MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Pee Flynn and the match made in heaven

The bishops were quick out of the blocks last week to smite the proposed referendum on same-sex marriage.

Hours after the cabinet announced that a poll would be pencilled in for 2015, Bishop Denis Nulty spoke for his colleagues when he said that the issue was not about equality. “It is about the very nature of marriage itself and the importance society places on the role of mothers and fathers in bringing up children.”

The importance of nurturing children was not high on the priority list for the hierarchy back in the day when they considered abused children to be collateral damage in maintaining the reputation of the Catholic Church, but at least they appear to have reformed. Or have they? Child protection is now a big issue in the Church, but what of the other attitudes towards morality from a darker age?

One story that skimmed across the news pages last week was a little row involving the former minister, EU commissioner, and recipient of corrupt monies: Pádraig Flynn.

A number of Mass-goers in Castlebar were outraged that Pee Flynn was given a major role in the Mass on a recent Sunday, reading the first and second readings and Prayers of the Faithful. Complaints were reportedly made to the Tuam Archdiocese that the likes of Flynn would be given such a platform.

The man himself no doubt revelled in the role. When active in politics he always wore the air of a preacher, pontificating in a righteous tone to lesser mortals.

One of the readings at the mass was from St Paul to Timothy, and included the passage: “I have fought the good fight… At my first defence, no-one took my part, all deserted me. May it not be charged against him.”

Pee is a regular on the rota for readings at the town’s Church of the Holy Rosary, but the detail of the readings appears to have heightened annoyance with some. Yet one could well imagine Flynn reading Saint Paul, and finding common cause with his sense of grievance. After all, he denies taking a corrupt payment of £50,000 from builder Tom Gilmartin in 1989. Gilmartin says he was told to hand the money over to Fianna Fáil if he wanted roadblocks removed from his proposed developments in Dublin.

Flynn claims the cheque was a “personal political donation”, but nobody else believes that. In 1989, Flynn was earning a ministerial salary of £51,000. It would be the equivalent of a minister today being handed €170,000 for his re-election campaign. He claimed to have spent £40,000 (€150k+ in today’s money) in that year’s election, which, frankly, beggars belief.

In any event, he shovelled the money into an off-shore account, where it sat for a few years until he brought it home in 1997. Then he gave half of it to his daughter Beverley to invest in another off-shore vehicle, which turned out to be highly dodgy, and he used much of the rest of it to buy some forests and farmland in Mayo.

Giving evidence in relation to these issues in April 2008, he claimed he hadn’t benefited personally from Gilmartin’s donation. He didn’t bother trying to square such a statement with the money trail. All of his evidence was given under oath, after he swore on the Bible to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

In the course of his evidence he even emphasised that he knew the significance of giving evidence under oath, although it’s unclear whether he was referring to his legal obligations, or those of his faith, in which the Bible is a highly significant tome.

The tribunal didn’t believe him. It found that he had sought a “corrupt payment”. Flynn denied it all and retreated to Castlebar to paint and preach. Through the maelstrom, he maintained the aggrieved air of one who has been wronged.

It is entirely understandable that some in the congregation at the Church of the Holy Rosary would take offence at such a man occupying an elevated role in the place where they worship.

While the Church appears to have no problem allowing the likes of Flynn taking centre stage, elements within it have no such welcome for other public figures who have done nothing wrong.

Derek Keating is a Fine Gael TD for Dublin Mid-West. Last month, Keating was informed by his local parish priest that he was no longer welcome to act as a Minister of the Eucharist, a function he had been performing for some time.

Keating’s crime was that he had supported the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill in the Dáil. Abortion is a major issue in the Catholic Church, but Keating is not an abortionist. He hasn’t opened an abortion clinic. He hasn’t advocated for, or suggested he supported, abortion.

All he did was perform his legislative duty in voting for a law designed to ensure the lives of women are not put in peril by the constraints of the Constitution. In effect, he voted for legal clarity for what has been ad hoc medical practice for decades.

Quite obviously, some within the Church believe that Keating and his colleagues should live by John A Costello’s statement in the 1950s that he was “a Catholic first and an Irishman second”.

The contrasting fortunes of Keating and Flynn within their respective local churches says much about persisting priorities in the institution. The man who swore on the Bible and issued unbelievable statements is considered fit to read from the Bible to a congregation of worshippers.

And the man who performed his duty to legislate to protect expectant mothers is cast from the inner fold.

Despite all that has tumbled out in recent decades, despite the re-positioning of values within the Church favoured by many lay and religious, it seems that the old priorities are maintained. Sexual morality is still regarded as the highest form of morality within the institution.

Everything in the vein flows from the notion that sex is to be performed only between a heterosexual couple married in the Church and nothing is to be done to stop nature’s course thereafter. That informs the rigidity of attitudes to abortion, as it does to gay marriage. But while the hierarchy may persist with those priorities, many who retain their faith have long left them behind. Equally, the State is no longer willing to put up with that stuff.

That’s why the Church’s role in the debate over the referendum on gay marriage is unlikely to make much of an impact. Within the hierarchy, and among the more conservative elements, it will be regarded as a last stand for what they term “family values”. But with all that we now know, the credibility of the Church to preach on such a narrow definition of morality, has long been shot.


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