Priests need to stand up for themselves
Some months ago I wrote an article in The Furrow on Irish clergy today. I called it ‘Disenchanted Evenings’, a title I felt mirrored the mood among Catholic priests at the present time. In the introduction I described Catholic priests in Ireland now as ‘the most pitied, patronised, insulted, isolated, disrespected, neglected and uncared for phalanx of Catholic clergy in recent Irish history’. Some people dismissed that comment as exaggerated. I believe it stands its ground.
Because while it seems every two-bit journalist trying to make his or her way in the world is happy to use the Catholic Church and especially Catholic priests (and bishops) as a soft target to establish their credentials, it’s quite a different matter when a long established newspaper like The Irish Times allows itself to be used to disparage, diminish and insult every Catholic priest in Ireland.
The Irish Times, once a Protestant paper with an unease and suspicion of all things Catholic, has long outgrown that sectarian and sometimes bigoted stance. It has established itself as a prestigious ‘paper of record’ and it confidently highlights its journalistic standards at every turn. Indeed sometimes readers have felt that when the Grand Old Lady of Tara Street preaches about ethical standards she has something of the preciousness of a princess about her.
In a recent Irish Times cartoon by Martyn Turner three ‘singing’ priests outside a confessional indicated their reservation about breaking the seal of confession in the matter of the mandatory reporting of child abuse. Turner had them singing ‘I’ll do anything for children (but I won’t do that)’. And in the bottom corner was an addendum: ‘But there is little else you can do for them (children) except stay away from them’. That codicil effectively alleged that every priest in Ireland was a danger to children.
The response, though muted enough in the circumstances – after all, who would defend priests publicly now? – led to an Irish Times editorial in which it indicated that it apologised for the hurt caused by ‘a regretted editorial lapse’. ‘Civilised debate’, the editorial continued, ‘requires the eschewing of ad hominem argument, playing the ball, not the man, and avoiding crude stereotyping’.
Fair enough and credit where credit is due but the truth is that if you get used to playing the man, it’s understandable if the finer points of the game get moved to the side-line and spectacular lapses in judgement and standards ensue. (That’s why the GAA introduces the Black Card).
While it’s understandable too that mistakes are made, or as the editorial puts it ‘things fly under the editorial radar’, if the debasement of a group like Catholic priests is taken for granted, the radar is usually not as carefully patrolled as comments about, say, the sometimes litigious businessman Denis O’Brien. The truth is that in Ireland now, as many have noted, Catholic priests are the only group that can be reviled so publicly.
It’s difficult to imagine a similar cartoon blanketly accusing Protestant ministers, or Muslim clerics or Jewish rabbis as opportunist criminals. Or demonising every last member of any other ‘lay’ professional group for the sins of the few.
It was indicative of the seriousness of the charge and the build-up of frustration among Catholic clergy at the incessant punch-bag tactics of the media that the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) issued an unusually forthright statement protesting ‘in the strongest possible terms at this unacceptable slur on the Irish priesthood’. Not a body given to simplistic stances or knee-jerk reactions to tabloid slurs, the ACP – representing as it does over 1000 Irish priests – felt obliged to respond. Not reacting would have been a virtual acceptance of the truth of the slur.
There’s a positive side to what the Irish Times must regard as (for them) something of an embarrassing debacle. It’s about the growing sense of the need for priests to stand up for themselves, to question the culture of apology that so many now take for granted, to refuse to allow anyone and everyone to drag us through the mire without claiming our right to our good name as people and as citizens, to question the wisdom (even the biblical wisdom) of always and in every circumstance turning the other cheek.
That’s not to say that in certain circumstances apologies are not in order. Of course, they are, minimal and all as they sometimes seem. And as a Church and as a priesthood we have much to apologise for. But there comes a point at which we need to assert our individual, human and civic rights, even in the face of what seems like an ever-growing tsunami of public disgrace and condemnation.
That’s not to say either that Turner’s folly should diminish the need for the media to analyse and dissect public issues, including the crimes and misdemeanours of individuals and institutions. And it’s not to compromise the importance of satire in the public forum. But it’s to say that when a line has been crossed and those who publicly hold the higher moral ground are seen to have spectacularly failed to live up to their own standards that the hard truth should be named – in everyone’s interest.
While the right to free expression is important and should be defended, it’s not an absolute right. And those who are prepared to hurt and offend should not see it as a fail-safe or catch-all defence for their bigotry, of whatever hue. If saying about a named individual priest that he is a danger to children is defamatory, what do we call saying the same thing about every priest in Ireland? Satire?
If the Irish Times defamed one priest by name they would have to part with a considerable sum of money to help right the wrong – as RTE had to do when Fr Kevin Reynolds was defamed by the RTE PrimeTime Investigates programme. But when the Irish Times defames every priest in Ireland, an apology suffices?
So maybe the other side of this coin is that Turner’s infamous cartoon may help the progressively disenchanted Catholic clergy to find their own voice, to stand up for themselves, especially when no one else seems ready to accept that poisoned chalice.
As priests we need to say clearly and unapologetically that, as only a small minority of Catholic priests have abused children (terrible and shameful though that is), that it is a grotesque injustice to tar everyone with the same brush. When will the media get it?