26 November 2011

A Dangerously One-Eyed View

If Patsy McGarry isn’t sued after his performance on Tonight with Vincent Browne the other evening, he should consider himself a very lucky man.

I only got round to watching the whole programme a couple of days back, having caught the end of it on Tuesday night, and was astounded to see how it began. Early in a discussion on how RTE had came to defame Father Kevin Reynolds in so horrendous a fashion as it did in the summer, and on the consequences of this defamation for RTE, Vincent invited Breda O’Brien to chime in.

Breda is one of the Irish Times’ regular columnists and is with Vincent one of but a handful of people in the Irish media who have repeatedly tried to draw people’s attention to the massive extent to which childhood sexual abuse has been – and may still be – something akin to a national epidemic, having been experienced by more than a quarter of Irish adults. She raised the question of how has it come to pass that the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ seems not to apply whenever priests or nuns are accused of sexual abuse, and why it is that people seem to hugely overestimate the number of clergy who’ve committed sexual abuse; we needed to face the question of how such attitudes had arisen, and what had created this climate of assumed guilt.

It’s important to note that she didn’t shirk the fact of clerical abuse being a reality, or of the Church’s disastrous mishandling of abuse allegations; she agreed that Church authorities had been complicit in abuse through covering it up, and I think went too far in doing so, as the reality is that rather than there having been ‘a cover up’ there has been a tendency to cover up. She accepted Vincent’s point wholeheartedly, without any demurral, before pointing out that there had been no wider acknowledgement of how things had changed within the Church or how this problem is so widespread through Irish society. Indeed, she pointed out how even the likes of Maeve Lewis of One-in-Four have been largely ignored when she’s said that there’s a disproportionate amount of attention paid to clerical abuse, and that this disproportionate focus on clerical abuse is itself detrimental to the interests of the overwhelming majority of Irish abuse victims, being those who’d been abused by people other than clergy.

Essentially she was saying that there’s a double injustice at work, such that innocent priests such as Kevin Reynolds could be shameless accused of rape by the national broadcaster with the apparent approval of the Minister for Justice, and more importantly that the vast majority of sexual abuse in Ireland was being ignored, endangering thousands of Irish children. How this poisonous atmosphere had arisen was a question not just for RTE, but for the media in general, for civil society, and for all of us.

Let the Character Assassination Begin!
At that, the word 'media' acted like a dog whistle and Patsy McGarry, the Religious Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times since 1997 or so, and a man who I suspect has depended more on clerical abuse stories for his bread and butter than anybody else in Irish life over the last fifteen years, leapt into action:
‘Can I point out also that Breda comes from the Provisional wing of the Catholic Church, and never resists an opportunity to have a go at the media and has been doing this for years, often to the detriment of the emergence of this tragedy.’
Breda pressed him to explain this, pointing out that it was a very serious allegation, and asked him to clarify it. Had Patsy really said that she had been a party that acted in a way that was detrimental to the revelation of abuse, that she had defended the Church in such a way that delayed the emergence of the story? Patsy responded to this by saying that this was indeed the case:
‘I was saying, Breda, that you and other people have found yourself in situations where you have defended the Church in contexts where things happened that were not defensible, that delayed the emergence of this story. [...]For instance, you cast doubt on people like Christine Buckley when she first came out about the abuse in Goldenbridge. There was doubt cast on -- I can't remember all the incidents...’
I’m not entirely sure that Breda did cast doubt on Christine Buckley and others, but assuming for the sake of argument that she did, surely there are two questions that need addressing.
  • First, ought we to accept heinous allegations without recognising any possibility of doubt, or should we treat them with a healthy scepticism? As a historian, my instincts are to doubt and test everything. 
  • Second, did Breda's supposed scepticism in any way hinder the emergence of the story? I think it’s pretty obvious from the figures that voices of caution have hardly held sway in this matter, such that any influence Breda might conceivably have had has been very slight. 
No, unless it can be shown that Breda’s actions had the effect of delaying the emergence of the story, this would have to be recognised as defamation on Patsy’s part; to me it looked like an outright ad hominem attack, designed to discredit somebody who was sitting right next to him and who was likely to take a line contrary to his own. It was, as Breda said, ‘a little bit of character assassination’, and the most perfect example of a phenomenon we now have in Ireland where ‘anybody who challenges the consensus on this and who says there is more than one side to this gets this treatment, gets called “people who have delayed the truth emerging”.’

