Stories of abuse hit home

Sat, May 5, 2012, 01:00

RADIO REVIEW:IT IS A GRIM SIGN of the times that once-taboo tales about authority figures abusing their young charges have in effect become the lingua franca of Irish radio. No matter that this sadly durable subject is painful to hear about; it is a sure-fire way to get people listening and, just as crucially, talking.

Ryan Tubridy admitted as much before a discussion on the topic on Wednesday’s edition of Tubridy (2FM, weekdays), sadly conceding that it was an “old chestnut”.

But there were several twists to an email that Tubridy read out, detailing a beating endured by an adolescent. For one thing, in a departure from last week’s dominant narrative of clerical abuse, the perpetrator was not a priest but a family man who had lashed his own son with a belt. Furthermore, the account came not from the smarting offspring but from the parent himself. Perhaps most surprisingly, the man wrote not to atone but to explain.

The 38-year-old father of two stressed in his email that he was not a violent man. But when his 13-year-old son swore at his grandmother when she asked him to clear the table, the father was “adamant he should be punished”. He marched the boy into another room, removed his belt and, “angry but controlled”, hit him 10 times. His son wept throughout – tears his father believed were caused by “disappointment in himself” – before hugging his dad afterwards.

The man said he made no excuses for his “appropriate” behaviour. Rather, he wondered why actions deemed acceptable 30 years ago should be vilified now. He had been beaten by his own father but never felt abused and, indeed, loved him.

Tubridy did not sound at ease reading out this astonishing note, but his broadcasting instincts apparently trumped personal qualms. “I’ve very strong opinions on this, but I’m going to keep them to myself, because I’d like you to tell me what you think of it,” he said, with the expectant sound of a man waving a giant red rag at a male of the bovine species.

A predictable torrent of texts followed, the majority hostile, accusing the father of child abuse and even sexual gratification. But a significant minority was in favour, a fact approvingly noted by the man when he got back in touch with Tubridy.

Otherwise, he felt he was being “unfairly judged”. To those condemning his actions, he retorted that this had been “a once-off”, before paradoxically adding that he may “do it again”, if only in extenuating circumstances. All of which sounded suspiciously like someone making excuses.

Tubridy did not initially cover himself in glory. Rather than being a gesture of neutrality, his fence-sitting came across as an act of evasive opportunism. Eventually, however, his opinions seeped out. “Anything physical against a child is too much,” he said, before making his sole reference to the controversy enveloping Cardinal Seán Brady that morning. “This country’s relationship with the child is quite disturbing,” Tubridy said. “We have the biggest carpet and brush on the planet when it comes to children.”

If nothing else, Tubridy’s show was a salutary reminder that abuse is as much a domestic problem as a clerical one.

Never one for subtle allusions, George Hook, on The Right Hook (Newstalk, weekdays), was forthright when talking about Brady’s failure to pursue evidence of Fr Brendan Smyth’s paedophilia in 1975. “It reminded me of the Nuremberg trials,” said Hook of the cardinal’s defence that he was, in effect, just following orders. Warming to the metaphor, the host then described institutional child sexual abuse as “our Holocaust”.

His righteous bombast stood in contrast to his guests, Fr Joe McDonald and the Barnardos chief executive, Fergus Finlay, who, while disagreeing about the cardinal’s culpability in the matter, engaged in respectful, intelligent debate. As it turned out, their civility was underpinned by shared experiences of abuse, though few realised this when the discussion began.

McDonald, who was regularly sexually abused by a priest as a boy, felt the cardinal’s inaction should be viewed in the context of the environment of the mid-1970s. Finlay, in turn, was against excusing anyone “on the basis that it was culture of the time”. He then revealed that he had been sexually abused by a cleric as an 11-year-old boy in 1961. “I knew it was abuse,” said Finlay. “When I told my father about it he knew it was abuse, and he knew exactly what action needed to be taken.”

It was a stunning moment, all the more powerful for Finlay’s even tone throughout. Even Hook was uncharacteristically mute. “You struck me dumb,” the presenter said. “I had no idea you suffered.”

Finlay, for his part, downplayed his experience, particularly in comparison to the suffering of victims such as McDonald. “It did not destroy my life,” he said. “I had a relationship with my father that allowed me to say, ‘Da, this is happening.’ ”

Finlay’s revelation was timely and newsworthy, but it was important for another reason: he reiterated faith in the value of a happy, supportive family home. Not everyone is so lucky.

Radio moment of the week

Covering Monday’s story about the school that refused entry to a pregnant teenager, RTÉ did not reveal the identity of the college in question. (Nor did The Irish Times.) Then Alan, a former headmaster, called Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) and let the cat out of the bag. “This just beggars belief, what I’m hearing today about St Bleep-bleep’s,” he said, as Joe Duffy tut-tutted at the slip. (Sharp-eyed readers may notice that the school’s name has been changed.) That’s live radio for you.