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‘He was encouraging people to take a vow of celibacy, and he was abusing them at night-time’

Radio: Tales of the late theologian Jean Vanier’s sexual abuse of young women prompt deja vu all over again for Joe Duffy

It’s a story depressingly familiar to listeners of Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays): a respected pillar of the Catholic Church, famed for his kindliness, is revealed to be a serial sexual abuser. So when Joe Duffy ponders damning findings about the late theologian Jean Vanier he can be forgiven for sounding a weary note. “Here we go again,” he says with a sigh.

And go he does. The host spends much of the week discussing the French-Canadian founder of L’Arche, an international network of communities for the intellectually disabled, who has been found to have sexually abused young women volunteering at his communes. Though Vanier’s transgressions occurred in France, where they’ve been detailed by a commission of inquiry – “God knows we’ve had enough of them in Ireland,” Duffy remarks – he enjoyed a near-saintly status here from the 1970s on, thanks to the work of L’Arche at its Irish communities. As the host mournfully asks, “Is there any Catholic institution that has not been sullied at this stage?”

Duffy’s callers, many of whom met Vanier, speak of their shock at his actions, but a tone of resignation also runs through the contributions. Ciaran remembers Vanier as “inspiring and charismatic”, and worries the revelations will diminish his achievements, noting that there’s “light and shade” in everybody. Duffy isn’t so sure. “He was encouraging people to take a vow of celibacy, and he was abusing them at night-time,” he says, “Give us a break.”

Such flashes of annoyance aside, Duffy goes with the prevailing mood of rueful acceptance, focusing less on Vanier’s sexually coercive behaviour than on the impact on his reputation. The Fianna Fáil TD Cathal Crowe, a former teacher, sounds uncomfortable as he relates how Vanier features in textbooks for Confirmation classes: “We would have put him out there to the people of Ireland as someone as good as Mother Teresa.”


How things have changed. Another caller, David, recalls volunteering for L’Arche 20 years ago in France, where he saw Vanier up close. While stressing the valuable work of the commune, David compares the theologian, who died in 2019, to the serial abuser Jimmy Savile, saying his “soft power” gave him the opportunity to exploit female volunteers.

That such a comparison doesn’t raise an eyebrow with Duffy or his callers is indicative, yet again, of how tattered the church’s image has become. The fact that Duffy treats the matter in comparatively dispassionately, like just another item, is telling too. The day when such behaviour ceases to provoke shock and horror is to be avoided.

Once upon a time Brendan O’Connor (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday and Sunday) seemingly made it his business to provoke shock and horror, whether as an outspoken newspaper columnist or as a contrarian television host. But as presenter of Radio 1′s flagship weekend show, O’Connor continues to display his more reflective side, as Saturday’s thoughtful conversation with the disability activist Sinéad Burke underlines.

Burke is talking about concepts of disability and her participation in the commemorative Ulysses 2022 project, but it’s notable that O’Connor gently eases into things with less rigorous questions (such as about his guest’s association with Meghan Markle), as though fretful about scaring off listeners. He needn’t worry: the interview becomes really absorbing when host and guest get into the politics and semiotics of disability.

In the past one could imagine a contrarian O’Connor derisively snorting if someone spoke about “ownership over language”. But here he sounds genuinely engaged by Burke’s discussion of disabled people reclaiming derogatory slang or the changing definitions of disability, as personified by James Joyce’s degenerative blindness. He’s also more alive to the sensitivities of identity than his old politically incorrect image would have suggested. “What is your preferred language?” he asks.

Burke explains why she describes herself as disabled while exhibiting a robustly commonsense attitude to linguistic missteps by the able-bodied: “If we’re always nervous to say the wrong thing, we never say anything at all, and we further exclude people who have always been excluded.” It’s a smart credo for the contemporary world, one that surely finds favour with O’Connor in all his iterations.

Still, the host sounds in more relaxed form as he interviews the veteran indie band (and fellow Leeside natives) Sultans of Ping. Just as well, because the group’s singer Niall O’Flaherty cuts an entertainingly arch figure. “Are you enjoying the flurry of excitement?” O’Connor asks. “Not especially, to be honest,” replies O’Flaherty. He explains that now he’s a London-based history professor, he’s somewhat cut off, but it’s the cue for O’Connor to indulge his more acerbic side, soon making cracks about the reputed reluctance of singers to rehearse.

Far from being fazed, O’Flaherty revels in the exchanges, ruefully noting the challenges of finding a pair of black PVC trousers suitable for a man of his vintage. Along with the drummer Morty McCarthy, he sketches out the band’s history, but it’s flighty chemistry with the host that sticks in the mind. Certainly, O’Connor doesn’t want for a wide range of moods and topics.

Those wishing for more on the band are in luck, as Dancing in the Disco: The Story of the Sultans of Ping (RTÉ 2XM, Monday) recounts their tale in comprehensive manner. The documentary’s producer, Paul McDermott, adopts an unapologetically fan’s-eye perspective, his own reminiscences sitting alongside those of group members and others.

If the intricacies of the 1990s Cork music scene are laid out in occasionally overly exhaustive detail, the anecdotes evoke the grimy, loose-limbed feel of the era, while re-creating the unlikely, if brief, ascent of a band whose best-known song involves the loss of a jumper in a nightclub. Much like the Sultans themselves, it’s a shaggily idiosyncratic affair, fun and immediate. It’s deja vu to spark joy rather than despair: here we go again, indeed.