Resignations set important precedent


IF a week is a long time in politics, a month can seem more like a century in the working life of a journalist. After five weeks reluctant absence from this privileged space, I return to find an altered state. How else can one describe the news of not one, but two resignations by powerful men from public life?

This is not written in any spirit of gloating. On the contrary the decisions of Bishop Brendan Comiskey two weeks ago, and of Bobby Molloy yesterday, should be welcomed, with some gratitude, by the citizens of both parts of Ireland. Whatever the individual motives that prompted each man to act - and obviously these were a mix of political and personal pressures - the end result is the same.

A prince of the church and a senior politician have accepted responsibility publicly for their mistakes and admitted that their failures are such as to leave them no course but to give up their jobs. In a society where it is almost unheard of for public figures to accept blame, let alone resign, for their past actions, this must (surely?) have an impact on the way that church and state conduct their affairs.

The resignations appear to have taken the media and the general public by surprise. The full story of Bobby Molloy's attempts to contact a high court judge, on behalf of the defendant's relative, in an appalling case of incestuous rape, is still unfolding. But one has only to contrast the former minister's swift and dignified statement yesterday morning with the shuffling and prevarication of Ray Burke, Hugh O'Flaherty, Michael Lowry, etc., to understand the public amazement.

By contrast, the fact that both Mary Harney and Bertie Ahern had already moved to support Mr Molloy and express the view that his actions did not amount to a resigning matter came as no surprise at all. For many people it simply underlined how far the Tánaiste, despite her repeated calls for probity in public life, has fallen into line with traditional Fianna Fáil thinking on such issues.

Ms Harney was at it again yesterday in an article in this newspaper stressing the Progressive Democrats' commitment to the path of incorruptible virtue. "My vision for Ireland is for the content of our character, not just for things. I want high standards to be our starting point, our very heart and soul, our shared values," she wrote. How ironic that it should be left to Bobby Molloy, by departing from politics and from the PDs, to indicate how those words might be given practical effect.

THE case of Bishop Brendan Comiskey is rather different. His failure to deal with the case of Father Sean Fortune has caused enormous, perhaps irreparable, suffering to many innocent people. The facts have been known for a long time. My colleague, Alison O'Connor, chronicled the whole sorry story in her fine book A Message from Heaven. The BBC documentary, in which a number of Father Fortune's victims were given space to speak of their experiences, gave wider publicity to these facts.

Brendan Comiskey is not the first nor the last Irish bishop to have failed grossly in his duty to protect innocent children in cases of sexual and physical abuse. As the televised excerpts of the Hierarchy's press conference at Maynooth earlier this week demonstrated all too clearly the instinct to safeguard the institution, if necessary by protecting the abuser, still runs very deep.

Over the years Dr Comiskey has struck many of us, not exactly fulsome admirers of the Catholic hierarchy, as a humane man who has struggled to open a wider debate within the church on issues such as clerical celibacy. He is also the first Irish bishop to accept publicly that his failure to deal with the problem of child sex abuse in his own diocese renders him unfit for his holy office.

His resignation has played an important part in forcing the Irish hierarchy, some of them very reluctantly, to face up to the enormity of their responsibility for what has happened to so many Irish children over they years.

I don't want to appear starry-eyed over these events. We have yet to see whether these resignations, welcome though they may be, will have a lasting impact. Both Bobby Molloy and Brendan Comiskey had their own reasons for the decisions which they made.

MR Molloy, after 37 years in the Dáil, had not achieved the kind of status he probably felt he deserved. As a loyal member of the Progressive Democrats he was often ignored in favour of more starry performers such as Michael McDowell. He had already indicated that he was reluctant to fight another general election. He must have known that this story would run and run particularly if, as now seems likely, there is more grime in the pot.

In Bishop Comiskey's case there were even stronger reasons for throwing in the towel. Whatever the nature of the Government's proposed inquiry into clerical abuse in the diocese of Ferns, it is going to be a difficult and extremely painful experience for everybody involved. Already there are arguments over how far the bishops will be prepared to co-operate, given the Vatican's sensitivities on the issue worldwide.

Whatever the motives that prompted Mr Molloy and Bishop Comiskey to act as they did, their resignations set an important precedent in Irish public life. It will not be quite so easy in future for men and women in powerful positions to shuffle off responsibility for their own failures and misjudgments. But this will only happen if we, the public, insist that they are held to account. It is an opportunity which we must not waste.