Was Jesus a whistleblower too?

Feb 23, 2017 | 21 comments

Retired Garda Maurice McCabe, outside Leinster House, Dublin, in 2014

On Jan 24th, 2017 the Irish Government established a commission of inquiry into the origin of false allegations of sexual abuse against the Garda whistleblower, Maurice McCabe. This is the latest in a long series of deeply depressing scandals involving all of the institutions once respected in Ireland, including the Catholic Church. Sean O’Conaill asks why integrity seems to be so rare, and how we are to find it.

Nothing in Ireland has been as dispiriting in recent decades as non-stop revelations of misuse of power and even of serious corruption in high places. All major institutions of church and civil society have been implicated. Not even the major beneficiary of these scandals, the media, have been exempt.

We have long known that all power tends to be abused, but Irish revelations of abuses of power have become almost epidemic in the lifetime of everyone born before 1990 – so much so that we can come to wonder, like Diogenes, whether an honest individual can any longer be found in high places. That whistleblowers – those who shout ‘stop’ to abuses of power – still do surface is a bright light in the darkness, but Garda Maurice McCabe’s experience of malicious ‘blowback’, of the most damaging of false allegations and even possibly of high-level ‘fitting up’, is truly frightening. Everyone who might still be called upon to be a whistleblower in Ireland knows now what could happen to themselves in the very worst case.

The Enlightenment’s solution to abuse of power

The standard secular solution to this problem of abuse of power is to divide and limit power by making it always subject to accountability. Strictly applied this means that everyone exercising power must be ready to account for their actions to someone else, and ready to resign or be sacked if found wanting. Yet here again there is huge depression in Ireland over apparent mass immunity from the accountability principle. The guiltiest individuals will take great pains to hide their tracks, while tribunals of inquiry are always costly and tend to grant immunity to witnesses in exchange for testimony. This then leads to a dispiriting popular verdict on all of Ireland’s educated elites: ‘those people always look out for one another’. In reviewing the Garda McCabe case, and an earlier Garda precedent, the ‘Kerry Babies’ case of 1984, the historian Diarmaid Ferriter concluded recently that the McCabe commission may unveil the truth of what happened – but (he finished) ‘don’t expect justice‘. There is a real danger of the total victory of cynicism in Irish society – even a loss of faith in human nature itself.

Secularism has never stemmed the human desire for privilege

No Irish secularising intellectual has yet pointed out that this near-despair directly challenges the basic optimism of the secular Enlightenment – the belief that human nature, freed by science-based ‘reason’ from religious faith, can build Utopia. Mass rational education alone, it was argued by some in the 1700s, would give everyone an honest livelihood, put an end to all crime and social hierarchy – and create a society at perfect peace. That same faith in reason, to the exclusion of any faith in God, still undergirds the Irish secularising establishment today. I haven’t yet seen any persuasive rationalist explanation of the complete failure of that optimistic 18th century prophecy.

What the secular Enlightenment ‘got wrong’, it seems to me, was to suppose that, freed from ‘faith’ by ‘reason’, everyone – with just enough education – would become heroically virtuous. Those secularising evangelists did not see how dependent we are on others to shape even our desires for wealth and status.  They hugely overestimated the capacity of any of us to stand freely apart from the human context in which we find ourselves. That we are always hugely dependent upon peer groups for self-esteem and self-fulfillment – and even for a sense of personal security and safety – was overlooked. That mass education would produce not equality but a sense of entitlement to privilege among the most successful, was not foreseen.

If we abandon all faith that there can be any higher power than this ‘society’, we may then, as individuals, be totally bereft of support in the face of ‘peer pressure’ – the pressure simply to conform to the norms of the group we aspire to belong to. Secular egalitarianism has never found a cure for the human desire for social superiority, but still cannot acknowledge this failure.

Catholic hierarchy was also a corruptive force in Ireland

The former Magdalen Laundry, Sean McDermott St., Dublin

Far from advocating here a restoration of the power of ‘the church’ as it was before 1992, I would argue instead that the Catholic clerical establishment in Ireland was also oblivious of its own power to corrupt individuals – especially by exaggerating the individual Catholic’s obligation to defer to higher clerical authority in matters of moral judgement, as a matter of faith. Why else would no cleric – and no strong lay voice – have cried ‘shame’ when defenceless young women were imprisoned and shamed by the Magdalen system? Why else would whistleblowers have been so scarce among the religious orders that ran the institutions for helpless children indicted in the Ryan report of 2005? Why else would Bishop Jim Moriarty have been the sole bishop to confess serious personal failure in the handling of clerical abuse in the Dublin archdiocese, following the Murphy report of 2009? And why else would Dublin Gardai in some instances have failed to investigate credible allegations of criminal clerical abuse, at the request of a bishop?

