Hypocrisy and Fr Michael Cleary

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Spring 2001), Letters, Letters, Volume 9

Sir,—James S. Donnelly Jr, in his article ‘A Church in Crisis’ (HI Autumn 2000), writes: ‘Hypocrisy, a deadly cardinal sin in the court of public opinion, was a relatively minor note in the Bishop Eamonn Casey affair, but it was the dominant feature of the scandal of 1994-5 surrounding the name of Fr Michael Cleary’. To support this claim, he goes on to relate that a year after his death in December 1993, ‘it was revealed that Cleary had long had a common-law wife, his “house-keeper”, Phyllis Hamilton, and that with her he had fathered two children…’.
It is now firmly fixed in the public perception that the late Fr Cleary was simply a hypocrite, living a secret life entirely at variance with what he preached. So far, so uncomplicated. But what about the rules of historical evidence, along with the norms of natural justice? Human relationships are endlessly complex, capable of being interpreted in conflicting ways, all the more so when one party is dead, and the other is left to establish his or her story as the official version. What Prof. Donnelly calls ‘this sordid revelation’ was released to the public after the death of Fr Cleary. We have heard one, necessarily partisan, version, of what must surely be a more complex story.
Prof. Donnelly concludes his assessment of Michael Cleary: ‘But bending the rules was the very essence of Cleary’s secret life, as virtually every Irish adult and adolescent learned some six months after his death’. Really? What makes Prof. Donnelly, a historian, so certain that he knows the essence of Michael Cleary’s or anyone else’s life? There is a sharp distinction between the craft of the historian and that of the gossip columnist. In the tone and the quality of his judgements of the life of Michael Cleary, Prof. Donnelly moves between the genre of the gossip columnist and the hanging judge.
A fair reading of the evidence suggests that Fr Michael Cleary was a complex, generous, very active man with a simple traditional faith. He made mistakes, possibly some significant errors of judgement in the midst of a crowded and very worthwhile life as a priest. He touched the lives of countless people for the good, some of them troubled and disturbed. As a media defender of Catholic teaching, he was not well suited; he lacked the ability to deal with genuine difficulties and objections. This however, was only one part of the life of a warm-hearted human being and priest, who was as faithful as he could be to the truth as he understood it. I suggest that to generalise the life of Michael Cleary under the rubric of hypocrisy is to think unhistorically; it is also very unjust.—Yours etc.,
BREIFNE WALKER
Holy Ghost Missionary College
Kimmage Manor
Dublin

Author’s reply

The Catholic Church could not long survive, in Ireland or anywhere else, if its priests, who take a solemn vow of celibacy, secretly have wives or lovers and sometimes beget children, while at the same time proclaiming that such things as a celibate priesthood and the papal ban on ‘artificial’ contraception are absolute laws of God. The hypocrisy involved, whenever revealed, must inflict grievous wounds on the church, not to mention the psychological harm done to the secret lovers of non-celibate Catholic priests and to any children born of their unions. Of course, the age-old problem of hypocrisy could be much reduced, and the dismal prospects of the celibate Catholic priesthood in the Western world might be greatly improved, if the rules so often attributed to God were governed more thoroughly by the ‘divine law’ of the full development of the personhood of every human being. Priests could then be married, have spouses, and bring beautiful children into the world, and the vast majority of people living on the island of Ireland, Catholic as well as Protestant, would call the new dispensation blessed!

JAMES S. DONNELLY Jr
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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