SEAN BRADY has had some interesting things to say in the past about the exercise of conscience, about being required to do something in the course of a person’s job that went against their beliefs.
Three years ago the Catholic Church’s Cardinal in Ireland attacked the introduction of civil partnerships for same sex couples, citing Pope Benedict’s call for “governments to enact policies that protect marriage”. “He (the pope) wants governments to do what they can to keep the family intact and safe from destruction. It is a family based on marriage, marriage between a man and a woman, which is the vital cell of society. I repeat that call of Pope Benedict because this is one of the fundamental choices that Ireland has to make and make soon,” he said.
Brady ratcheted it further by claiming that “there are times when we have to choose either to stand clearly on the side of Christ, or depart from him. This can come about not only in moments of personal crisis but also at certain moments in the life of an entire society.”
Brady then waffled on about politicians following their conscience on the vote on the issue, as if there should be some form of free vote in the Dáil rather than one according to party lines.
But here’s where it got really interesting. Brady suggested that a registrar of marriage who refused to officiate at a civil ceremony between a gay couple, because of a crisis of conscience, would be guilty of an offence once the new legislation is introduced. “This is an alarming attack on the fundamental principle of freedom of religion and conscience,” he said.
This raised a few issues. One was the seeming failure to acknowledge that there is a clear distinction between a religious marriage and a civil one. The idea that a registrar of marriage, on behalf of the State in a civic ceremony, should take it upon himself to decide that somebody is unsuitable to declare commitment to a partner on the basis that they are of the same gender is repugnant, especially if the State has introduced laws to allow for it.
Now we know that Brady is a stickler for following rules. But why did he not have an attack of conscience when faced in 1975 with the knowledge of criminal behaviour by Father Brendan Smyth and the information that more children remained at risk from Smyth’s predatory paedophilia? Sean Brady is a softly spoken man. This trait has persuaded some of his supporters to claim that he is humble, somehow assuming that quality accompanies the seeming gentleness of his vocal delivery. It would be great to have more evidence of this alleged humility because his behaviour in recent years raises questions as to whether, in fact, the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland would be described better as arrogant, self-serving, egotistical and perhaps even cowardly.
It isn’t just the events of 1975, as outlined again this week in a BBC Northern Ireland documentary, when he acted inappropriately in response to what he knew about the evil and criminal activities of the paedophile priest Brendan Smyth, that allows for such tough questions. It is how he is responding now that raises the most serious queries not just about his judgement but his character. His refusal to resign his position appears arrogant, his excuses appear self-serving, his seeming self-pity suggests an inflated ego and his behaviour in the past raises the impression of cowardice.
What goes almost without doubt is that he is a career politician, a man who knows how power is used and distributed within the organisation he serves, and who has used this knowledge to climb the greasy pole and cling to the top. Sometimes it is not strong people who rise to near the top to provide leadership but those who are willing to serve those who are even higher in the hierarchy: to have become cardinal suggests that Brady has not been a man to ever ruffle the feathers of his preening superiors. For them, if not necessarily for members of the Catholic flock, he has been a safe pair of hands.
Brady has refused to step down and there is no indication that the Catholic Church will force him to do so. There have been suggestions that he might do so after a Eucharistic Congress in June. However, early retirement was also suggested two years ago when details broke of his involvement in the internal Church investigation into Smyth. He didn’t do so then why would he now? Brady’s response to the latest documentary has been interesting. He claimed that the contents were “seriously misleading and untrue” and the programme makers had set out to “deliberately exaggerate and misrepresent” his role in events.
Was this a cynical attempt to link standards in the BBC to those of RTE, given the controversy that has engulfed the latter after the Father Kevin Reynolds debacle? But while he claimed that the BCC content “overstate and seriously misrepresent my role in a Church inquiry in 1975” it may be accurate to say that Brady has sought to underplay his responsibility. Brady said he followed orders by merely reporting upwards what he had been discovered, as if that absolves him from the civic responsibility to tell what he knew to the relevant police forces. He said that he was “only a notary” which seriously understates the importance of his role, or his standing as a 36-year-old legal expert: he was no novice merely taking notes.
“I had absolutely no authority over Brendan Smyth. Even my bishop had limited authority over him. The only people who had authority within the Church to stop Brendan Smyth from having contact with children were his abbot in the monastery in Kilnacrott and his religious superiors in the Norbertine Order,” he said this week.
This misses two fundamental points: it wasn’t just a matter of keeping away from children, important as that was, it was one of punishing him appropriately for his crimes; linked to that, this was a job for the police and courts, not the church.
“I trusted that those with the authority to act in relation to Brendan Smyth would treat the evidence seriously and respond appropriately. I had no such authority to act and even by today’s guidance from the State I was not the person who had the role of bringing the allegations received to the attention of the civil authorities. I was also acutely aware that I had no authority in Church law in relation to Brendan Smyth or any other aspect of the inquiry process,” he said.
Why didn’t a man, who clearly believes in conscience, put the needs of the children to the fore and bypass the church structures when he found out that nothing appropriate was being done? And if he didn’t know that no action was being taken why was it that he had been too afraid to ask what had been done with his information? Instead, Brady has told us that he felt “feel betrayed that those who had the authority in the Church to stop Brendan Smyth failed to act on the evidence I gave them.” He said that he was “outraged and appalled” too, but when was that and what did he do about it? How does he get away from creating the impression that he seems almost as upset about the consequences for him now as for the suffering of the abuse children?
Why doesn’t he admit that he got this totally and utterly wrong, instead of trotting out excuse after excuse? Brady, two years ago, said that he was deeply apologetic for his failures in 1975 and he clearly condemned the activities of Smyth and other paedophile clerics. That is in his favour. But his performance and regret this time around has been less impressive. He should examine his own conscience more closely.
* The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.
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