The ‘prevailing culture’ that Bishop Moriarty agreed he had failed to challenge in Dublin was precisely analogous to the culture of toleration by the Gardai of the abuses that Maurice McCabe reported, while the harm caused to countless children by clerical failure was far greater than the harm caused by Garda inconsistency in the awarding of motoring penalty points. We must never forget that the Irish clerical establishment left it to outraged Catholic families to blow the whistle on the fact of – and the deadly dangers of – clerical sexual abuse of children.

This blindness, to the harm caused to the church – the people of God – by the equation of faith with unquestioning obedience to clerical authority, continues to this day. And this in turn is surely the reason that the full contemporary significance of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth is neither seen nor preached by our clergy, in the context of the growing crisis of hope in Irish civic society. Never can it be seen or said (at least in my experience) that in Gethsemane Jesus was resisting precisely that fear of ‘the world’ – the threat of ‘blowback’ from our always hierarchical human power systems – that confronts every genuine whistleblower today.

Instead it is (or at least it was until recently) far more typical of clergy to contrast ‘the world’ with ‘the church’, to characterise ‘the world’ as at best ‘dangerous’ and at worst ‘profane’ while ‘the church’ – always to be equated with clergy – was to be seen always as ‘holy’ and unquestionable. ‘Worldliness’ got translated, mistakenly, as merely getting ‘caught up’ in the pleasures and distractions of the ‘material world’, while Jesus and his clergy could necessarily have their minds only on ‘heavenly things’. In accepting crucifixion Jesus was merely atoning for human historical sin at his Father’s request, not setting an inspiring example of courage and integrity for all of us to try to emulate.

Nothing could be better calculated to make the story of the crucifixion totally incomprehensible to the modern mind – and to make the Catholic sacramental system irrelevant to the crisis of hope that afflicts Ireland today.

Jesus the abused whistleblower

That religious system that Jesus opposed was also abusive of power. It excluded the poorest from a sense of God’s compassion, by imposing money barriers to divine mercy. It shut the Temple door on all of the ‘unclean’, including lepers and menstruating women. What if we were to see Jesus in Gethsemane as an exemplary whistleblower – awaiting the most excruciating humiliation for his rejection of that oppressive religious system? What if we were to see him as standing in solidarity with all who were and still are excluded and oppressed – including the church’s own victims? What if we were to see him at the side of Garda Maurice McCabe – and at the side of the falsely accused priest as well as the clerical abuse survivor – when their trials are at their worst?

In the world you will have tribulation, but be courageous. I have overcome the world.’ (John 16: 33). What if we could believe that here Jesus is speaking precisely to this time in Ireland today – and speaking also for the power of belief in a transcendent reality to give us the integrity we so desperately need, the grace to withstand the world – i.e. ‘the prevailing culture’ of our own peer group’s abuses, whatever those may be – in church or business, bank or civil service, TV studio or political party, policing unit or even Olympic sport?

And what if Jesus’ strength – the grace of integrity – is also the grace on offer in the Eucharist – for those who can believe these things? Those given charge of the Eucharist have surely a special obligation to discover its relationship to the supreme moral problem of our time – the problem of maintaining integrity in the face of corrupt power. That it could have no such relationship is unthinkable.  It is far more likely that integrity and holiness are one and the same.


  1. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    Oh, I’m going to have to read this one again because I think I may hear someone railing against the ruling elite. It’s about time.

    I wonder if in a completely historical context, Jesus and his band of merry-men could have been advocating for a “money-free” society during a time when the elite were responsible for the offences against their own and also the militarisation in response to a seemingly growing threat.

    Something tells me that Judas Iscariot and the “Sicarii” were hired by Rome to inflict violence on one and all to create the environment needed for militarisation and taxation to flourish.

    It reminds me of today where Syria is at war yet in Golan Heights, LaFarge is paying taxes to ISIS so that they can keep operations up to par. It’s amazing what industrialisation can make happen.

    The bible is the most anti-militaristic, anti-currency book that exists, that’s for sure.

  2. Teresa Mee

    Incisive and powerfully challenging both ‘them’ and’us’.

    I’ll be back.

  3. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    Second to my point above which is fiction at best although upon closer inspection, there could be an underlying truth, I’d like to also advise that if any of you prescribe to the theory of mimetic desire and truly know how it is perpetuated (keeping in mind Francis’s current orders to one and all under the Catholic umbrella), the only way to push through its negative impact onto a positive one will be through a forced ascendance of a morally superior character (individual) sadly. The alternative options do not work as sad as that is to say.

