Fr Cleary's silence in face of evil
By Mary Raftery
September 6, 2007
There is an element of rewriting history in the recent focus on the life and times of Fr Michael Cleary. While people mull over whether he was a lying hypocrite or merely a sad victim of the Catholic Church's hard line on priestly celibacy, there is a crucially important part of his legacy that has been forgotten. , writes Mary Raftery
Michael Cleary was guilty of covering up the most heinous of criminal activity. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Cleary was senior curate in Ballyfermot.
It was a position of some authority - Ballyfermot was at the time the largest parish in Dublin, with some five or six priests and a veritable army of upwards of 60 altar boys.
One of the priests there at that stage was Tony Walsh, recently ordained and full of energy.
Walsh was put in charge of the altar boys and ran the very popular children's Mass. He joined the All Priests' Show and was, like Cleary, a well-known entertainer.
He was also a serial child rapist, one of the most vicious in the history of the Archdiocese of Dublin.
His savage assaults on children spanned at least two decades, until he was finally caught and imprisoned in the mid-1990s. From 1979, Michael Cleary knew that Walsh was a paedophile. In fact, it was the Ballyfermot parish priest, Val Rogers, who had told him and asked him to deal with the matter.
Earlier that year, Walsh had targeted 13-year-old Ken Reilly, repeatedly sexually abusing him in the Ballyfermot parochial house.
Ken eventually told his mother, Ena, what was happening, and she in turn reported it first to her own parish priest in Coolock, and then to Val Rogers in Ballyfermot, who then passed it on to Michael Cleary.
Ena Reilly's description of her meeting with Cleary is instructive. She was at her wits end with young Ken, who was becoming seriously emotionally disturbed. She wanted two things from Cleary: some help with Ken, and an assurance that Walsh would not abuse another child.
"He gave me a kind of lecture," says Ena. "He asked me had Ken been told the facts of life, and I said I thought he had. And he said he could have been aroused or something.
"But then he went on to tell funny jokes that people had come to him with, he turned it into a kind of a funny mood . . . silly old talk, and I came away disillusioned with the whole thing."
Cleary, however, had a great reputation for the work he was doing with adolescents, and Ena did ask him to have a word with Ken himself.
Ken was bemused by the whirlwind who arrived in the house one afternoon. "He talked to me about the facts of life," Ken remembers, "about intimate touching between men and women, about how Tony Walsh was sorry for what he had done and was confused.
"They were the words that he used. And when he was leaving, he turned to my mother and said, 'I'm after talking to Ken there. I'm after telling him about the facts of life.' And then he marched out the door. "And I was inside going, what the hell was he talking about. It was just absolute rubbish."
Aside from the bizarre nature of this encounter, Cleary had, perhaps unwittingly, clarified a few matters for the Reillys.
Firstly, it was evident that no one doubted the veracity of Ken's account of Walsh's abuse of him, and that Walsh appeared to have admitted his crime.
Secondly, it was apparent that as far as Cleary and Ballyfermot were concerned, the matter was now concluded. Walsh remained a priest in Ballyfermot for a further seven years.
He had unlimited access to the parish children, being constantly in and out of the local primary schools. He abused well over a dozen children, including the particularly horrific and violent rape of a nine-year-old boy in the Phoenix Park.
When Walsh was finally moved in 1986, he was merely shifted to another parish, Westland Row, where he found new child victims.
He left a wake of horror, misery and suicide behind him, much of which might have been prevented had Michael Cleary acted in 1979 on his certain knowledge that his fellow singing priest was a child abuser.
Cleary was certainly by no means alone in failing to protect children from the depredations of clerical paedophiles.
But he did have one unique advantage - he was the people's darling, had an enormous media profile, and had just shot to international fame earlier in 1979 through his famous master of ceremonies role during Pope John Paul II's youth Mass in Galway.
A word from him, even the threat of publicity, could have made a profound difference to the way in which church authorities were busy covering up for child abusing priests, and humiliating victims by refusing to take them seriously.
No assessment of Michael Cleary can be complete without the inclusion of his silence in the face of such evil.