Press Column

The Independent famously redefined what a newspaper picture could do with huge, blacks and white shots, at once striking and delicate. Now its pages are full of black-and-white ads for consumer goods, aimed really at readers of the Daily Mirror, and the large photographs are mostly colour, but every once in a while there is a glimpse of past glories. Saturday’s paper had a magnificent shot of Fr Brendan Smyth being led into a Dublin court. Smyth was the paedophile Belfast priest who managed to continue abusing children for 36 years because — it seems — the natural instinct of all powerful Irish Catholics was to protect the clergy from scandal. In 1994, the Fianna Fail government fell when its reluctance to extradite him became known: it was the symbolic end of Catholic Ireland. On Friday, he was jailed for 12 years, and the Independent’s story was illustrated with a five-column picture of the priest apparently trying to headbutt the cameraman, with his eyes wide and glittering with hate and anger. On either side, policemen pull him back by his handcuffed arms. Their faces are concentrating, almost abstracted, like men at work everywhere. In the background, behind Smith’s shoulder, a man in a tweed jacket holds his chin and watches. It is one of the most powerful news pictures I have ever seen. The photographer, Steve Humphreys, works for the Irish Independent

In the Guardian’s picture, Smith seemed just a jovial, very fat man. I am not sure which was more frightening.

The Guardian had turned him into a double story with Rudy Kos, an American paedophile Catholic priest, who may have been the only man in the last three decades to have left marriage for the priesthood. Had the diocese of Dallas contacted his ex-wife, they would have learnt that he had served a year in a young offenders’ institution for molesting a neighbour boy while still in his tens. But instead, they just banged through the annulment without contacting her and went on covering up for him for years. So the award against the diocese of £73m was not as ridiculous as it seems.

The paedophile priests are a difficult story to get right, because of the natural human tendency to generalise. Newspapers amplify all the indefensible habits of human thought — that is why we find them simultaneously repulsive and fascinating — and one of these is a yearning to attach emotionally valid labels to everything. A term such as "priest" cannot be simply a job description, or even a theological term. It must carry values. So when we find evil priests it seems impossible to avoid either supposing that all or most priests are like that, or that the evil men involved are not really all that evil. The coherence of the label "priest" seems to demand one or the other error. So when there was a rash of these stories two or three years ago, a lot of Catholics were justifiably upset that it seemed that every one of their priest was at it with the choir. The backlash to that makes it easy to forget just how bad the bad ones were — and how many of their activities were covered up.

Nuns make inspiring criminals. The Times, unbylined, carried the story of Sr Annuntiata of the Daughters of Joseph and Mary, a 72-year-old prison visitor who has been doing what she can to help lifers at Kingston prison in Portsmouth for nearly thirty years. A new guard made the mistake of demanding to search her basket on a recent visit, and she was found to be smuggling tobacco, eggs and meat in, given a police caution and banned for the prison. Since then she and her friend and co-smuggler Sister Anna have become recluses according to the story. Their superior, Sister Evelyn, said "The sisters had no bad intentions and meant no harm. Their overall and consuming aim is to be able to contribute towards giving some hope and dignity to the needy at any and all levels." If this government has any interest in promoting Christian behaviour, it will put both women on the next honours list.

The religious press is full of people who dream of moonlighting on the national papers; the Independent last year was full of people wanting to get columns in the religious press. Jack O’Sullivan, a leader writer, is also a guide to modern life in the Catholic Herald and last week was doing the television column, where he, too, came back to the usefulness of nuns as smugglers, when you can’t get Princess Diana. "Couldn’t the Princess put herself forward to smuggle a few spliffs in for the rest of us, who can’t keep an innocent look on our faces going through customs? In the old days, the trick was to nab a nun on the runway to carry through that extra bottle of whisky but, sadly, they don’t do dope."

This was, I suspect, a small revenge of Jack’s upon the departed editor Charlie Wilson, who took a Daily Mail line on this as on all other issues: when Jack suggested that the paper write a leader pointing out that Ecstasy hardly ever kills people, Charlie replied: "You can write it in the dole queue, laddie."

The lack of domestic religious news this week is quite deliberate. There wasn’t any. The nearest to it came in Robert Hardman’s notebook in the Daily Telegraph, where he took time off to remark on "the ghastliness of the vicar of Tetbury. Occasionally, we read of vicars berating a parishioner in a parish magazine, but |I can think of no clergyman who routinely charges on to the national airwaves to slag off one of his flock as the Rev John Hawthorne does."

But not even this could compare with a paragraph in the Guardian’s "Jackdaw" section, a great advance in journalism, where you simply reprint other people’s stories with credit, rather than going to the trouble of rewriting them. This one came originally from Newsweek magazine. "A life-saver of a different kind, Testamints may be the world’s first Christian breath-freshener." Each mint is imprinted with a cross, and each packet has a Bible verse printed on it. But the thing I like best is that the Testamints use no sugar. They are artificially sweetened.

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