    A like story different time but equally important. We just have to wait word on him walking on water and healing the sick.

    In the meantime, I recommend some light reading on “generative anthropology” to obtain a clearer insight on mimetic desire and how it is a little more complicated than we think it is. There is a reason why we sit back in awe over its creation.

    • Sean O'Conaill

      ‘… forced ascendance of a morally superior character …’

      a) A resort to force nullifies immediately any claim to moral superiority.

      b) It also models the use of force, perpetuating the mimetic cycle of violence.

      I fear you haven’t yet fully understood mimetic theory, Lloyd Allan. There is no violent way of applying it to the abuse of power. That’s why Jesus could not do that, and why he is an unambiguous model of moral superiority confronting injustice. That is the challenge, I fear. There are no superhero shortcuts.

      • Lloyd Allan MacPherson

        Well, in your mind, there are no super-hero shortcuts but everyone looks for the super-hero Sean. I understand mimetic desire to be a component of our behaviour (and a positive one when the super-hero comes to power which is never done by the elite relinquishing control – it is forced upon them by a burgeoning group of supporters).

        What makes mimetic desire negative Sean?

        Did Girard see it as negative? Who is talking about a violent way of applying it to the abuse of power? When I say that if 100,000 people (priest or lay) got behind “an ideal” that was sound strategy for the way forward and wanted to perpetuate this model, because they would be acting mimetically, this is now a negative? Is that what you mean?

        There is such thing as peaceful eviction. His story persists because he became the superhero in the story of an attempt at peaceful eviction which evidently failed because his followers misconstrued what it was logistically that he was asking people to do.

        My belief is that his work involved the advocacy of a money-free society. If it is not, that superhero who might present himself today, will surely be an advocate for one, and if he isn’t, then he has no idea what the future holds for mankind.

        I might not ascribe to the understanding of mimetic theory being a “utopia in waiting” for those who are able to mentally resist the urge to mime – my understanding of it relates to actions, not sentiments. It is not defeated – it is an intrinsic part of our DNA, and without a hero who is willing to peacefully evict the current model (in strategy and action), there is no toppling the current model.

        • Lloyd Allan MacPherson

          “A resort to force nullifies immediately any claim to moral superiority” which is true on the outside but any character who might be morally superior, is not going to bite and kick his way to the top of the pyramid. You are going to have to hoist him there with a whole boatload of people – if anyone claims to walk on water and bridge that gap, he’d be more inclined to be atop a mountain as a hermit as the poster child for a “new tomorrow”. That I guarantee – so your theory is correct but its application to a real world scenario and not a “mental breakthrough” is completely changed. It’s the difference between “illumination” and cutting through the real world “simulation” which presents two completely different scenarios.

        • soconaill

          Sorry, Lloyd Allan. I took your expression ‘forced ascendance’ to mean ‘violent revolt’, not ‘burgeoning group’ of peaceful protesters. Apologies for the ‘mis-take’!

          Remember, though, the chilling possibility of having to stand alone for something. That’s what Jesus was modelling. There’s nothing negative about choosing to follow that example. Girard calls that ‘positive mimesis’.

          • Lloyd Allan MacPherson

            Jesus wasn’t standing alone for something. He was standing for something that made sense to so many people in the world, with exception to perhaps a percent of the 1 percent. There is nothing chilling there. The horror comes in when 2000 years ago, the scapegoat process was so much more direct and established back then.

            Now, the persecution is so indirect and erratic that people who act like Jesus today could be persecuted by his own followers, right?

            I’m not saying that I disagree with what you are writing above – don’t see this as a resistance to your wisdom because there is a whole lot of wisdom – it’s just that I’ve been trying to work out the practical application to the real world for 18 years and it continues to unfold in real time.

            I haven’t made up my mind about a lot because wisdom continues to creep in from various places. Pope Francis inverting the triangle (you know how much that means to me) has given further motivation to continue the search for truth.

            All is not lost when you believe that we are the people we have been waiting for – to quote a popular Hopi saying.

            I’d still like to hear your thoughts on what makes mimetic desire a negative trait? How is a new model established (not mentally)?

          • Lloyd Allan MacPherson

            And violent revolt, well I’m the guy who was a tax protester for 17 years because I didn’t think my conscience could hold knowing that I was voluntarily funding the militarisation of society for a war that hadn’t started yet.

            Sometimes violence is the only way because lesser minds prevail.

  4. Martin Harran

    Excellent article, Sean, and very topical.

    Lot of food for thought in it but it seems to me that this is a good example of the sort of contemporaneous issue we need to be addressing.

  5. soconaill

    (Response to Lloyd Allan McPherson re ‘What makes mimetic desire a negative trait?’)

