It has been announced that Mgr Eamon Martin has been appointed Archbishop coadjutor of Armagh. That means that when Cardinal Seán Brady retires, he will succeed him as Primate of all Ireland. Cardinal Brady would have come to his normal retirement age in August 2014, and in theory he could carry on until then. But under the circumstances everyone knows that he will almost certainly retire at some point later this year, finally driven out by the storm of controversy that broke over his head after a BBC documentary last year (in my opinion an utterly scurrilous piece of work) “revealed” that when he was a priest, he had the names and addresses of children abused by the paedophile priest Brendan Smyth, but did not pass them on to the police.
The fact is that it was not his responsibility, nor did he have any authority, to do anything of the kind; nor was it a requirement of the Irish law at the time that he or anyone else should do so. The BBC’s “revelations”, however, led to a media and political furore which greatly weakened the cardinal’s credibility and, inevitably, his moral authority as head of the Irish Church. My own reaction can be summarised in the headline of an article I wrote in this column at the time: “Cardinal Brady’s situation is now irretrievable, and he would be wise, therefore, to retire; but the storm beating down on him is wholly undeserved”.
I had come to hope that I had got it wrong, and that it might be turning out that he was in fact re-establishing his authority: it seems now that he, from the storm’s epicentre, had come to the same conclusion that I and others had from its periphery, and that he had asked the Holy Father for a coadjutor. I cannot let his retirement be announced, however, without one more effort at least to set the record straight: for, already, history is being rewritten. According to today’s Irish Times, for instance, the then Fr Brady actually himself conducted the inquiry into allegations of paedophilia against Fr Brendan Smyth; the Irish Independent simply says he was, as a young priest and canon lawyer, “made aware in the 1970s of abuse by Smyth – but did not inform the police or the abused children’s parents”. The general composite version is that he was in charge of the inquiry and didn’t inform the police of its findings as it was his duty to do: in some versions, this put him in contravention of the Irish law, even though it was only much later that the Irish law was changed to make informing the police a requirement, not simply for the Church but for everyone else (contrary to popular opinion, there was at the time plenty of paedophilia in Irish civil society at large, as there was in our own).
It became generally believed last year that it was because of something the young Fr Brady had actually done, or failed to do, that Brendan Smith carried on abusing children, as though Fr Brady had episcopal responsibility even then. But he wasn’t the bishop, he was the bishop’s secretary. As he said at the time, in reponse to the BBC’s deplorable (but all too successful) essay in character assassination, “the commentary in the programme and much of the coverage of my role in this inquiry gives the impression that I was the only person who knew of the allegations against Brendan Smyth at that time and that because of the office I hold in the Church today I somehow had the power to stop Brendan Smyth in 1975. I had absolutely no authority over Brendan Smyth (my italics). Even my bishop had limited authority over him… As Mgr Charles Scicluna, Promoter of Justice at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, confirmed in an interview with RTÉ this morning, it was Brendan Smyth’s superiors in the Norbertine Order who bear primary responsibility for failing to take the appropriate action when presented with the weight of evidence I had faithfully recorded and that Bishop McKiernan subsequently presented to them…”
As Cardinal Brady said then (though no one allowed anything he had to say in his own defence to spoil a rattling good witch hunt in full cry) the documentation of the inquiry describes the then Fr Brady simply as the “notary” or “note taker” of the proceedings. He did not formulate the questions asked in the inquiry process. He did not put the questions. He simply recorded the answers.
I end now as I ended then, in May last year: “There is much more that could be said in defence of Cardinal Brady: but who would listen? I fear that his position is now irretrievable, and that for the good of the Irish Church, it would probably be wise for him to ask for the Holy Father’s permission to take early retirement. It seems to me, nevertheless, that he has suffered, at the hands of the [BBC] This World programme, a profound injustice … and that when he finally does bow before the storm, as he almost certainly must, it should be well understood that this is one of those resignations for the greater good which have nothing to do with any culpability on the part of the person resigning.”
The BBC now has its own paedophile scandals, one of which includes its attempt to blacken the character of Lord MacAlpine — another false accusation which was at least authoritatively denounced in such a way that Lord MacAlpine’s reputation was quickly restored, and a very senior head, that of the BBC director general, duly rolled. That was the MacAlpine affair: this should come to be called the Brady affair, and BBC heads should roll over this one, too. They won’t, of course, it’s too late, and anyway, who cares about justice for Catholic prelates? But would the BBC have attempted the same kind of character assassination today? Would they not now have to be more careful? It’s an interesting question.