The Standards Of Our Time

It is hard not to get angry and just switch off, but what is being discussed on Liveline (Irish radio phone-in) as I write is a legitimate question: Is it unfair to judge the actions of Cardinal Brady in 1975 by the standards of our time?

Quick summary: While still a priest he had a role, though apparently little more than a secretarial one, in a church investigation of allegations against the notorious serial child rapist Father Brendan Smyth. The case is among the most infamous, because Smyth was allowed to keep raping for many years despite this and other internal investigations.

As far as Brady is concerned, his job was to take down and pass on testimony to his seniors for investigation, not to act on it personally. He feels that he discharged his duty by playing his part in the system that he trusted. The criticism rests on the fact that this evidence was never acted on by those authorities. Given his personal knowledge, should Brady have gone above and beyond what he saw as his duty to pursue the matter, perhaps even drawn it to the attention of social services or police?

It is true that things were different. Nowadays it virtually goes without question that a child’s complaints should be thoroughly investigated, and given the high likelihood of anyone who has sexually abused children doing so again, not to act on credible evidence is tantamount to reckless endangerment. Things were much less clear-cut in 1975. It was not something much spoken of publicly. The standards of the time – such as they were – did not abhor child sexual abuse any less, but they worked on the widely-held supposition that something so horrific was an almost inconceivable rarity.

In other words, these standards were based on the effective suppression – by individuals, the church, and other institutions – of the truth about the prevalence of child sexual abuse. So to judge Brady by the standards of his time would be to judge him by standards he played his part in creating. That could not be acceptable.

We must nevertheless attempt to put ourselves in his position, and needless to say it is not one any of us would like. There was no guarantee that legal authorities or social services would have taken things any further, and to speak out would have almost certainly brought down the severe disapproval of superiors and peers within the organisation to which he had dedicated his life. I do wonder how many of us can honestly say that we would have gone beyond what we saw as our duty. I hope I would, I know it would have preyed on my conscience if I had not, but I can’t be sure if I would have broken rank.

And I certainly would not have risen to the position of cardinal if I did. Which is worth contemplating. People who become cardinals are precisely the people who don’t break rank, but suppress their own consciences and follow the interests and assurances of their organisation.

So I actually care little if Brady stays or goes. Whoever takes his place as cardinal will also be a cardinal. The important lesson here is about allowing any organisation to act as a law unto itself.

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