Nobody who worked in the old Irish Press will forget Brendan Comiskey for one particularly pious and arrogant piece of grandstanding. The newspaper’s television reviewer had made a light-hearted comment about the then-imminent birth of the singer Madonna’s first baby, and expressed the hope that this infant didn’t cause as much trouble as the son born to a previous Madonna. Bishop Comiskey considered this remark to be blasphemous, and used the might and prominence of his role to demand a boycott by all God-fearing Catholics of the Irish Press group newspapers. At that time the group was in serious difficulties and, indeed, closed not long afterwards with the loss of hundreds of jobs and hardship to many families. Had Comiskey enjoyed quite as much clout as he hoped at that time, this may even have been precipitated by his intervention.
Now we know that, at this time, the same bishop who considered that hundreds of people deserved to lose their livelihoods because of one hack’s throwaway quip did not feel that paedophiles and rapists should suffer any such fate as a result of their activities. Perhaps this is an insight into the value system of the man who hid himself away from the media he had once courted, in the wake of the Ferns Report last week, and issued a bland statement defending himself and describing his complicity in criminal activity for many years as “human failings”. But it is also possible that Comiskey saw his attack on the Irish Press’s blasphemous leanings to be entirely congruent with the effort to cover up and deny incidents of clerical sex abuse. In both instances, he may well have reasoned, the institution was under attack, and the institution had to be protected at all costs, even by the sacrifice of collateral civilian casualties. It would be invidious to suggest that Bishop Comiskey set out to do evil.
But then, very few people do. Bank robbers, social welfare fraudsters, even child abusers can all find justification in their circumstances to justify and excuse their own particular brand of “human failing” — that’s how defence lawyers make a living. Had Bishop Comiskey’s fingerprints been found all over the recovered Northern Bank raid notes, rather than the CVs of known child abusers, he could just as easily have pleaded “human failings”. The fact that he’d have a far slimmer chance of fobbing off the law with that excuse if he’d been a party to stealing money rather than innocence is part of the reason why this obscenity persisted unchecked for so long. As far back as the mid-1980s, the then Archbishop of Dublin sought legal advice as to the church’s liability for clerical sexual abuse. He was told that any bishop who knew there were grounds to suspect a priest of abuse and failed to withdraw him from ministry could be held legally liable for negligence.
His sole response was to take out insurance cover against any resulting financial loss, and to advise every other bishop in the country to do the same. By 1990, most dioceses had this insurance in place. So they all knew this crime was prevalent enough to be a real concern, but their overriding instinct was to protect the institution from a financial hit, rather than to protect the children from the beasts who were raping and terrorising them. Prioritising money rather than people may well be a human failing, but in this case it was also a conscious, fully informed choice. In 1988 Bishop Comiskey presided over a Confirmation ceremony in Monageer church in which he was assisted by a priest who had sexually abused some of the Confirmation girls just days before. Having specifically requested that James Grennan be absent from the ceremony, the girls’ families walked out in disgust. When first asked about it Bishop Comiskey flatly denied the walkout had happened.
The evidence suggests that Bishop Comiskey, along with his Episcopal brethren, had reason to believe that children were being sexually abused by priests and acted deliberately to deny, and cover up this crime. There’s now a proposal from Michael McDowell, the justice minister, to make this form of “human failing” a statutory crime, but surely a Catholic churchman doesn’t need legislative imprimatur to tell him the difference between right and wrong? What was it that stopped them from expressing a normal human response to the discovery that children were being sexually abused by priests? It can’t be that they were all at it, although a friend of mine, a senior counsel who has represented many victims of abuse, reckons that in some institutions abusers believed that the right to haul little orphaned boys from their beds in the middle of the night, rape them and dump them back with blood running down their legs, was something of a “perk” of the job.
It can’t be that they didn’t believe it or they’d never have gone to the expense of insuring against the costs of successful damages actions. The only explanation is that, somewhere along the way, the imperatives of the Catholic Church became less about what Jesus Christ thought of anything, less about people and more about power. Teachings about loving your neighbour and embracing humility weren’t going to butter any parsnips. Vatican II may well have declared that the church consisted of its flock, not its hierarchy, but within the world’s oldest civil service, Pope John XXIII was viewed as little more than a meddling cabinet minister. And in the world’s oldest civil service you can expect the top brass to come and go, but the system survives their well-intentioned tweaking and marches on. The rule of celibacy may have been designed to protect church wealth, but it also established a fortress of maleness at the heart of the Catholic Church, and it is a culture that simply cannot accept that the purpose of the institution could possibly be more important than the strength and endurance of its structure. So leaving helpless kids to the mercy of brutal paedophiles was about protecting the brand.
These bishops may have convinced themselves that they were doing the right thing, serving a greater purpose than mere transient humans, poor people’s children, could possibly understand. But in their hearts they knew it was wrong. They behaved like terrorists, blithely disregarding human suffering in pursuit of ends they believed would justify their means, and if the Catholic Church doesn’t censure them, the law must.