News Colette Browne

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Would you walk out of Mass if a priest prayed for a sex attacker?

Published 27/11/2013 | 22:36

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John Murray leaves Cork Court after being found guilty

If you want to know what rape culture looks like there is no more evocative image than a church full of the faithful bowing their heads and being asked to pray for the acquittal of a man charged with serious sexual offences.

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As Cork's former lord mayor, John Murray, stood trial for the sexual assault of a teenager last week, a priest celebrating a funeral Mass in another part of the city used the occasion to pray for his exoneration.

The inference was clear. An innocent elderly man, a stalwart of the community, was facing scurrilous charges from a lying, scheming woman. She should not be believed.

But the jury did believe her and returned a unanimous guilty verdict. Today Murray, who first sexually assaulted the victim when she was just 13, is in prison awaiting sentence.

Some of the mourners, including relatives of the deceased, have since publicly condemned the priest for hi-jacking the funeral to make his astonishing intercession on Murray's behalf.

One woman said she was tempted to walk out but didn't "out of respect for the dead". What about respect for the living?

Having listened to the priest pray for the accused, did anyone think of the impact it would have on the victim?

The family of the deceased, overcome with grief, cannot be blamed for the priest's grotesque intervention. A close family member did not even hear what was said and was clarly appalled when told of it at the funeral meal.

Someone in that crowd could have stood up and said the prayer was inappropriate. Yes, it would have been awkward and uncomfortable. But it would have been the right thing to do.

That priest, who has since apologised to the family, but not the victim, should have been told, there and then, that his request was an appalling abuse of a family tragedy and that courts, not clergy, determine guilt and innocence.

Instead, as far as we know, the biggest protest that was mounted was an uncomfortable silence from some, as others solemnly intoned the words of the prayer that called for Murray's release.

When cases of this nature are reported, the stock response is that it is reminiscent of a John B Keane play. Things like this don't really happen anymore. They're an aberration, a relic from a misogynistic, bygone era.

This denial further elides the problem by shrouding it in a cocoon of antediluvian peculiarity when, really, contemporary examples abound.

In 2009, another priest waded into sexual assault proceedings when he gave a character reference to a Listowel man, Danny Foley, who was subsequently found guilty and sentenced to seven years.

Fr Sean Sheehy wasn't alone. Following Foley's conviction, more than 50 other members of the local community lined up in the courtroom and shook his hand as his victim looked on, alone.

Earlier this year, when Foley was released from prison, Sheehy was still maintaining his innocence. "I don't want to make any judgment on (the victim) at all . . . but she is the mother of a young child as well and, you know, that in itself doesn't look great," he told the 'Irish Examiner'.

So, giving consent to one man confers consent on the whole of mankind -- an attitude that, according to a recent Red C opinion poll, 10pc of the population share.

Kildare woman Michelle Hennessy wasn't denounced from an altar when she accused a local man of sexually assaulting her but it wasn't long before the whispering campaign against her began.

Sean Thackaberry was walking her home in the early hours of January 30, 2011 when he threw her over a wall and viciously attacked her, leaving her battered and bruised.

The assault only stopped because a passing garda heard her screams and intervened.

Yet, some people in the town still insisted that she was making it all up. She was an attention seeker, nothing but a vindictive woman intent on wrecking an innocent young man's life with her lies.

When Thackaberry was ultimately found guilty, and sentenced to seven-and-a-half years last week, Hennessy was vindicated. But it was too late. She took her own life last year.

"She lost her own independence and she couldn't cope because she got a lot of hassle. For ages people would be intimidating her and saying she was making it up," said her mother.

Her life was made a living hell not just by the attack, but by the malicious innuendo that followed her to her grave.

Rape culture does not persist because some men rape women. It persists because the rest of us equivocate and find reasons to condone sexual violence.

The priest who led prayers for a sexual deviant is just the latest personification of this deeply engrained societal malaise.

Ask yourself this. If you had been in that church would you have stood up and objected?

Irish Independent

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