Selective memory, selective shock, and selective outrage at the presumption of guilt.

 Breda O ’Brien, the Irish Times (IT) columnist, wasn’t the only one amazed that commentators were declaring the publication of allegations against the former politician and government minister, Pat Carey, marked a new low in journalism.
Many IT readers must have choked over their cornflakes when they read her colleague and fellow columnist, Fintan O’Toole, the previous Tuesday, say exactly that. And wondered, as she must have done, what kind of parallel world Fintan inhabits.
Fintan, more than a year ago, watched in horror as BBC television broadcast live footage of a raid by South Yorkshire police on the home of the pop star Cliff Richard in Berkshire. The production was elaborate and dramatic – one camera at the front door filming police as they entered, another on a helicopter hovering over the house, showing images of police personnel moving through the house.
Obviously, a tip had alerted the BBC, as this was more than the usual grainy image captured on a mobile phone by a passing cyclist. And what made Fintan particularly exercised about the report was that Cliff Richard hadn’t been questioned about the allegations, 15 months later still hasn’t been charged with any offence and that, in the process, the presumption of innocence to which everyone is entitled, didn’t seem to matter – to the BBC or presumably the South Yorkshire police.
No one, I think, would question Fintan’s conclusion – that whatever happens from now on, Cliff ‘will never be innocent again. His reputation is destroyed’. Even if Cliff is charged and cleared the words ‘child abuse’ and ‘Cliff Richard’ will always ‘cling to each other’.
I remember watching the footage and thinking, ‘Ah, Kevin Reynolds’.
Fr Kevin, as many will remember didn’t get the helicopter treatment but was door-stepped by an RTE reporter for an RTE Investigates programme on himself, entitled Mission to Prey. The programme accused Kevin of raping and impregnating a young woman while on the missions in Africa.
When Fintan watched the Cliff Richard footage he was shocked by it and he remembers thinking that this kind of thing ‘wouldn’t happen in Ireland’ as he believed there was ‘still some kind of restraint at work in our society’. Because in Ireland, Fintan continued, ‘allegations of child abuse are personal, political and social Semtex . . . and destroying a person’s good name without giving him a chance to defend himself is abusive – of the accused person, of the legal process and of basic human decency’.
Strangely, for all his confidence in the restraint that he believed existed in the Irish media, Fintan seems to have forgotten the feeding frenzy that existed (and still exists) when priests or religious were or are accused of child abuse and the effective presumption, not of innocence without being proved guilty but of guilt without being proven innocent. He seems to have missed too the shocking ordeal that priests like Kevin Reynolds, and so many others like him, who have been wrongly accused, have had to endure.
If, as Fintan writes, ‘it is not an exaggeration to suggest that most of us would rather be accused of murder than of child sexual abuse (and that) the accusation of child abuse is not mud thrown, it’s acid’, then where was the outrage in the Irish media when one of the foundation stones of our legal system – the presumption of innocence – was seen not to apply to priests and religious accused of abuse? To pop stars, yes; to politicians, yes; to celebrities, yes. To priests, not really.
This isn’t just about ‘group-think’ in the media. Or a palpable lack of sympathy with an unpopular cadre. It’s an indefensible failure to appreciate the unconscionable grief that individuals accused wrongly of abuse have had to endure, sometimes for years on end, and that it’s only when it happens to public figures like Pat Carey, by all accounts a much respected man, that the injustice and the horror seems to impinge.
In comparison, the suffering of individual priests or religious doesn’t seem to matter all that much, as the populist, political and commercially lucrative wave of anti-Church and anti-Catholic sentiment continues to dictate compellingly different responses to different groups of people. And, no one, in the words of the great IT legend, John Healy, was prepared to ‘shout stop’.
In another sense, it’s hard to blame the media when the Catholic Church itself colluded in denying priests and religious their rights, as church leaders wrung their hands in frustration and in cowardice, knowing as they did that any chat about the rights of accused abusers would expose them to instant filleting in the media.
Accused priests were forced to step aside immediately regardless of whether the allegations were credible or not; forced to move out of their homes; forced to endure a humiliating lecture in their own church from their bishop who often seemed to have more of an eye on public opinion than on the requirements of justice.
In some cases, dioceses refused to give accused priests accommodation or pay their legal expenses or re-instate them when proven not guilty. Despite the duty of care of a bishop for his priests enshrined in church law, some bishops blithely dumped priests on the wayside, without any apparent responsibility for them or for society.
Reports on abuse, like the Dublin Report, were nodded through by a compliant media with reportage and little analysis with a compliant church leadership, advised by lawyers and media gurus, apologising to everyone in sight.
And efforts to generate debate on obvious rights (like the presumption of innocence) were dismissed as excusing or mitigating the horrors of abuse and those who raised the issues, no matter how sensitively, were accused of seeking to re-abuse the abused.
While the feeding frenzy on the Catholic Church in regard to the abuse of children was necessary and understandable, those who should know better allowed themselves to be (as cowards or cheer-leaders) deflected from a responsible debate on a difficult issue.
Cliff Richard’s reputation, regardless of guilt, may forever be destroyed. Pat Carey’s reputation, regardless of guilt, may end up the same. That’s indeed truly shocking. But, after all we have learned about priests and religious who have been wrongly accused and the Hell on earth they have had to endure, because the movers and shakers held their silence, no one (least of all Fintan O’Toole) should be shocked by it.
He should know by this, what the dogs in the street already know, that restraint in Irish media terms may apply to pop stars, politicians and celebrities, but not to clergy.

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One Comment

  1. The chief culprits are in fact the police – Gardai and UK police – who initiate and orchestrate the media response to their investigations. And you have the attitude that the police must be right. Only a couple of months ago politicians were being asked did they accept the judgement of the chief constable of Northern Ireland and other “intelligence” services that the governing body of the IRA was still an active controlling organisation – presumably controlling Sinn Féin. Any sensible person would not accept anybody’s “judgement”. Based upon that “judgement” the assembly in Belfast almost collapsed. When heads had cooled some weeks later, it was found that the reality was much more innocuous and indeed tolerable.
    Ex minister Leon Britten was accused of sex abuse and the police make the accusation public. After a year, the British police had found nothing that could be used in a prosecution. They did not bother to tell him that he was in the clear and he died with these accusations hanging over him.
    The article above makes the point well : Proof is required and proof needs to be demonstrated. And the culprits are not just the media. Look to the police also.

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