We may admire whistleblowers, but they’re the ones who pay dearly

We may well admire the whistleblower in the abstract but the organisations we, and they, belong to, are more primitive in their reactions, writes Mary Morrissy

WHO’D be a whistleblower? Even a cursory look at Sgt Maurice McCabe’s life since he alleged wrongdoing with regard to driving penalty points in 2008 would convince most of us that it’s not worth it. For almost a decade he’s been shunned in his workplace, pilloried in the Dáil, labelled “disgusting” by a former Garda commissioner, falsely accused of sex abuse, had his character blackened, his personal reputation trampled upon and his privacy destroyed. Hell hath no fury like a system scorned.

A minister for justice and a Garda commissioner have lost their jobs as a result of the ensuing controversy, but McCabe is the biggest loser here. No matter what the outcome of the various commissions of inquiry that have stemmed from his initial complaint, his life has utterly change.

For despite all our lip service to the conscientious objector, despite all the supposed legal protections and social safeguards put in place — in Ireland’s case the Protected Disclosures Act 2014 — most whistleblowers, in the end, become scapegoats. Even the famous ones pay a high personal price for their activities. Look at Edward Snowden, exiled in Moscow; Chelsea Manning, who served six years in jail; Julian Assange who is holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Hardly a glorious resolution for any of them.

They’re the ones we know about. There are others whose names have all but disappeared from the record. Take Fr Bruno Mulvihill. Who, you say? Hardly a household name, though he should be. Fr Mulvihill played a major part in the conviction of the notorious paedophile priest Brendan Smyth in the 1990s. His testimony exposed not just evidence of Smyth’s heinous crimes but a record of persistent and wilful denial by the institutional church which facilitated Smyth to abuse repeatedly in the full knowledge of his sexual proclivities. (It is estimated that Smyth sexually assaulted 117 children in Ireland — and countless victims elsewhere — between 1945 and 1989.) Fr Mulvihill was a whistleblower before it was popular or profitable, if it ever is. In 1964 when he was a 19-year-old novice at the Norbertine Abbey in Kilnacrott, Co Cavan, he heard what he described as peculiar noises from the sacristy where Smyth was closeted with two altar servers. When he reported his suspicions to the abbot, he was told he was “imagining things”.

There are no photos of Fr Bruno (although the demonic images of Smyth persist in the popular imagination) and what is known of him is slight. He attended Garbally College, a seminary boarding school in Ballinasloe, where he was remembered as studious, artistic (he was an accomplished pianist) and otherworldy. “If Enda [his name before he entered the priesthood] ever broke the rules it was to read material of an abstruse theological or scholarly nature without first seeking approval,” a classmate recalls. His decision to go for the priesthood didn’t surprise anyone.

But what turned him into a whistleblower, a role that eventually forced him out of his beloved Church because his life had been made so intolerable within it? What made him so dogged and fearless when his experience of life had been, seemingly, so narrow — a rural home, a Catholic boarding school, followed by a year in a novitiate? Perhaps it was this very lack of worldliness, coupled with his youthfulness and idealism?

C Fred Alford, professor of government at the University of Maryland, author of a study into the personal impact of whistleblowing, Broken Lives and Organisational Power, cites several reasons to explain why whistleblowers do what they do. They have an imagination of the consequences, a sense of the historical moment, identification with the victim, an inability to hold double standards on moral conflict and a sense of shame. He adds another ethical category to account for whistleblowers’ actions — a higher form of narcissism. “Whistleblowers blow the whistle because they dread living with a corrupted self more than they dread isolation from others.”

Whatever motivated Fr Bruno Mulvihill, his life was twinned with Brendan Smyth’s from the day he first reported what he heard. For 20 years, he pursued the paedophile priest, reporting his suspicions to abbots, bishops and the Vatican, in writing and in person. But to no avail. Until 1995, when he returned to Ireland from Germany to make a formal statement to gardaí about his knowledge of Smyth’s crimes.

Smyth was arrested in 1991 by the RUC but after being released on bail went on the run for three years, staying for much of that time at Norbertine Abbey in Kilnacrott . An RUC extradition request remained unprocessed in the attorney general’s office for seven months, triggering a political crisis that led to the 1994 collapse of the Fianna Fáil/Labour coalition, led by Albert Reynolds. (Later that year, Smyth was sentenced to 12 years for the sexual assault of 20 victims. A month later he died of a heart attack in the Curragh prison.) Meanwhile Fr Mulvihill left the priesthood in frustration, and died aged 59 in a car crash in Germany in 2004.

Which brings us back to the question — who’d be a whistleblower?

Only the brave and the very resilient, according to Prof Alford. In his research for Broken Lives and Organisational Power he examined how more than 30 whistleblowers had fared after they had made their claims. Most had lost their jobs and would never work in the same field again, as court cases and tribunals dragged on. The majority suffered from depression, and alcoholism was common. For all of them it was a traumatic experience. The instinct to destroy the truth-teller is endemic in human behaviour.

We may well admire the whistleblower in the abstract but the organisations we, and they, belong to, are more primitive in their reactions. Perhaps it’s the fear of the informer, the snitch in our midst? The corporate and institutional instinct is to close ranks and turn on the person who dares to stand up and be counted. Up against a powerful system, the whistleblower is dismissed as a fanatic, unstable, unsavoury, sexually suspect, or someone who’s acting out of personal grievance or for gain. A binary narrative is often imposed on those who rock the boat; they’re either nuts or sluts.

The earliest of the modern-day whistleblowers, helicopter pilot Ron Ridenhour, the Vietnam veteran who in 1969 first disclosed the massacre at My Lai of dozens of Vietnamese civilians by US troops, was initially dismissed as a fortune hunter with a vested interest. Ridenhour said later his motives were more closely scrutinised than those whom he was accusing. ‘’The question most often put to me was not why they had done it, but why I had done it.”

Being a whistleblower has eaten up a decade of Maurice McCabe’s life. Not because of anything he did, but because of the ferocity of the official response to his challenging of the administration of power. His motives were idealistic but in the topsy-turvy world of institutional revenge, he’s the one who’s been characterised as corrupt.

Our laws may enshrine protection for whistleblowers, but the experience of the Maurice McCabes and the Bruno Mulvihills of this world tell us otherwise.

Mary Morrissy is associate director of creative writing at UCC. Her latest book is Prosperity Drive, a novel in stories.

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