Board personnel in counselling anyone who wished to come forward to discuss any aspect of the case.

All of this was covered extensively in the newspapers at the time.

The abuse had only come to light because Frank McCarthy was eaten up with remorse about what he had done. He wrote to his victim to apologise, which his victim with amazing forbearance accepted, along with some very modest financial settlement. The victim, called Paul in the programme, then came under pressure from his wife to report the case to the Garda, which he did, in order to protect other children from the possibility of abuse.

Frank McCarthy co-operated fully with the Garda. When the case came to court, it took an extraordinary twist, which was reported in the Leinster Leader on April 17th, 1997. Paul, the victim, came to the court to plead with the judge that his abuser not be given a custodial sentence, saying that he did not want him punished and that he had done a lot of good work over the past 20 years.

The generosity of that act is breath-taking and showed a spirit of forgiveness which was remarkably absent from the programme. The judge agreed to a suspended sentence, provided Father McCarthy continued in treatment.

Now what, I would like to ask, was the Dublin archdiocese supposed to do at this point? To laicise Father McCarthy and to set him adrift? Or to do what it did, which was to remove him from ministry, find him work of an undemanding nature away from contact with children, keep him under supervision and thereby reduce as far as humanly possible the chances that he would hurt another child?

The Prime Time team apparently find this reprehensible, but I would like to know what they would have done? Or what they would like to see the Catholic Church do in similar circumstances in the future?

FRANK McCarthy's crime should not be minimised. It was serious and caused untold suffering to his victim, but his absolute remorse and compliance with his new conditions should not be equated with Father Tony Walsh. The latter showed no insight and no remorse and continued to turn up dressed as a priest when expressly forbidden to do so, in order to exploit children.

Demonising child abusers and acting as if they were all the same does nothing to protect children. There is a small minority of fixated paedophiles who believe that their sexual orientation towards children is legitimate and who deny that they are harming anyone. They are probably impossible to treat and long-term custodial sentences may be the only answer.

Others are sexually attracted to children, but are morally conflicted about it and wish to change. Still others are regressed paedophiles, whose primary sexual orientation is towards adults, but because of circumstances abuse children.

The rate of reoffence varies according to the degree to which people are willing to engage in treatment and the kind of treatment provided. Previous highly pessimistic studies which declared that child abusers were untreatable were based on outdated treatment programmes from the 1950s and 1960s.

An important Canadian study shows that untreated offenders have a 35 per cent recidivism rate, while it is less than 10 per cent for those who are treated. If we translate that from dry figures to real children, that difference would spare very many children the kind of horror experienced by people profiled by Prime Time.

The facts regarding Frank McCarthy and how the diocese acted are in the public domain. Why did Prime Time frame it in such a damning way which did not in any way acknowledge what was done well?

I have always said that the media have played a positive role in helping us to come to terms with child abuse, but there is a real danger they will become intoxicated with their own power. In the past, the Catholic Church set the agenda. Someone condemned from the altar was automatically ostracised and outside the pale of society.

It has been said that journalism had become the new priesthood. If that is so, along with any good they do, journalists must be very careful not to use their pulpit to issue swingeing condemnations without any nuance. Or else they will become as self-righteous, unyielding and unable to admit mistakes as the old priesthood was.


Mary Raftery to receive Larkin Thirst for Justice Award

Irish Times 16 April 10

The journalist Mary Raftery, who is well-known for her pioneering work in bringing the issue of institutional child abuse to light through her ‘States of Fear' documentary, is set to receive the ‘Larkin Thirst for Justice Award’ at the Labour Party’s National Conference in Galway this weekend.

The Larkin Award, named after the trade union leader and founder member of the Labour Party James Larkin, is awarded to a person who, in their personal and/or professional life has made an outstanding contribution in the area of human rights and justice.

Raftery is to be honoured for her role in helping to expose clerical child abuse. An award-winner television producer/director, her acclaimed documentary series 'States of Fear' resulted in the historic 1999 apology by the Taoiseach on behalf of the Irish state to victims of child abuse. It also led to the establishment of the Ryan Commission of Inquiry into Child Abuse.

In 2002, Raftery produced and directed the award-winning 'Cardinal Secrets', which led to the establishment of the Murphy Commission of Investigation into child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Dublin.

The award will be presented to Raftery by the President of the Labour Party, Michael D Higgins TD on Saturday evening.

Raftery’s play No Escape, which is based on the Ryan Report into institutional child abuse, is currently running at the Peacock Theatre in Dublin.