Savile Row

Sir Jimmy Savile
Sir Jimmy Savile (Photo: Beacon Radio)

So a lifetime of thinking there was something wrong about Jimmy Savile finally proved justified. Not that I’m claiming to possess what I have little choice but to call paedo-dar. Would that there were such a thing. I just didn’t like the guy. I’m not sure why – though that cigar didn’t help. There was something about his relentless funny voice and catchphrases. It seemed… I think it seemed a little lonely. Not quite connecting up with other people.

What makes a man want to have sex with adolescents – a fixation on what attracted him at puberty? The envious desire of age to possess youth? I think in large part the answer is simply, because he can. He feels a sexual urge, and an adolescent will allow him to satisfy it because obeying adults is the norm. Paedophilia is less a perversion of sexuality than a failure of conscience, the prioritisation of your pleasure over another’s trust.

Readers in various bits of the world may not have heard much of this story. Savile was a DJ from the UK who became enormously famous in the 70s for a programme called Jim’ll Fix It. Children wrote in with their requests, and the BBC would make them happen. A lot like the Make-A-Wish Foundation, except you didn’t have to be dying to get your reward.

It turns out that you did occasionally have to be molested by Jimmy Savile though.

This all came to a head after he died a year ago. As it happened, an investigative branch of the BBC had been making a programme about rumours of his paedophilia. But the Corporation pulled that – and went ahead with a glowing tribute to the wonderful work he did for many, many children’s charities.

There isn’t too much wrong on the face of that. It’s not a huge lapse in journalistic integrity to give the benefit of the doubt to someone who’s just died. But the BBC had another year after his death to investigate the rumours. And the forty years before. In the end it was rival broadcaster ITV that broke the story, leaving us with the impression that the BBC were unwilling to entertain doubts about one of their own.

You can understand that unwillingness when you think about it. Savile was hardly charismatic, more odd- than good-looking, not really talented in any noticeable way. What made him a star was the big budgets that the BBC spent on programme ideas that gave him a never-ending supply of unsupervised contact with children. It must be hard for the Corporation to get its institutional head around the idea that it spent decades unwittingly but quite literally pandering for a child abuser.

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.

Priestly Identity

Why would the Vatican think that further separating seminarians from other students can help prevent them abusing children? If anything, becoming more enclosed and collegiate will make them less likely to reveal the criminals within their ranks, not more. What this tells us about the Church’s mentality is shocking, but not surprising. Inevitably a religious institution, even one as worldly and cynical as this, reverts to magical thinking: As God’s representative on Earth it cannot be wrong, not fundamentally. Therefore the causes of abuse must come from outside. It stands to reason.

The further implication is that the problem can somehow be traced back to the slight liberalisation that paved the way for more open seminaries. Plenty living people can attest to being abused before Vatican II of course, but such evidence is invalid because it doesn’t fit with the magical thinking. Or indeed, with the general prejudice in the Church against openness.

But what is worse, it shows the Vatican still resisting the idea that clerical sexual abuse is its fault. It must have been tainted by exposure to other people. Other, less pure and spiritual people. Women, is the word that’s not being spoken aloud here. If the Catholic Church can somehow blame women for child abuse, it will.

This is wilful self-delusion. Of course the problems of the Church do not come from the pernicious influence of ordinary people. They come right from the soul of the institution – the belief that it is an instrument of the will of God. This is what allows it to consider itself above the law, to ‘protect’ its own members from justice, to let them keep raping.

The Catholic Church can never be trusted with children until the day that it admits it is not an organisation carrying out God’s will. And that day will never come.

‘Vile’ Dana Allegations Finally Revealed

Happier Times

So according to a story just broken by IrishCentral.com, the “vile and false” accusation against a member of Dana Rosemary Scallon‘s family is that her brother – and campaign advisor – John Brown sexually abused their niece.

Pretty vile all right, and from an odd source. No complaint or charge of sexual abuse appears to have been made. The accusation comes from legal testimony given by the father of the alleged victim, Dana’s brother-in-law Dr. Ronald Stein, during the legal wrangling between the partners formerly involved in Dana’s record label. (Heart Beat Records, a “Christian music company the family had established in the U.S.” as IrishCentral describes it.) However he appears not to have accused Dana’s brother of the crime so much as claimed that he confessed to it.

It has to be emphasised that we have no particular reason to believe the accusation. Possibly the testimony by Stein is a fabrication made during a very nasty battle to control a lucrative family business. This is what Dana herself appears to believe, and as the Irish Times reported, the judge in that case said that “no witness spoke only the truth.”

Will this affect her campaign? In fact I think it could do her more good than harm. Unlike the loosely comparable issue dogging Senator David Norris, her brother has not apparently been convicted or even charged with anything, and the full extent of Dana’s involvement, as far as we know at this point, was to try to keep the allegation off the record and out of the papers. That may have been ultimately a foolish move – if an allegation is baseless you inevitably lend it credence by attempting to suppress it – but she doesn’t appear to have done anything at all improper. Then there is the issue that will inevitably follow on. Was some journalist really using this information to threaten her, as she seems to believe? If it can be shown (or made to look like) one was, then she has a sympathy vote coming.

I doubt if it is true though. It seems more likely that she perceived, or wished to characterise, any questions about these allegations as an attempt to undermine her campaign. But she should not pretend, even to herself, that such an allegation made in court is of no legitimate interest to the electorate. The biggest mystery here is how it did not come to light until this late stage.

Will it effect the outcome of the election? No, not at all. She was quite clearly not electable anyway.

It’s Not About Seals

Mussolini (left) and Hitler sent their armies ...
"Godwin'd!" "Dummarsch" Meeting Of Ireland's Taoiseach and Papal Nuncio

For his criticism of the Pope, one priest has likened Ireland’s prime minister to Adolf Hitler. Another called Justice Minister Alan Shatter a “Jewish non-practising atheist

When your opponents call you Hitler and a Jew, you must be doing something right.

In the wake of the Catholic hierarchy treating child protection rules as something that happens to other people, government has little option but to put them on a statutory basis, complete with the sanction of jail terms for those who “withhold information relating to sexual abuse or other serious offences against a child or vulnerable adult”. There seems no other way – indeed one wonders how that isn’t the law already.

Those who would defend the indefensible however want to characterise this as requiring priests to break the ‘seal of confession’, the vow to treat anything revealed in the confessional in absolute confidence. This is mendacious. I’ve said this before but it bears repeating – no one is going to get a conviction based on a private conversation between two people. Even in the unlikely scenario of a convicted child abuser accusing his confessor of failing to report him, his testimony would still be uncorroborated.

What about a scenario where a priest hears a child “confess” that someone has been interfering with them? Even if the priests still considers that information privileged, surely he would take whatever action he could to ascertain for himself, outside the confessional, whether the child really was in any danger, would report any reasonable suspicions to the relevant agencies, and would encourage the child to do so too.

And surely he would consider himself morally compelled to do that whether this law was in force or not.

Wouldn’t he?

But the law is not aimed at confessors. It is aimed at stopping the Catholic hierarchy concealing information they have about abusing priests, information that they are acting on themselves. Which – unless they themselves are breaking the seal – does not come from confessions, but usually from the complaints of victims or their parents. People who protest that the law will threaten the sacrament of confession are merely out to defend the autocracy of that hierarchy.