This World: The Shame of the Catholic Church, BBC Two, review
Damian Thompson reviews the BBC This World documentary, The Shame of the Catholic Church, which investigated child abuse claims.
Paedophiles are cunning. It’s one of those things we’re always told but doesn’t sink in – until we’re confronted by the sort of detail revealed in last night’s BBC Two documentary This World: The Shame of the Catholic Church. Father Eugene Greene of Donegal liked to fiddle with altar boys, and he knew how to go about it. He’d invite one of them to drive his car. That’s pretty exciting when you’re 12 years old – and an honour, too, given that it’s Father’s car. "Both hands on the wheel!" said the priest. And then he’d reach over. I don’t think I need say any more.
There have been so many television exposés of Catholic clerical paedophilia that diminishing returns set in. Like doctors desensitised to suffering because it follows predictable patterns, we get used to the sight of middle-aged men choking back tears as they describe the residue of anger and shame left by their clerical abusers. That we’ve witnessed variants of this scene so often is, in itself, evidence of the depth and breadth of the Church’s paedophile undergrowth during the heyday of the abuse (at least of the abuse we know about), in the 1970s and 80s.
In the 21st century it takes an extremely well-made programme or one containing important new information to produce the degree of shock these crimes merit. The Shame of the Catholic Church ticked both boxes. In fact, what it told us about Cardinal Seán Brady, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, leaves us in little doubt that his position is hopelessly compromised.
Alison Millar’s film made the bleak hills and moors of Donegal seem frighteningly empty. That was appropriate, since geographical isolation was useful to priests like Greene, shunted around from one remote spot to another by the hierarchy that protected him. One chapel had a small apartment built behind the altar where a visiting priest could stay if he was cut off by the weather. Fr Greene found it handy for assaulting minors, just a few feet away from the Blessed Sacrament.
The presenter, Darragh MacIntyre, is a stocky chap with a haystack of grey hair and the truculent good humour of a pub landlord. Indeed, he has run a pub in the past, and we saw him talking to a former employee who’d been assaulted by Greene. He certainly got around, did this dog-collared monster. MacIntyre spared us theatrical outrage and let the facts speak – facts he’d uncovered himself in a distinguished career as an investigative reporter.
The documentary didn’t break much new ground, but enough, I would have said, to force the Vatican to indulge in a spot of defenestration. What MacIntyre and his team have done is take a scandal that was already in the public domain and landed it right where it belongs: on the doorstep of Cardinal Brady.
In 1975, the Cardinal was a canon lawyer known as Fr John Brady. (Whether the switch from John to Seán was a career move I can’t say, but it wouldn’t have done any harm.) He heard testimony from Brendan Boland, a boy who was brave enough to come forward with tales of being molested by one Fr Brendan Smyth. Brady and other priests heard the boy’s allegations, which included the names of other boys attacked by Smyth, and swore him to secrecy.
The Church has since said that Cardinal Brady was merely a note-taker at the meeting; and Brady described himself as a “notary without powers”. What last night’s programme claimed – and it’s a devastating claim – is that Brady’s own handwritten notes at the time include the phrase “I was dispatched to investigate the complaint”, meaning the allegations made by Boland. If so, it wasn’t much of an investigation, since Smyth carried on abusing victims named by Boland, and also members of those victims’ families. For years.
Where does that leave Cardinal Brady? Being chased around Rome by Darragh MacIntyre and a camera crew, refusing to answer forceful but polite questions about the Smyth scandal. (He’s since put out a buck-passing statement laying the blame on Smyth’s ecclesiastical superiors.) Someone who did talk to camera, however, was Mgr Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s prosecutor, who’s the shape of a gnocchi dumpling. He was invited to come to Brady’s defence. Each time he deflected the question, with a silky smile.
The programme noted the unprecedented institutional collapse of the Irish Church. But, in a nice touch, it found room for some footage of Irish Catholics (including young people) on pilgrimage singing hymns to our Lady. A tough-looking priest who was with them said that these people’s faith was rooted in the earth of Ireland, not its hierarchy.
That’s just as well. Even so, they deserve better than Cardinal Brady, who should resign immediately.