TERRY PRONE: Tom Humphries’ writing cannot ameliorate what he did

Never did word travel faster, within a small community, than the news, five years ago, that Tom Humphries was a probable paedophile, writes Terry Prone. 

At the time, that couldn’t be put in the public domain, but within media, it was clear from the start. Obvious, even.

Yet every now and then, someone who probably could have worked it out by deductive reasoning would ask if anyone present knew who it was, and, if someone muttered the name, would stand, stunned and disbelieving. Or rather, stunned and believing, yet seeking reasons not to believe, because they had such a high regard for the writer.

Tom Humphries wrote so well about sport that aficionados would save items he had penned and force those of us who had no interest in sport to read them, and rightly rewarding they were, even if their context had to be explained a bit.

It was elegant, nuanced, thoughtful writing, filled with insight.

Those who loved the work the man produced couldn’t square their view of him, drawn from that work, with the possibility of his having defiled a teenager as young as — indeed, a peer of — his own daughter. It’s a cognitive circle we’re bad at squaring: Separating the work from the man and understanding that the one does not equate to the other.

Caravaggio’s paintings, for example, are spellbinding in their genius. Caravaggio, as a man, was nothing like his painting. He was vicious, half-mad, volatile, and so violent he was convicted of murder. Yet generations have viewed his work as untainted by his life, despite the fact that, if he hadn’t run away from the forces of law, Caravaggio would either have been executed or imprisoned for a lot longer than is going to be the fate of Tom Humphries.

The wonder of their work is separate from, and in no way tainted by the horror of their actions. If we do not find the works of Caravaggio disgusting because of the life of the man who created them, if we do not, as a result, consign them to some vault where they can never be seen, then, in logic, those who always gained from the elegance of Humphries’ very sentence structure should continue to read and recognise the work of a beautiful writer.

But if the specialist writing is not stained by the man’s life, we must also recognise that the excellence of the work, in the cases of dozens of writers, painters, and sculptors down through the centuries, does not excuse the quotidian evil of what they did.

And yet two sports writers, presumably believing that a man who could write so beautifully and with such understanding of human character, or the lack of it, could never be guilty of grooming and sexually abusing a teenage girl, provided the courts with character references for Humphreys, and, as a result of their generosity and naïveté, are now being pursued by other media to justify their actions.

How about we leave the individuals alone and look, instead, at the system which facilitates these references.

They’ve been around forever, normally taking the form of a letter from the local parish priest or politician to the effect that although Jimmy X many have done the fell deed for which he has been arraigned, it wasn’t typical, My Lord, normally he’s quiet as a lamb and takes great care of his widowed mother or works like a Trojan with the local VdP. Accordingly, his
action in this particular case must have been a momentary lapse and a light sentence would be only grand. These testimonials might have been galling to the family of someone injured or robbed by the accused, but they were a fact of life. A given. Unquestioned. Valued.

So much part of the pattern of (particularly) rural life that on several occasions in the past few years, politicians have got it in the neck for their constituency staff providing routine character references for people, unjustified by direct in-depth knowledge of the accused. But for the most part, parish priests and politicians providing such character references have regarded themselves as championing the underdog.

The case of Humphries shines a big harsh light on this notion.

Because character references for a household name Irish Times writer are not written for an underdog. Rather, they are written to establish that the subject of the letters is above the underdog, if not above the ordinary. He is one of us. Therein lies the rub. The character reference which majors on the man’s high respect and reputation within the community necessarily refers to a narrow, privileged community. The self-consciously literate upper middle classes are the ones within whose circle Humphries had the reputation, and well earned it was. The Irish Times found and developed a beautiful writer and as a result, he developed a massive reputation within that circle.

And what has that got to do with his offences? His reputation does not in any way ameliorate or mitigate what he did. Therefore, the only function of the character references is to propose to the judge that Humphries is a better class of child-abuser, with the implication that he should be treated better than the average paedophile.

Logically, the argument goes the other way. This sensitive writer was well aware of the practices of child molesters and well read enough to know the massive life-long damage they can inflict on their victims, yet went ahead and did it anyway. Should not the judge, therefore, consider him worse, rather than better than, his fellow paedophiles?

It does not seem that the “moment of madness” rationale was used to explain away this man’s deeds in the letters stating his valued importance to Ireland. Which is just as well, because the length of time he took to set his victim up is chilling, as is his selection of a girl who was already vulnerable because of an eating disorder. In addition, at a time when he knew he was guilty, and — because of his wide reading — was fully aware of the damage he had done her, he ignored the axiom that justice should be expeditious.

Nobody suggests that he did not need medical treatment. But, in weighing up his needs against the needs of a twice-wounded girl on the cusp of adolescence, the system came down on his side and let her warrior her way to adulthood through one postponement after another. She seems to have managed it. Her gratitude to Humphries’ family for their
courageous exposing of him speaks to that. As does her refusal to countenance a written apology he sought to send her.

He is the guilty one. Not the two men who expressed their loyalty to him by writing letters they must both regret. When a much admired friend comes to you in extremis, asking for a written expression of your loyalty to the man you believed he once was, what do you do?


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