In the week beginning May 12th I was charged by Joseph O’Leary in the Irish Times with making a scathing commentary on the relationship of Fr Michael Cleary and Phyllis Hamilton – on the website of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) – and with showing scant sympathy or compassion for those involved in that relationship.
I append below a link to that whole discussion, and ask anyone (who has the time) to feed back to me their own conclusions.
I was responding on the ACP site to a thread that asked if Catholicism is now seen as more-or-less irrelevant in Ireland. I offered the opinion that, if this view is to be countered, we Catholics all need to find a deeper integrity and to avoid ‘bad religious theatre’.
As an example of the latter I referred to ‘the Michael Cleary phenomenon’. I meant by this the obvious contradiction between Fr Michael Cleary’s high media profile as a proponent of official church teaching on sexuality, and his private life. (It is surely obvious now that had Ireland known in 1979 what it came to know about Fr Cleary in 1993, he would not have featured on global media in 1979 as part of Ireland’s official welcome in Galway for Pope John Paul II.)
The issue for me was not Fr Cleary’s character, still less that of his partner, Phyllis Hamilton. It was the impossibility of reconciling his public message and posture with his private life – an issue not of private individual morality but of institutional credibility.
In the discussion that followed on that ACP thread, the question arose of the beginnings of Fr Cleary’s relationship with Phyllis Hamilton (aged 17 when they met), and with it the question of the behavioural guidelines to be followed by clergy in such situations today. As this is an ongoing matter of real concern, and as Joseph O’Leary seemed to me to underestimate the problematic nature of a sexual relationship developing out of such an encounter (especially with one so obviously vulnerable as the 17-year-old Phyllis Hamilton), serious alarm bells rang for me. The absence of a far more guarded clerical view on that issue on this ACP discussion raised for me the question: what’s the ACP’s position on that issue anyway?
My alarm deepened when that request was simply blanked by the ACP leadership – even when it was made directly to the ACP’s Contact email address. Would an acknowledgement, at least, not have been warranted?
For the record, I think it very possible that Fr Michael Cleary was also a ‘vulnerable adult’ in 1968 when, aged 34, he met Phyllis Hamilton, and that he probably also deserves compassion for the misfortune that befell. (Phyllis was then emerging from psychiatric care following childhood abuse.)
However, it is for that very reason – that a double vulnerability is likely to exist in such situations – that explicit guidelines are needed for clergy in such encounters – and are in fact under development in Northern Ireland at this time.
Unfortunately the remit of the church’s safeguarding body, the NBSCCC, does not permit it to develop such guidelines for clergy throughout Ireland. But that would not prevent the ACP from producing and publishing its own guidelines for its reported 1,000 plus members. (It could very easily do that in consultation with, for example, Ian Elliott – now freed from his commitment to the NBSCCC.)
However, I must leave it to others to tell me if I need to revise my view of this whole exchange. The entire discussion involving Michael Cleary on the ACP website can be found at the following link: