Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s speech against the Vatican set the scene for low media standards, writes Fr Andrew McMahon
It was ironic to hear Taoiseach Enda Kenny lament, a couple of weeks ago, ”a grievous loss of standards” at RTÉ, given that the backdrop for his comments was a controversy around alleged child abuse by Catholic clerics.
Mr Kenny was berating the national broadcaster in connection with the now notorious Prime Time Investigates documentary of last May, after the Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte had announced his inquiry.
It surely took a brass neck to be raising questions about the integrity of Prime Time given that the Taoiseach had, so recently, launched his own assault upon the Church — around this same issue — constructing that upon an allegation which he subsequently proved unable to substantiate.
Mr Kenny’s ‘celebrated’ contribution to Dail Éireann last July mirrored, in fact, the kind of shoddy journalism which has now landed RTÉ in hot water.
It began by asserting that if Ireland, after the Ryan and Dublin Reports, was ”unshockable when it comes to the abuse of children” the Cloyne Report ”has proved to be of a different order” — a good attention grabber, even if it was a gross exaggeration.
It went on to present an imbalanced version of Cloyne, ignoring what a Taoiseach should have been quick to highlight — namely the report’s praise of Church child protection measures as being ”far more stringent than those adopted by the State”.
Even if he felt it was his duty to publicly castigate Cloyne, for not following the Church’s own guidelines, Mr Kenny might have been truthful enough to acknowledge that this diocese was no latter-day Ferns or Dublin.
The report clearly recognised this, stating, among other things, that ”there was no case in which the Diocese of Cloyne moved priests against whom allegations had been made to another parish or out of the diocese altogether”.
The justification for the Taoiseach’s opening salvo of July 20 was, as we now know, a claim that wasn’t contained in the Cloyne Report at all.
Mr Kenny alleged that ”a report on child sexual abuse exposes an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic as little as three years ago”.
The report argued no such thing. Five months on, and the Taoiseach has yet to credibly substantiate his allegations. The Archbishop of Dublin publicly asked him to clarify this statement in early September and, to the best of my knowledge, Irish Catholics are still waiting.
The Vatican had little difficulty in exposing the vacuous nature of Mr Kenny’s remarks, in its response of September 3: when asked to explain the Taoiseach’s claim within days of his Dáil speech, it noted, ”a Government spokesperson clarified that Mr Kenny was not referring to any specific incident”.
A misleading headline, therefore, followed by an unfounded allegation. And if that wasn’t enough, the Taoiseach had apparently decided that the Vatican was guilty of ”dysfunction, disconnection and elitism” and launched into a tirade which upstaged even the anti-Catholic commentators so prevalent in the Irish media today.
Then there was the misuse of a quotation from the current Pope, to create a distorted impression about Benedict XVI’s approach to civil and criminal law.
And you realised you were miles away from the Cloyne Report — and truly in tabloid territory — when the ‘soutane’ and ‘thurible’ remarks issued on to the Dáil record.
These last references equate with the footage of rosary beads, statues and candles which invariably recur in clerical sex abuse documentaries, with the scurrilous implication that Catholic devotional and liturgical life is somehow inextricably linked with the abuse of children.
It’s worth remembering, in this regard, how Prime Time set out to ‘expose’ Fr Kevin Reynolds within the setting of his parish’s First Holy Communion day.
Irresponsible journalism is a serious problem in Ireland, especially where the portrayal of Catholicism is concerned, and it is important that Prime Time be obliged to answer for its performance to a higher authority.
But in case Minister Rabbitte and his colleagues are tempted towards a bout of righteous indignation on this matter, in the months ahead, they would be wise to reflect upon the opportunism of their own leader this past summer and his willingness to exploit the Cloyne Report to indulge anti-Catholic sentiment.
And while RTÉ may be rightly censured for its failure to respond urgently and generously, on realising they had mislead the public, the Government might reflect on the Tánaiste’s refusal to seriously engage with the comprehensive response which he had formally requested from the Holy See, on their behalf.
He famously found it all ”very technical and legalistic”. They might look, furthermore, at the wholly unnecessary ‘Confessional seal’ controversy — that exercise in sensationalism and sectarianism which Frances Fitzgerald and Alan Shatter encouraged throughout the late summer, before Mr Shatter came around to admitting it was ”an entirely bogus issue”.
Mentioning Mr Shatter, of course, brings us back directly to Prime Time. The Minister for ‘Justice’ could barely contain himself, on RTÉ, the morning after A Mission to Prey was broadcast, vowing to pursue whatever prosecutions were possible.
As has only very recently been recognised, Mr Shatter didn’t even stop to consider if any of the priests featured in the previous night’s documentary might not be guilty as charged.
Nor, it appears, had the Garda Commissioner either — whom Mr Shatter cited as sharing his concern at ”the revelations in the programme”.
Aoife Kavanagh, it seems, was far from alone in approaching her responsibilities with an apparent prejudice towards Catholicism and its clergy. She seemingly had support — until last month, anyhow — in the highest of places.
Ireland has witnessed, once again, a display of hypocrisy on a grand scale. Prime Time has been quarantined while politicians and fellow journalists look on disapprovingly — mystified, apparently, as to how RTÉ could have got it so wrong.
Some of our leading correspondents have been keen to point out that they had a bad feeling about this programme from the moment it went on air.
But why, one must ask, did these seasoned journalists and Government ministers not identify what was disturbing about the programme much sooner and articulate this within hours of its broadcast?
It was left to the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) and a pro-bono lawyer to sound alarm bells several days later.
Here’s where Irish investigative journalism might have genuinely proved itself — asking a few questions about its own culture.
Why, furthermore, did those who have now assured us they found the very title of the documentary questionable not take the obvious step of registering their concerns with RTÉ, given that A Mission to Prey was well publicised in advance?
What is it, indeed, about the broader media/political environment here that had evidently left these programme makers in no doubt that they had completed a great piece of work? An assessment shared, at least initially, by the Minister for Justice as well.
The media/ministerial bandwagon hasn’t paused, over recent weeks, to ask itself such questions. That would have expended energy they preferred to use in getting ‘appalled’ at Prime Time: imagine making a documentary about Catholicism with such a title and lacing it with provocative language and questionable imagery.
Imagine treating a Catholic parish, its clergyman and its First Communion Day with such wanton disrespect, when there were other ways to legitimately pursue inquiries.
Imagine making a serious allegation, in such a public fashion, without offering credible evidence in support of it.
Imagine treating contemptuously the response of a Churchman, his superiors and his lawyers — while refusing to countenance their proposals to vindicate him.
It was all quite shocking to the commentariat, once they got around to thinking about it. ‘An aberration’, they declared.
A lapse from those demonstrably high standards to which our media (and presumably politicians) so consistently adhere, when dealing with the Catholic Church and with the fall-out from clerical abuse scandals.
We were beginning to wonder if Aoife Kavanagh and her team hadn’t, maybe, arrived here from another planet.
Fr Andrew McMahon is a priest of the Dromore Diocese.