independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Both sides in the bad books after bust-up

Tempers flared on TV3 over the 'Kathy's Story' dispute, but neither account totally convinces, writes Gene Kerrigan

WE'RE used to seeing political controversy descend into farce. Now, it's happened with the issue of child abuse. On live television, the nation is regaled with such oratorical gems as, "Will you just shut up!"

It's the battle of the books on Ireland AM. In the "already-a-bestseller" corner, Kathy O'Beirne and her ghost writer, journalist Michael Sheridan. In the "please-buy-my-book corner", journalist Hermann Kelly, backed up by Mary O'Beirne, Kathy's sister.

Kathy claims she was abused and has written a book about it, with Michael. Mary denies it happened, and Hermann has written a book to that effect.

The quality of the discourse can be judged by the fact that Sheridan threatened legal proceedings on air, and Kelly boasted of the celebrity status of his witnesses: "I have the nephew of a former president!"

As tempers flared, presenter Sinead Desmond pleaded, "Guys, come on, let's be adults here!" Soon, as guests rose to their feet, co-presenter Mark Cagney urged them to "Stop now!", and within seconds he was going "Woh, woh!", as things went ballistic and backstage staff hurried in to calm things down.

There's nothing like a mature debate on a serious issue. And, this was nothing like a mature debate on a serious issue.

Kathy's Story was published in 2005, the title later changed to Don't Ever Tell. It told an unrelenting tale of neglect, violence and abuse (sexual and otherwise). From early childhood, Kathy O'Beirne revealed, she was the victim of parental viciousness and institutional brutality. She set out on a mission. "The truth about these evil people has to be told."

Before long, questions were raised about the reliability of Kathy's Story. The questions seemed substantial. Several members of Kathy's family came forward to deny her story and produced worrying claims.

Kathy claimed to have been dreadfully treated in a Magdalene laundry. The Sisters issued a statement: "The Sisters of our Lady of Charity wish to emphatically and categorically state that Kathy O'Beirne never spent any time in our laundries or related institutions, commonly known as Magdalene Homes. A professional archivist has checked our records in detail and there is no reference to Kathy O'Beirne." They found evidence that she spent six weeks in an industrial school run by the same order.

One of Kathy's brothers supports part of her story and claims to be writing his own book. The rest of her siblings are furious about her claims.

Enter Hermann Kelly. The news that a journalist had taken on the task of sorting out the evidence and presenting it coherently between covers was welcome. If Kathy's story is false, a whole lot of people, including her late father, have been done an injustice. If her story is true, the pain she suffered has been compounded by the persistent denials of her story.

Hermann Kelly's book is called Kathy's Real Story. The back cover says it "begins with shame and ends with the triumph of an Irish family over false allegations of abuse".

Disappointingly, this is not true. It suggests an alternative story is told, with a beginning and an end. The book begins with the launch of Kathy's Story, right enough. Then, it assembles a number of facts and allegations that cast doubt on Kathy's account.

Then it peters out in a hotpotch of related and unrelated material.

We get, for instance, four and a half detailed pages about a woman who spent time at the same industrial school as Kathy, and had no complaints. At the end of which, we discover that the woman was there about a year before Kathy, never knew her and has no direct evidence. We get the story of Maria Monk -- author of a fraudulent book that detailed alleged child abuse and sexual horrors in a convent.

In short, we get a lot of what might charitably be called context (or, uncharitably, padding). Hermann Kelly reveals: "What set alarm bells off about Kathy's book initially in this writer's head was that the vast majority of the characters in her book lacked texture and complexity, they are cardboard cut-outs of either good or evil."

That sounds terribly like a hunch. And, while he's right that Kathy's Story is poorly written, lacking in subtlety, his own book is no better. Kelly considers the "statistical probably" of so much ill-fortune afflicting one person and concludes it's "unlikely". Stunningly, he decides, "It's too bad to be true".

It seems that Hermann considers a mildly dismal fate to be plausible, but if it's too heart-breaking it can't be true. Well, there goes Anne Frank's credibility.

The fact that Kelly's book is unconvincing doesn't leave Kathy O'Beirne's book in the clear.

Serious questions have been raised by the O'Beirne family and the nuns and they haven't been satisfactorily answered.

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