Beyond belief how, decades on, some sections of church still don't believe Cleary was a dad
Published 05/07/2014 | 02:30
Dublin priest Arthur O'Neill should have known he was stepping on a landmine when he decided to reopen the controversy about the secret love life of his old friend, the redoubtable Father Michael Cleary.
In his June newsletter for St Brigid's parish in Cabinteely, Co Dublin, he revisited the revelations that the charismatic singing priest had fathered two sons with his housekeeper, the late Phyllis Hamilton.
Fr O'Neill described the revelations as "exasperating", unproven and the result of "shoddy practice" by 20 named journalists, whom he challenged to prove that one of the most sensational stories in the Irish Catholic Church was true.
He suggested his former clerical colleague had suffered a serious injustice: "The burial of a person's legacy deeper than their body just isn't fair – if it's based on a falsehood."
Since then the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin has strongly dissociated himself from Fr O'Neill's outspoken comments.
I haven't seen Fr O'Neill's list but as I broke the story on behalf of Phyllis and her son Ross in the 'Sunday World' in 1995, I presume I must be on it.
I wrote her bestselling book, 'Secret Love' and gained an in-depth knowledge of their lives together.
I know with absolute certainty that Fr O'Neill is wrong. I still have the large volume of documentary proof I was first given to corroborate the story. I interviewed at least seven unimpeachable witnesses to the secret affair, including her doctor, Ivor Browne.
Then in 1999, Phyllis Hamilton was finally vindicated when a DNA sample proved beyond doubt that Ross was the son of Fr Michael Cleary.
At the time of the first revelations in the 'Sunday World' the church, including Fr O'Neill, went on the airwaves to denounce the story as sensationalist.
So, thanks to Arthur O'Neill we have an opportunity to re-tell some of this extraordinary story of sex, love and double standards which, by today's standards, makes one wonder what all the fuss was about.
In February 1995 I got a call from an old friend who wondered would I be interested in interviewing Phyllis Hamilton who was prepared to tell her story.
Fr Cleary died in December 1993 after battling with cancer, which recurred, Phyllis maintained, because of the stress caused when his close pal, Bishop Eamon Casey, was exposed as having fathered a child.
In January 1994 'The Phoenix' magazine published the long-whispered allegations about the singing priest's private life.
It caused a tsunami of condemnation as some of the most powerful people in this State, including some celebrities, rushed to defend their friend.
To frighten off nosey journalists a false story was planted in the 'Sunday Tribune' claiming Michael Cleary had secretly done a DNA test before his death to prove he was not Ross Hamilton's father.
And so the story went dead until I got that call in 1995.
The first issue was proof and we needed a lot of it. Back then the church, and especially Fr Cleary, had powerful friends in society.
I have documents which clearly prove that Fr Cleary had confided his secret to a number of household names, but those people have consistently denied this.
Telling the world that the Irish church's most colourful, loved and outspoken moral fundamentalist was a liar and a hypocrite was not the easiest thing to do.
'Sunday World' editor Colm MacGinty and I first met Phyllis's solicitor Peter Lennon, without whom this downtrodden woman would never have received justice or recognition.
Apart from a box full of letters, documents and diaries which corroborated a lot of her story, the lawyer played a tape recording of a phone call which illustrated how dearly Mother Church wanted the truth to stay hidden. The conversation was between her and a monsignor from the office of Archbishop Desmond Connell, which I still have.
The archbishop's man was concerned to know if she had talked to the media.
Phyllis sounded confused and wondered out loud whether she had made a mistake by not clarifying the situation with a media statement in light of 'The Phoenix' allegations.
"Not at all, not at all," the holy man's voice was emphatic.
"All these people are looking for is to make money themselves . . . that is all there is to it, they are not in the slightest bit interested in you," Archbishop Connell's representative said.
Ultimately, the reason Phyllis and her son Ross went public was because they had no choice: the church and Fr Cleary's powerful friends wanted to bury them and their truth.
Phyllis told me when we met for the first time: "It was so crushing and heart-breaking for me but it absolutely devastated Ross. People who had been friends of Michael's and us, and who knew the secret, began distancing themselves from us.
"They developed amnesia about the whole thing. They even began denying us to the media. Those who did come to visit us were doing so only to find out if I was going to break my silence. Our lives were being controlled and we were afraid to even go out the front door we were so scared."
The story of the love affair between Phyllis Hamilton and Michael Cleary is one of exploitation and dysfunction.
Fr Cleary took advantage of an innocent, vulnerable 17-year- old girl.
They would have two sons together, "Michael Ivor", the first son was adopted and named Douglas Boyd Barrett by his new family.
When she became pregnant with Ross, Eamon Casey, who was privy to his friend's secret, even suggested that she should have an abortion – which Phyllis and Michael both rejected.
Over time Fr Cleary's cancer, which had been dormant for years, suddenly reappeared and 19 months later he was dead.
The last time I spoke to Phyllis was before her untimely death from cancer in 2001 – she was just 51.
"I don't mind dying really. All I ever wanted was to have my boy accepted in this life for who he is," she told me.
Before putting his hands up and admitting he was wrong, Arthur O'Neill should think about the hurt he has revisited on Ross Hamilton, a young man who spent the first half of his life being denied.
And he should also read the last line in Phyllis's book, 'Secret Love' before he embarks on another mission to kick the dead in their graves – the very thing he complains of.
"I pray that my son will find his way and be happy in life. When I have achieved that I don't mind dying because I know that one day I will be with them both in a happier, eternal place."
Paul Williams was the author of Phyllis Hamilton's book, 'Secret Love: My life with Fr Michael Cleary', which was published in 1995.