Elliott lets the facts speak for themselves


RADIO REVIEW:AS ANYONE WHO has endured the phrase “going forward” will know, meaningless jargon is an unavoidable irritation of modern life, with portentousness of terminology rising in direct proportion to vapidity of substance. Fans of such linguistic transgressions – or masochists, as they are sometimes known – must have been in raptures tuning into The Last Word (Today FM, weekdays) last Wednesday.

The air on Matt Cooper’s show was so thick with buzzwords – “identifying deficits”, “current practice” and, most excitingly, “objective standards-based monitoring” – that it made the most opaque corporate memo seem like a first-form reader. But Ian Elliott, the guest uttering these phrases, was not using them as a smokescreen. As the man responsible for last week’s audits on clerical child sexual abuse, the chief executive of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church was a model of openness.

Interviewed by Cooper after the publication of reports that uncovered hundreds of abuse cases in four dioceses and three religious orders, Elliott’s businesslike demeanour was almost refreshing, given the naturally charged emotions that usually dominate discussion on this matter. He calmly laid out the contents of the reports, letting the findings speak for themselves.

If Elliott avoided a judgmental tone, his host did not, asking if his guest had encountered “appropriate shame and contrition” among the church authorities. “Yes, in relation to some more than others,” replied Elliott, adding that most clergy were decent people tarnished by a minority. When the presenter asked what was to be done with those who had turned a blind eye, Elliott was unhesitating. “I believe very strongly those who have allowed harm to have occurred should be held accountable,” he said, though he noted the “infinitesimally small” number of convictions so far.

Only once did Elliott give a real hint of his personal convictions. Cooper replayed a clip from an interview given by Bishop John Kirby to The Keith Finnegan Show (Galway Bay FM, weekdays), in which he said “very little was known at the time about the insidiousness and compulsiveness of child sexual abuse” both in the church and in wider society. Kirby, who had moved child-abusing priests around parishes in his Clonfert diocese, also made the jaw-dropping assertion that he had seen paedophilia as “a friendship that crossed a boundary line”.

A shocked Elliott said he had encountered clerics who pleaded such ignorance in their defence – the same clerics who for years obsessed and promulgated on the sexual behaviour of the rest of the population – or used the excuse that no policies were in place on the matter. “I started in social work in 1972,” said Elliott, “and I didn’t need the existence of policies and procedures to be abhorred by child abuse.” For all his procedural lingo, Elliott proved a straight talker.

More conventionally outraged opinions on clerical abuse were expressed on Thursday’s Newstalk Breakfast (weekdays), though one did not necessarily expect to hear a priest voicing such strident views. Interviewed by Shane Coleman, Fr Michael Mernagh described “a culture of denial” in the church. Mernagh, who has undertaken a “walk of atonement” for abuse victims, said this delusional culture was “at the heart of the cancer at the heart of the institutional church”. He said if a full audit was done “one would find an awful lot of skeletons in the cupboards”. Though delivered in, at times, emotive language, Mernagh’s assessment was grimly plausible. If all his fellow clerics were so honest and humane, there might be no need for figures like Elliott.

Mernagh had also displayed a perhaps unnecessary parity of compassion when describing it as a “sad day” for Kirby. But when one heard the ridicule poured on the senior cleric by Sean Moncrieff (Moncrieff, Newstalk, weekdays), one almost felt a twinge of sorrow for him. The presenter read out an email from a listener in the Clonfert area who didn’t want his daughter to be confirmed by the bishop after hearing his remarks.

Going off on a riff, Moncrieff said the clergyman’s misguided view of paedophilia “doesn’t make him evil, but it makes him a stupendously stupid person”. As the girl would meet the bishop only briefly “she won’t catch the idiot off him”. It was an entertaining aside, cruel perhaps, but not a fraction as dreadful as the crimes that prompted it.

The presenter then hosted a more level-headed take on another sad chapter from our past, when he interviewed the American historian John Kelly about the Famine. Few episodes in Irish history are as loaded as the events of the 1840s, but Kelly cast an admirably analytic eye on the cataclysm, concluding that it wasn’t the deliberately British-designed slaughter some still maintain. “The effects of famine were genocidal, but the intent wasn’t,” he said.

But Kelly’s verdict was still harsh. The crown authorities, he said, exacerbated the Famine with ostensibly altruistic attempts to restructure Irish society, implemented to prevent mass emigration to Britain. “British needs were being satisfied and high-flown rhetoric was used to justify it,” he concluded, eschewing such loaded language. As this week showed, events are shocking enough on their own.

Radio moment of the week

With the Paralympics having matched the Olympics for drama, spectacle and emotion, the sports presenter Eoin McDevitt (Off the Ball, Newstalk, weekdays) highlighted another area in which the two tournaments were comparably intense. Following Oscar Pistorius’s complaints about his defeat in the 200m final, McDevitt said the South African “blade runner” had proved he was just like many able-bodied athletes: “a good old-fashioned bad loser”. No better tribute to equality of ability.

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