Sunday 25 February 2018

Father Cleary was a fantastic husband and father

He can be accused of hypocrisy, yet Father Michael Cleary was right not to turn his back on the woman and child he loved

Antonia Leslie and Ross Hamilton
Antonia Leslie and Ross Hamilton
Ross Hamilton family photo
Bishop Casey and Fr Michael Cleary

Antonia Leslie

In the current climate of despair and disbelief, as more and more revelations of crimes by church and state against society's most vulnerable women and children emerge, attacks on the Catholic Church, its institutions and key individuals are to be expected.

I am no lover of the Catholic Church myself. I could write books, never mind articles, on my disdain for the church, its history and what I see as the hijacking of the Christian faith and subsequent conversion of a belief system into a control system with the main purpose to bring in income from the collapsing Western Roman Empire, starting in 380AD.

This generalisation of the Catholic Church's reason to be, naturally, does not take into account the many genuine, good, devout, kind and spiritual lay people, nuns, priests, saints and church elders who have lived and worked within the church.

A couple of weeks ago, Father O'Neill of St Brigid's church in Cabinteely, Dublin, called out 40 journalists, including Fintan O'Toole, claiming they had falsely reported on the now, quite old story of the infamous Father Michael Cleary, his housekeeper/wife Phyllis Hamilton and the paternity 'claims' of their sons Douglas Boyd Barrett and Ross Hamilton. Ross responded by stating that Fr O'Neill must not have the full facts.

Indeed, there was a paternity test carried out. A court of law, back during the time when the whole scandal and ensuing legalities were current, ruled that on the basis of a test on Ross's DNA and DNA tissue that had been found in St Vincent's hospital, belonging to Fr Cleary after his cancer biopsy, were a match and that Ross was without doubt, Michael Cleary's son.

I share a house with Ross. He has become like family to me. I know the story of his childhood first-hand. I know what life was like for him, growing up in his own 'family home', his relationship with his mother and father, the trauma of losing them both at a very young age.

Ross Hamilton family photo


I know the emotional damage and toll left on him by the media fanfare and struggle with the church for vindication after he and his mother were branded liars and profiteers. I also know the impact of growing up, living a lie, guarding unfathomable secrets, feeling shame, enjoying certain notoriety, confusion, abandonment, you name it: but it's not Ross I want to talk about here. It's Fr Cleary himself. Because after all the valid criticisms of Michael Cleary's hypocrisy with his extreme criticism of the sexual mores of young women at the time and how he presented himself to the public as an arch-upholder of Catholic morals, and never publicly acknowledging his relationship with Phyllis or his children, I want to come to his defence.

In his duties, he was an excellent priest. He was close to his parishioners, very involved in their everyday lives and was the go-to man for any problem, no matter how big, small or ungodly. His Masses were packed to the rafters.

Fr Cleary was the youngest of a family of five children and being the only boy, he was adored by women from a very young age and he got away with murder. He grew up a natural performer and loved being the centre of attention, but I don't believe it was in a selfish egotistical way. I think he just learnt from a young age that performance was expected of him. Sure, it feels good to be able to make people 'Ooh and Aaw', but I believe Michael was like most young males growing up in a strong matriarchal background, seeking constant approval and validation, by being the entertainer.

He should never have become a priest in the first place, but he did, because it was expected of him by his family. He basked in the 'customer care' aspect of his ecclesiastical life and still found ways to pursue a career in the public eye as an entertainer.

He toured as the 'Singing Priest', a cabaret act, where he did stand-up comedy and sang in venues as far and wide as Las Vegas and headlined the Sydney Opera House. He sold best-selling records. He had his own late-night radio show on 98FM. So a dour and pious country parish priest Fr Michael Cleary was not.

Whether he was a celibate priest before he met the young and, yes, vulnerable Phyllis McDaid when she was only 17, who knows. Personally I doubt it, but he did fall head over heels in love. Did he take advantage of her youth, troubled past and misplaced trust in him? Yes, of course he did and this is the only part of their story that I have a big issue with. But she says she fell in love with him instantly and when he died, she never recovered. Six years later, she died of ovarian cancer, but on a more subtle level, it was death by broken heart.

There are priests who sleep around. I had a conversation once with a young man who trained to be a priest in Maynooth who said he never got laid as much in his life as during those years.

Many priests father children. The Vatican has its own special department that deals with the welfare and financial pay-outs of all the 'children' of the church, who seem to be more numerous in Italy, Latin America and Africa.

In the early Roman Catholic Church, priests could marry. This was stopped because, being a financial institution, succession rights to money and property became an issue.

So compared to the vile crimes of child rape, neglect and abuse that were rampant within the church and of which the church seemed happy to cover up, Fr Michael Cleary's secret life of loving husband and doting father seems minuscule and of a different world.

Most priests, who have affairs, abandon their lovers and want nothing to do with their offspring, should there be children as a result of their transgressions. Fr Michael Cleary stood by his woman, secretly married her, performing the ceremony himself. Phyllis bore a child, Douglas, who was given up for adoption, and soon after, Phyllis became pregnant again with Ross.

Ross was put briefly into foster care and then taken to Phyllis's sister to be looked after in Limerick. Phyllis went to the US to work as a carer. Yet Fr Cleary, so distressed at giving up his wife and children, went and retrieved Ross and brought Phyllis home from the States a year later.

It was too late for Douglas who had already been legally adopted. Fr Cleary was torn between duty to the church and having a heart. His heart won out.

Fr Cleary then embarked on this crazy but perfect plan. Phyllis told everyone she had been married to a Mr Hamilton - she changed her name by deed poll - and was divorced and had had a child.

The plan to bring Ross and Phyllis home and raise Ross in a family environment, within the family home, worked. The cover story seemed plausible to all who weren't in the know and Michael, Phyllis and Ross lived as mum, dad and child, not just behind closed doors as Fr Cleary was always by Ross's side and took him with him wherever he went. Fr Cleary was as besotted with Ross as he was with Phyllis. Everyone else believed he was a great substitute dad to his housekeeper's fatherless son.

So hypocrisy and lying aside, here we have a man who did the right thing by his woman and child. He supported them financially, mostly with his own money as he was earning good money from his showbiz career.

He was a loving husband and father. Was this not the godlier thing to do? Should he have turned his back on them, ignoring his child and pay Phyllis to be quiet and go away? Michael Cleary has been called a coward for denying publicly that Ross was his child.

Everyone assumed he was too scared of the scandal and a life of public shame and disqualification from the church. I believe that his denial was to save Phyllis and Ross from exactly the furore and emotional damage that ironically happened anyway.

He knew he was dying for a long time. He knew they would be left alone to face the flack if it ever came to light. He knew that Phyllis would be vilified and life for Ross would become insufferable. Maybe, just maybe, this was a bigger motive for his staunch denials than self-preservation?

The modern church, still riddled with scandal and horrific skeletons crashing out of gruesome closets at every juncture, is desperately trying to modernise and become more down to earth, realistic and human.

Maybe it should look again at Michael Cleary and recognise a priest who was as human as his flock and did the wrong thing by loving a woman and having children, yet the right thing by being a husband, father and provider as well as trying to protect his wife and child from the exposure and scandal that eventually befell them? For this he has been remembered by many as a villain.

Sunday Independent

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