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ALL IN THE PAST
CHRISTMAS FICTION A PARABLE BY EAMONN McCANN
Eamonn McCann, 14 Dec 1994
DECLAN HAD been a troubled man even before the mother of the child came to see him to tell of her quivering under tables, and the terrible screams in the night, and the way she would rail and curse against priests, using words which sent out shudders of shock, coming from a child so young who had so lately been sweet and tender and even-tempered. At the time, he’s been half expecting something like this.
Amid the gathering rumours of the scandal about Joey McMullen, he had been tormented by thoughts of his own furtive sexuality, besieged by fear that that, too, would become a matter for open speculation in the parish if the story about Joey hit the newspapers. He had had a miserable sense that there were suspicions about him already.
They should never have sent McMullen out into this parish teeming with children. He might have meandered through life as a priest if they’d let him stay in the monastery, mildly eccentric and sad, probably, but safe from the world and children safe from him.
But that’s not the way the powers-that-be in the Church handle things. They know best, so they think, cut off in their velvety world, dealing in power politics, talking over whiskey about Vatican personalities and arcane aspects of changing Church policy, irritated when compelled to put their faces out into the rough, real world where ordinary priests did their best.
There was a shortage of manpower in the parishes, still is, everyone knew that, and Joey McMullen had been filling in no real function in the monastery. That’s the way they would have looked it. Just a matter of efficient administration to try him out in a parish, see how he managed.
They’d been told by the PP even before he arrived to keep an eye on him, had even tracked him around the parish and noted the houses he went into. Declan had gone to families himself and told them not to allow Joey in if he called casually, hinting that he was a bit of an oddball who would latch onto them if he was encouraged, and plague them. He’d thought he sensed that some of the mothers knew there was more to it, that they were being warned. But he’d never said anything straight out. How could he?
Now it had come to this. He felt empty in the pit of his stomach as he listened to the bishop going straight down the line, that the Church had handled the issue badly but that that was in the past. Now that it understood better, it would cooperate with investigations. But the full truth wasn’t being told. They were clinging to the fact that only one incident had come out, so far. They were saying nothing about the risk they knew they’d taken in sending him up here in the first place, or about the agitated meetings with the bishop in the weeks before he’d been bundled off to the clinic in England after the priests themselves had reported the complaints.
It was all a sham, and he felt a sham himself, knowing what he knew. And then there’d been the gnawing memory of his own long affair, a love affair he supposed, with Father Sean, going all the way back to their days together in Maynooth, and the bitterness that had soured that relationship when he’d gone off with young Rooney, who then went haywire at the college in Rome on account of it and had been picked up by the police trawling around the Coliseum and tried to kill himself. He couldn’t be content all that wouldn’t come out now, with all the publicity focused on priests and newspapers scrambling for new stories.
He was lucky in a way to be out of there now in a rural parish, even if he’d been angry at the move at the time, three years ago, bitter that he was being shunted out of sight. There was nobody left in the parish now who had been there in Joey’s time and knew directly what had happened. He wouldn’t have been able to say anything publicly anyway. They’d all been warned. Uno duce, uno voce, as the phrase goes, unless you’d cleared every word with the new bishop. Sing dumb.
It was all dispiritingly different from the vision of priesthood he’d had when he first decided he had a “vocation”. He’d experienced it as a deep idealism, and it had made him feel good. Maybe it also had to do, it was hard to disentangle the thoughts now, with him knowing even then that he was gay. Not that he knew the word in that connotation. But he was aware of not feeling attracted to girls around the street in the same way as the others, and that that somehow made the priesthood seem even more of a natural path.
It was at Maynooth that he discovered that, to the students, relationships with sex involved weren’t uncommon among a particular set. That’s when he and Sean started. It didn’t seem so terrible there, as if the fact that it was enclosed within their own world which was half secret anyway eased the wrong, made it almost seem an element of a separate priestly brotherhood. But he regretted that he’d ever gone going off with young Rooney, and the terrible mess it led to, and the horror that could easily have happened.
Sean had a high position in the college now, although they never talked about their past when they met, but arranged it so that they were hardly ever alone together when they chanced into the same company, which would be too edgy for either of them. They lived as if it had never happened. But Rooney, he never got over it. It was the reason for the drinking which had wrecked him, no question.
He wondered how much the fear that his own past might be exposed had affected the way he’d handled things after the child’s mother had come to him. He’d gone to the bishop straight away. Nobody could ever accuse him of doing nothing. And that was the right thing for a priest to have done. It was the correct procedure. It wasn’t really his position to interfere afterwards in the way the bishop dealt with it. That isn’t how the Church works. People don’t know how lowly the position of a priest is, how much of a dictator bishops are in their own dioceses.
But even so. Bundling Joey over to England when the suspicions grew too much, they all knew in the parochial house that that wasn’t enough, they’d said it to one another, privately. And then when it started to come out years later, when the mother came to him and it wasn’t suspicion any more, just checking with the abbot that Joey was still behind closed walls as you might say, that wasn’t good enough either. They knew enough to know that there might have been other cases, that was the classic pattern.
But nobody wanted to look into that, none of them were willing to face anything unless they were forced. They’d let it go for another three years again, until they were left with no choice on account of the publicity but to come out with something for public consumption. Even now, they were shifting and stone-walling as far as they were able to. It was all damage limitation.
If there hadn’t been that darkness from his past inside of him, would he have tried to do more at some point? Lifted the phone to a newspaper, or even written a letter to the bishop complaining at the way it was all being brushed to one side? He didn’t know. But he couldn’t say for certain, and that was tormenting him deep at the core of his being, and likely always would. He’d never believed when he went away to be a priest that this would be how it felt.