Spurned priest whose truth could have changed history


The Norbertines cast out Bruno Mulvihill as resolutely as they shielded Brendan Smyth

IN LAST week’s Anglo-Celt report on past teachers of St Patrick’s College in Cavan, the former priest, Seán Brady, received little attention. Some former students, however, recalled a contentious, dedicated teacher before he was laicised (and ostracised) in 1977, for challenging his bishop’s authority over an affair now as forgotten as he is.

Little is known about his life today. Some claimed he survived by selling encyclopaedias, but all agreed his suicidal breach of discipline ended a career that once promised high office. One interviewee said he reminded him of the MUTV pundit Bertie Ahern, who likewise seemed destined for high office before destroying his career in 1986 – expelled from Fianna Fáil for questioning his taoiseach about blank cheques.

The above paragraphs are what historians call counterfactuals: exploring alternative outcomes of past events. Today Seán Brady is a cardinal, and I hope he enjoys a long retirement when his superiors deem it expedient to remove him from his untenable position.

The Norbertines removed the title “Reverend” from Brendan Smyth’s gravestone, but they should erect a memorial to the priest they ostracised with the same resoluteness as they shielded Smyth: Fr Bruno Mulvihill, who fought his superiors, here and abroad, to maintain the integrity of a once great order.

A devoted priest and brilliant scholar, Mulvihill should have soared in the ecclesiastic firmament. Instead, ostracised by his order, he wound up – like my factional Seán Brady – in London selling encyclopaedias to survive.

Norbertines were encouraged to write to Brendan Smyth in jail, but forbidden to contact Mulvihill who, his superiors felt, had committed the greater sin. Child molester is a new term in our psyche.

We have many terms for what made Mulvihill more despised than Smyth within his order: grass, informer, whistleblower. As a 19-year-old novice in 1964, Mulvihill realised Smyth was abusing children. His superiors told him to stop imagining things. Repeatedly he confronted them with the reality of Smyth’s abuse, becoming such a nuisance for telling in truth that by 1985 he was disciplined and eventually left with no option but to resign. He was an honest priest sacrificed to protect a monster and the order’s reputation.

Mulvihill’s fate awaited anyone who told the truth. As portrayed by Spencer Tracy in Boys Town, Ballymoe’s Fr Flanagan was feted when he arrived home in 1946, famous for establishing an institution that treated destitute boys with dignity.

He returned to America reviled as a stool pigeon for making a speech exposing Irish industrial schools as “big factory-like places . . . where little children become a great army of child slavery in workshops, making money for the institutions which give them a little food, a little clothing”.

He unified Irish politics, with Fianna Fáil’s Gerry Boland and Fine Gael’s James Dillon condemning his “offensive and intemperate language” as “a grave injustice . . . to the decent, respectable, honest . . . Irish Christian Brothers.”

The young Jesuit, Kenneth McCabe, got a truthful report about Irish industrial schools to Donough O’Malley in 1967. The minister was sufficiently shocked to establish a committee that abolished these lucrative sweatshops, but at the last minute McCabe was excluded from the committee. Tainted as a whistleblower, he resigned from the Jesuits and went to work as a priest with deprived London children.

I don’t know how many priests were shunned for trying to do what people feel Cardinal Brady should have done in 1975, when, as a minion apparatchik, he was ordered to ask a traumatised child invasive questions and bind him to silence.

But if he had taken moral responsibility by contacting parents and authorities – and not placed blind trust in his untrustworthy line manager, Dr Francis McKiernan – he would never have been allowed hold any senior church position.

Today nobody would know who Brady is. He made the devil’s bargain made by junior figures who realise that, only by not questioning their superiors’ failings, will they reach positions of authority where they can effect change, even if compromised along the way.

Gary O’Toole, a swimmer of huge moral courage, did what Seán Brady didn’t do: he went to parents of children trained by an abusing coach. Most parents listened politely, but confronted by the truth preferred to ignore it. It is easy to say that Seán Brady negated his moral duty in 1975 by not bypassing his superiors. Not everyone is cut out to be a Bruno Mulvihill and sacrifice everything for the truth.

I’d like to think I’d have Mulvihill’s courage, but I can’t say. Priests lead lonely, difficult lives. Maybe I’d have been a moral coward like the other Norbertines or hoped the matter was dealt with by someone else, like Seán Brady did. He needs to stand aside. But I cannot say what choice I’d have made between being a coward or a total outcast, because like most of us I’ve never had to make that stark choice.

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