Why is the story of Fr Michael Cleary still the subject of denial?
Opinion: ‘The fact is that the Dublin diocese knew about Cleary’s situation almost two years before it became a public scandal’
‘I suspect this is what really disturbs some priests: not Fr Michael Cleary’s deviance from the standards he himself preached but the yearning for a family life that, however awkwardly, he tried to honour.’ Photograph: THE IRISH TIMES
The story of Fr Michael Cleary, the superstar priest who had two sons with his housekeeper Phyllis Hamilton, is so well known that it is hard to understand why it is still the subject of denial.
But it’s an awkward story for an odd reason: Cleary, up to a point, did the right thing. One of his sons was given up for adoption. But Cleary subsequently lived with Phyllis Hamilton and with his second son Ross. With all the hypocrisy involved in his ferocious defence of church teaching on sex, he tried his best to be a husband and father. I suspect this is what really disturbs some priests: not Cleary’s deviance from the standards he himself preached but the yearning for a family life that, however awkwardly, he tried to honour.
In last month’s Trinity Sunday parish newsletter, subsequently given prominence by the Sunday Times, the parish priest of St Brigid’s in Cabinteely, Dublin, Fr Arthur O’Neill, challenges named journalists, myself included, to prove that Michael Cleary fathered children with Ms Hamilton.
‘Based on a falsehood’
He suggests that his former colleague suffered a serious injustice: “The burial of a person’s legacy deeper than their body just isn’t fair – if it’s based on a falsehood.” He implies that I and others have been guilty of “shoddy practice” in this affair. To be fair, Fr O’Neill’s challenge to the veracity of the public record in relation to Michael Cleary is not endorsed by his archbishop, Diarmuid Martin, whose spokeswoman told me that “Fr Arthur O’Neill’s publicly expressed views are his alone and are not supported by Archbishop Martin. Parish newsletters are not vehicles for the expression of personal views. Archbishop Martin fully respects Ross Hamilton’s right to privacy and his right to determine what is said publicly about him.”
At one level, the return to these questions is absurd. The implication (perhaps unintended) is that Phyllis Hamilton and Ross Hamilton, who went on the public record about their familial relationship with Cleary were either lying or deluded; so, too, the distinguished psychiatrist Ivor Browne, who spoke out at the behest of his patient Ms Hamilton, to confirm that he had personally dealt with Cleary “effectively . . . as her husband”. The DNA tests that showed Ross to be Cleary’s son were presumably wrong too. But there is something more interesting at work here: a deep reluctance to acknowledge Michael Cleary may have committed many sins but that maintaining a relationship with his partner and their son was not one of them.
The fact is that the Dublin diocese knew about Cleary’s situation almost two years before it became a public scandal.
Róisín O’Shea, who was a confidant of both Phyllis Hamilton and Michael Cleary, has told me that in 1993, after it was disclosed that Bishop Eamon Casey also had a son, they became worried that they too might be exposed: “I asked him [Cleary] to speak to his family about Ross which he agreed to do if I went to the Archbishop’s House and ‘sounded them out’ on coming clean about his two sons. The purpose of this ‘sounding out’ was that he wanted to be moved somewhere for a while to allow the furore around Casey to die down, but he wanted to choose where he went. In October 1993 I met with Msgr Alex Stenson at Archbishop’s House, who agreed to meet in confidence. I told him about Michael, Phyllis and their two sons and their fears of public exposure. His view was that until Michael told the church directly, they could not offer him, or anyone else that may be involved, any support.”
Yet, in June 1995, when the story broke, the spokesman for the hierarchy, Bishop Thomas Flynn, said that he didn’t believe it. He also said, interestingly, that the diocese had been told about Cleary’s situation in October 1993, but that the allegation had come from “an anonymous telephone caller”. He was clearly misinformed: Ms O’Shea was not anonymous, she spoke face-to-face with the most senior official in the diocese, and she did so on behalf of Cleary himself.
Again, when Ivor Browne, fearing for Ms Hamilton’s health, went public in support of her story, Bishop Flynn described him as neither an independent nor a credible witness. It is worth noting that at no time did the church actually deny that Cleary was Ross’s father – it merely insinuated that there was something dodgy about the witnesses who said he was. It is this strategy that Fr O’Neill has revived – he does not actually say that the Cleary story is wrong, merely implies that those who wrote about it have no evidence.
This slipperiness seems to come from an inability to deal with the heart of the whole episode: a man’s yearning to be a husband and father.
Cleary’s saving grace was that his hypocrisy eventually stopped at his own doorstep. Given what we know about what some of his colleagues were up to, his “sins” were small. He couldn’t live by rules that kept him from sexual and fatherly intimacy. Most Catholics, I suspect, would now say “so what?” It’s surely time the church said the same thing.