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Standing up for the vulnerable

08 March 2013

Painful story: The Observer on Sunday

Painful story: The Observer on Sunday

THIS week belonged entirely to Catherine Deveney, who broke the Cardinal O'Brien story, and, in a series of follow-ups, demonstrated exactly how to handle difficult and painful stories. Not by coincidence, the Roman Catholic Bishops' press office in Scotland gave a masterclass in blustering and disingenuous aggression.

Deveney's second piece in The Observer was absolutely damning. It makes clear the irony that the Cardinal was publicly - rather than privately - sacked not for groping his priests, but for questioning the celibacy rule in an interview with the BBC. Until then, the Papal Nuncio had proposed to hush up the sacking: the Cardinal's resignation would have been quietly accepted, and he would have retired to a life of prayer and penitence, after attending and voting at the conclave.

"The first response the complainants received from the nuncio said O'Brien should continue to go to Rome because 'that will make it easier to arrange his retirement to be one of prayer and seclusion like the Pope'. The complainants recognised church subtext. In a message to me, one wrote: 'This is saying, "Leave it to us to sweep it under the car-pet and you can forget about it. It will fade away as if we have dealt with it." Not acceptable.'"

Only after the Observer interview was it publicly announced that the Cardinal would be retiring. At that point, he made things worse by claiming that his original denial was because the allegations were non-specific and anonymous. This is simply untrue: the first press-office response had not been that the claims were vague and anonymous; instead, it stated: "The Cardinal is consulting his lawyers. These claims are contested and should not be published."

Deveney again: "Let us be clear about one thing: the three priests, and one former priest, who have made complaints are not anonymous. They have given sworn, signed statements to the papal nuncio.

"The unnerving thing about the hunt to 'out' these men (my phone has not stopped ringing with offers to 'make it worth my while') is that it suggests people who have suffered traumatic events have no rights over how to tell their story, or how much information is made public. We demand not just that the appropriate authorities know names - we, the public, should know them, too."

This is an example of honourable behaviour that deserves to be praised, since it will hardly be followed. It shows just how much good journalism depends on trust and humanity. Incidentally, it also shows how worthless "objectivity" is as a standard of journalism, compared with truthfulness. Deveney has taken a moral stance, on the side of the vulnerable, not to increase their vulnerability.

Then she turned once more on the hierarchy: "They shield their own - and if you speak against them, you stop being their own. Archbishop Tartaglia of Glasgow - who caused outrage last year when he linked the tragically premature death of David Cairns MP to his homosexual lifestyle - publicly said prayers for the Cardinal at mass in Edinburgh after being named as the Cardinal's temporary replacement. He invited the cameras in while he did it.

"It is right that the Cardinal is given adequate support. It is not right if the Church pretends that he is the victim in this. The gold mitre, the Cardinal's robes, do not make him more worthy of support than the men in ordinary clerical collars."

THE other really interesting piece, I thought, on all this, was Jeremy Seabrook's, on The Guardian's website. "The shift we have lived through ought perhaps to be seen not as a journey from stupidity into light, but as veering from one extreme (the cover-up of sexuality, to which it seems too many of the church hierarchy apparently still pay homage) to another, where sex is the primary purpose of our relationships and to claim otherwise is to be deluded or hypocritical.

"[But] The knowingness of contemporary life is not the same thing as wisdom. . . Our version of 'reality' is not quite the 'natural' and inevitable consequence of development, enlightenment or knowledge we imagine it to be.

"It seems that for societies to function smoothly, their peoples must generally lack significant insight into how they function, and to believe that their set of conventions represents something fundamental and universal."

SO TO Richard Dawkins's Twitter feed: "Haven't read Koran so couldn't quote chapter and verse like I can for the Bible. But often say Islam greatest force for evil today."

If the royalties ever dry up, at least he'll find plenty of work as a taxi driver.

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