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Eilis O'Hanlon: Brady's greatest failing is that he has learnt nothing

CONTEMPT for authority has become so ubiquitous these days that it's the self-proclaimed individualists who all end up thinking and sounding alike, and those who, by remaining faithful to tradition, are actually the last remaining non-conformists.

All the same, the fact remains. Ours is an age which worships mavericks. Free thinking and iconoclasm are held up as ideals. Duty and obedience are scorned.

It's Archbishop Sean Brady's misfortune to be caught in the pincer movement between those two forces and to find himself radically at odds with his society as a result. He is clearly a man who needs the comfort and solidarity that comes from subsuming one's identity into a greater whole; who is temperamentally suited to belonging. Many priests are.

It can be a lonely job; they don't have the consolations of a nuclear family that a partner and children can bring. They rely on the company and support of other priests, becoming acclimatised together by shared experience and ritual. It's a clubbable way of living that suits many men. Sean Brady seems to be one of them.

The problem comes when what has sustained a man for decades becomes the very thing which brings about his downfall. That also seems to be the cardinal's fate.

It's not so much what he did or didn't do when (depending which version one believes) he either conducted an investigation into, or took notes at a meeting with, the victims of that loathsome scrap of human filth, Fr Brendan Smyth, in 1975.

As has been pointed out repeatedly during the week, Irish civil society failed children just as grievously and with the same nightmarish consequences. Irish governments left children at the mercy of their abusers as surely as did the church and the guards did not guard. Despite what they might now say, ordinary people turned a blind eye and colluded in wickedness too.

Sean Brady just so happens to have remained in situ to face the consequences long after senior politicians, social workers and civil servants from that era have retired from the scene. In their absence, Brady becomes a lightning rod, absorbing the anger that we feel cheated out of directing at all the dead and anonymous men and women who let this happen.

Even so, he might have a chance of coming through this dark night of the soul if he did not insist on looking baffled by criticism. It must be hurtful to face all this condemnation, as Cahal Daly also did when, after a long and distinguished career, his final public appearance led to him being heckled by the audience on The Late Late Show. Frustrating too. Brady is an ambitious man. The Eucharistic Congress is near. To have it snatched from his grasp as cardinal at the last moment would be a grievous blow.

Some of the criticism, likewise, has been over the top, and often coming from people who seem to wish nothing but ill not only for the church but for the whole edifice of faith itself. The worst offenders sound like Joseph Goebbels, whipping up Germans on the need for Catholic priests to be "radically extirpated" because of their "criminal aberrations".

Much of it feels like a transference of guilt, because we all know, as a society, there were things we could have done and we didn't do then. To protect itself, the mind projects a fantasy version of the past, one in which no one knew what was going on, so that it doesn't have to deal with its own culpability for letting children suffer.

But if Brady is baffled by us, he cannot complain if we in turn are baffled by him. It's not difficult to understand why the revelations made about his role in a 1975 cover-up should cause consternation. Child abuse is one of the worst crimes imaginable and, even if "only" by a sin of omission, he played a part in allowing it to continue.

His public reaction, however, has been that of a man who does not grasp what he's being asked, which in turn expresses itself in irritation with the questions. His very first response to the BBC's This World programme was to accuse reporter Darragh MacIntyre of misrepresenting his role in the Fr Brendan Smyth investigation. It was painful to witness. Like seeing someone jump the queue in the urge to claim victim status.

Only someone who didn't "get it" at some fundamental level could react in such a woefully inadequate way. He wasn't thinking about children at that moment, merely about himself.

I genuinely think that people just want to see a human, rather than an institutional or political, response from Cardinal Brady. He doesn't have to pretend to be an emotional incontinent, let-it-all-hang-out kind of person. That would be undignified as well as dishonest. But he should be capable of communicating, as one human being to another, how he feels about what went on back then.

That's what Fr Joe McDonald did last week, on George Hook's radio show and Tonight With Vincent Browne. Both broadcasters pressed him hard when he sought to understand and explain the cardinal's actions. A victim of childhood abuse himself, it would've been easy for him to throw stones. He'd have been an angry public's hero if he had. Instead, he refused to lie to himself that he would have been any braver in standing up to his superiors. Fr Joe is a warm and compassionate man. Not everyone is psychologically equipped to reach out as he does. But they could still learn from him in trying to humanise the story.

Brady was not only unable to do that, he then made it shockingly plain that this was the farthest thing from his mind by admitting that he wouldn't do anything different even now. Say what? He knows that silence and deference led to children being abused, but he'd do it again?

At that moment, he lost the argument. Lost the plot. He'd uttered a sentence which blew apart the Irish church's claim to have learned from its mistakes. Which is factually incorrect, it seems to me, because there is no way a new generation of priests would wish to act in this way, much less do it.

But it shone a light into his own psyche, showing a man who has stopped growing, who has shut himself off from human feeling at some point. Cardinal Brady was ultimately left looking last week like a man standing in the road, bewildered and offended, asking "What did I do?" as everyone else moves on ahead, leaving him behind.

Follow me on twitter @eilisohanlon

Sunday Independent