Her assessments of the RUC until 2001, the PSNI thereafter, were not candy-coated. She criticised institutions that were as much part of the problem as part of the solution in the North. Her objectivity seemed a breath of fresh air in an environment where some, but not all, police officers felt unmoved by the obligation to be objective. Her contribution in the torturous process of “normalisation” in the North was significant.
It is sad therefore that objectivity seems to have deserted her. Speaking in Boston College at the weekend the Baroness accused Irish media of being virulently anti-Catholic. “In a country in which the media was once sympathetic to the Catholic Church, it is now aggressively hostile,” she declared. Like many conservative, old-school Catholics she has confused criticism of the institutions, the corporatism, of the Catholic Church with an attack on Catholicism. A regular columnist with The Irish Catholic Baroness O’Loan accused journalists of “on occasion, to have abandoned the careful, nuanced use of language in favour of wild sweeping assertions which fuel the lack of understanding of what Catholicism is about, and encourage virulent anti-Catholicism”.
As many Irish Catholics, especially older ones, struggle to cling to “what Catholicism is about” and the deep, heartfelt joy, contentment and certainty their faith brought into their lives because of myriad scandals involving institutions but not ideology, Baroness O’Loan has tried to mix oil and water.
Given the history of the Catholic hierarchy, in everything from knowingly giving sanctuary to paedophiles, to lying about it — Cardinal Desmond Connell’s infamous “moral reservation” — to asserting the pre-eminence of Church rules over State laws, to welching on compensation deals and vehemently opposing the modernisation of school patronage arrangements, it is a wonder of generosity — and a real expression of Christian values — that the institution of the Catholic Church still enjoys the level of respect it gets.
That Baroness O’Loan made her remarks in Boston underlines a disturbing sense of disconnect. Boston was home to an infamous paedophile protector, Cardinal Bernard Law, who had to resign in 2002 after church documents showed he had covered up abuse by dozens of priests. One had raped or molested 130 children while Law moved him from church to church. Law enjoys Vatican protection in Rome to this day.
She, a retired and ennobled British public servant, has form. Last year she criticised the Garda Representative Association when it called for a “Yes” vote in the marriage equality referendum. Like the hierarchy of the 1980s, who warned civilisation would fall if divorce or contraception were introduced, she said gardaí, who have more experience of the consequences of homophobia than most, should remain silent on the issue. The baroness, just like the Catholic Church, has done much good and made a very valuable contribution to society, but her shoot-the-messenger charge is so off the mark that it diminishes her legacy.