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.