Kiss but don’t tell: How Ireland enabled Cleary’s sexual hypocrisy

Eamon Casey and Michael Cleary at the 1979 Papal Mass in Galway. Friends and colleagues, both clerics also had secret families.

Fr Michael Cleary didn’t have to cope with loneliness or celibacy, having fathered a family, writes Terry Prone

WHEN you are madly in love, you notice other people who are. You see them everywhere and you relate to them. Hand-holders. Forehead-leaners. Kissers. Jumpers in the Trevi fountain.

I have dived into the Trevi fountain and was shocked to hear this weekend that the mayor of Rome wants fountain-jumping stopped. The killjoy.

Nothing so romantic as walking back to your hotel, dripping, on a warm summer evening, with Romans nodding to you and saying, “Ah, Trevi” in recognition of young love in sodden action.

Back home, however, one evening not long after the Trevi dive, I hadn’t been paying attention to the affections of anybody outside of the Fiat in which me and the man in my life, Tom, were travelling.

“See that car up ahead?” he asked.

“Yeah?”

It was quite a big car. I’d half-registered that the male driver had his arm around the much smaller female passenger, and that she was more than halfway across the front seat space, her head on his shoulder.

My reaction was: “All together now: Aaah. How sweet.”

“Now, you watch the driver,” Tom instructed, suddenly crashing down a gear and accelerating like a Formula One driver. We roared out to come level with the other car, then slowed, so I could see the driver scrambling to get his arm away from the girl’s shoulder and push her back across the front bench seat. Inevitably, because of the almost attacking speed of our car, the driver couldn’t fail to turn to his right, to see why any vehicle was overtaking his in such a marked manner. So I got him in startled full face: Fr Michael Cleary.

“Bastard,” Tom said.

Nobody ever gave the word “bastard” more explosive, condemnatory relish than Tom Savage gave it.

Tom continued to drive fast, until the lights of Cleary’s car disappeared, then took his foot off the accelerator. As he did so, he muttered a definition of Cleary as the ultimate hypocrite. Fr Michael Cleary, the popular radio priest, was never behind the door in promulgating traditional Catholic values and condemning those who didn’t live by those values. Top of his list of hate figures were the men who were, at that point, beginning to leave the priesthood in growing numbers.

Many of them were leaving because they couldn’t cope with loneliness and celibacy. Cleary didn’t have to cope with either loneliness or celibacy, having — as emerged much later — fathered a family with Phyllis Hamilton, his housekeeper. He didn’t cope well with fidelity to her either, having sex with dozens of other women, one of whom — a single mother he had previously counselled — Phyllis Hamilton discovered in bed with him. This was no secret at the time, yet nobody — neither layperson nor member of the hierarchy — nailed Cleary for it. He was untouchable. A real Dub. One of our own. No side to him. A man who told it like it was. A man who never saw a camera or a microphone he didn’t love. A man gifted with unique freedom, who was untouchable because the hierarchy, having put a toe into mass media, decided to abandon it to the come-all-ye warbling Eamon Casey and the ‘singing priest’ Michael Cleary. It’s difficult, now, to explain how their high profiles made them impregnable.

Some months later, my husband-to-be was invited to join two other men on the Late, Late Show to discuss the reality facing the men who decided to leave the priesthood: The beatings. The estranged families. The lost jobs. The lack of references. The anonymous threats.

Gay Byrne, introducing him, said something along the lines of, “And our third panellist: Was Fr Tom Savage. Didn’t drink. Didn’t smoke. Never had a problem with women —”

Tom interrupted, causing me, in the green room, a private heart attack.

To what was he about to confess?

“I’m sorry, Gay, I need to correct one thing in your introduction,” he told the presenter. “I did smoke. I always smoked. Since I was 16.”

For the only time in the item, laugher eddied around the studio. Then Gay got down to business. The other two men deferred to Tom, partly out of fear, partly out of a belief that since he was a TV professional (to the extent that he frequently presented the late night God slot on RTÉ and UTV) and was a communications lecturer, he could best handle the tough questions.

As a result, on that night, unintentionally, Tom became the de facto spokesman for a generation of Irishmen leaving the most admired role in Irish society. Subsequently, he took flak for it. But that night, the audience rose to the three men, and the item marked a considerable change in how ex-priests were viewed. So they came off the set to applause and claps on the back: “Good job, well done. Amazing reaction.”

Tom came around the studio cyclorama as the commercial break ran, gave me a quick hug, cut across all congratulations, and pulled me into the green room, where he stood watching the big screen, on which Michael Cleary could be seen sitting down as the next guest. This was back in the day when nobody knew in advance who was going to appear on any section of the Late, Late.

“If you want to watch him, why don’t you sit down?” I suggested.

“If that bastard makes one negative reference to men leaving, I’m going right back out on the studio floor and taking him on,” he responded, rocking back and forth on his heels, ready to run if speed was required. In the event, it wasn’t.

Cleary was all smarmy positivity. The audience loved him. His unchallenged power continued. It wasn’t until after his death that he was exposed for his sexual exploitation, and it wasn’t until Saturday that he was revealed to have herded single mothers-to-be into an adoption society where the standards matched his own and where one mother was given a baby she now — half a century later — has proven, through DNA testing, was not her own.

Michael Cleary had little in the way of overt power, but as much covert power as he wanted. The Church shrugged and let him do the sort of low-level broadcasting he’d never have managed to keep on the air if it wasn’t a nixer, a self-indulgence to keep him happy being a curate.

But the rest of Ireland let him off the hook, too. Those who believed themselves his intellectual superiors — and there were many, with some justification — rolled their eyes in a collective dismissal, never thinking that their shared contempt, while making them feel good, nonetheless left huge power in his hands, which he used to destroy lives.

The truth is this: Michael Cleary is the gift that keeps on taking.

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