Patsy accepted that most people vastly overestimate the amount of Irish clergy who are guilty of sexual abuse, attributing this to the fact that since 2005 we have had the Ryan Report into the industrial schools and into how abuse allegations were handled in Ferns, Dublin, and Cloyne. ‘Don’t tell me,’ he said, ‘the media is responsible for the climate in which these awful things have happened! It’s not the media – it’s the abuse that caused this!’

Crunching the Numbers
That sounds very convincing, until you start looking at the figures dating well before 2005, and do so while keeping in mind how the only serious large-scale survey of abuse survivors in Ireland indicates that under 1.7 per cent of sexual abuse in Ireland was clerical. The SAVI Report which established that figure also cited an article which noted that between 1993 and 2000, the term ‘paedophile priest’ had been used 332 times in the Irish Times, while such terms as ‘paedophile teacher’ and  ‘paedophile journalist’ were nowhere to be seen. I’ve scoured the archive since then as best I can myself, and found that of all the articles, columns, and letters published between September 2000 and August 2011,
  • More than 22 per cent of all pieces using the word ‘paedophile’ did so as part of the phrase ‘paedophile priest’. There were 295 uses of the phrase ‘paedophile priest', three uses of the phrase ‘paedophile teacher,’ and still not even one use of the phrase ‘paedophile journalist’.
  • 46 per cent of all pieces that used the phrase ‘sex abuse’ did so as part of the phrases ‘clerical sex abuse’ or ‘clerical child sex abuse’.
  • Almost 49 per cent of all pieces using the phrase ‘child sex abuse’ did so as part of the phrase ‘clerical child sex abuse’.
  • At the time of my search, 89 of the hundred most recent pieces referring to abuse did so with reference to abuse committed or allegedly committed by office-holders in the Catholic Church.
  • In the month prior to my survey, the Cloyne Report, which definitively revealed only that two men had not followed their own agreed policies but had broken no laws, had been mentioned 163 times, whereas the SAVI Report of 2002, which had revealed that 27 per cent of Irish adults had been abused in their childhood, with almost all of them being abused by people who were not Catholic clergy, had been mentioned just 63 times in nine years.
Is the Irish Church to blame for how it's currently viewed? Sure, but it's not the Church alone that's to blame. Are we really going to keep on pretending that the Irish media’s telling the truth on this? It’s not. I’m not saying it's biased, but in its pursuit of what’s probably been Ireland's biggest story in decades, it's developed tunnel vision, and has done so in such a way that innocent people are assumed guilty, the plight of hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens has gone ignored, and the real dangers posed to Irish children now and in the future are hardly mentioned.

Given how magnanimously she treated Patsy for the rest of the programme, and how resolutely she focused on the issues, notably the fact that were it not for the determination of the Association of Catholic Priests an innocent man would have gone to his grave branded as a rapist, I doubt Breda will make this story about herself. The fact remains, though: what Patsy McGarry said was defamation, pure and simple, and if he isn’t sued for this, he shouldn’t just consider himself lucky; he should be profoundly grateful for Breda’s charity and her willingness to forgive. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is incredible work. The statistic indicates clearly that the paper of record is predisposed to view the Church antagonistically. Incidentally, isn't it strange that the paper's chief Religious correspondent is an agnostic? Could you imagine a situation where the rugby or gaa correspondent was indifferent or hostile to the sport?