    That’s good, Lloyd Allan, because it makes me realise that mimetic desire (biblical ‘covetousness’) – i.e. wanting what we see someone someone else wanting – is not negative in itself. It is the fact that there are so many models of futile or dangerous wanting out there (e.g. for the penthouse and the Lamborghini and the executive suite – and the longest superyacht or top place on the Forbes ‘rich’ list) that leads so many of us ‘into temptation’.

    And that is why we are so dependent on those who choose wisely as exemplars or models for positive mimetic desire. For example Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela (as peacemaker), Peter McVerry (Irish campaigner for the homeless) and anyone who lives with complete simplicity and generosity – as did Jesus.

    When I said Jesus was alone I meant that no other human stood voluntarily alongside him at the end. That’s what the Gospel insists on, even in the case of Peter, who had boasted of his undying fidelity. The power of ‘the crowd’ – the immediate human context – in that situation is indeed chilling.

    • Lloyd Allan MacPherson

      And Sean if mimetic desire against the current model is so rampant, where is the hopes of establishing a new model? How does it happen?

      • soconaill

        Are you asking where we are to find models of integrity today? I can only say that I have known quite a few, and know some today – mostly quiet people. Perhaps the media distort our vision too, and present us with two many exemplars of selfish ambition and ostentation and shallowness. I can’t doubt your own integrity either, Lloyd Allan, or that of Pope Francis, who points us in the direction of those who have least, to learn from as well as to help as best we can. What of aid workers in places like Afghanistan or Darfur, volunteers in charity shops, overworked staff in our health service, those who rescue and help refugees, eco activists? Don’t all these put to shame the abusers of power in high places? I’ll bet there are Gardai of great integrity too, for that matter.

        • Lloyd Allan MacPherson

          No, there are definitely role models that we can aspire to become – the Church asks us to do as Jesus would do but I’m not even sure if Jesus could materialise in this current culture. He wouldn’t be a jet setter like the Dalai Lama or Pope Francis I would assume.

          Seeing “integrity” and my name in the same sentence is a rare occurrence Sean – the elite would brand me a wretch. Civil disobedience leaves invisible scars you carry for the rest of your life. Add a helping of clerical abuse to the mix, and you have someone who has trust issues which makes my analytics ongoing and non-stop. I’m no scholar but my intuition (as you see by my inverted triangle avatar created 8 months before Pope Francis’s declaration) is usually pretty good. That’s all I bring to the table – that and digital communications.

          So my question is if the general population is mimetic no matter what ruling elite are at the helm, what does it take to peacefully evict the current ruling elite and establish a model worthy of imitation?

          Is this even a strategy worth attempting? I know for sure this was the plan 2000 years ago. Can there be any doubt?

          I’m not looking for a “thought process” like “People have to realise…”. I’m more interested in seeing a plan or real world action set in motion that defies tradition.

          Any ideas?

          • Sean O'Conaill

            The only universally applicable strategy I can see is the imitation of Jesus’ simplicity, courage and honesty. He left it to the Father to deal with the rich who couldn’t follow him, and says to the rest of us ‘come follow me’.

            Has Hollywood given us too strong a taste for a high-explosive denouement?

          • Lloyd Allan MacPherson

            Well according to Pope Francis “Terrorism grows when there is no other option, and as long as the world economy has at its centre the god of money and not the person.” “This is fundamental terrorism, against all humanity.”

            So I think it is a little more complicated than to imitate Jesus – he can’t materialise in this culture – the Pope is calling for something new by inverting the pyramid.

            Hollywood hasn’t given us a taste for anything – it has literally lulled us to sleep. Effective team building was a breeze 2000 years ago, it seems – people were looking for something new. It seems today, people are wrought with amazement at the current state of advancement.

            Not Pope Francis – he is advocating for a money-free society – or at least the attempt to create one, it seems. Closed loop economies are a thing right now – they don’t miraculously get started though through a magical process.

  6. Kevin Walters

    An excellent article Sean you capture the truth of the situation.
    Hi Lloyd
    Judas betrayed Jesus because He would not take worldly power His Kingdom is set within men’s hearts and consciences He conquers (Rules) by the convincing evidence of truth leading men into righteousness.

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

    • Lloyd Allan MacPherson

      Is it still thought that Judas was Jesus’s betrayer or perhaps the most important link of the chain? I get confused with the discovery of previously unheard of gospels, I forget which ones it is we should believe in.

      That’s my problem – I don’t think there should be one fixed doctrine, ever. In 20 years, could you be kept out of heaven for something that doesn’t exist today?


  7. Clare Hannigan

    ‘This blindness, to the harm caused to the church – the people of God – by the equation of faith with unquestioning obedience to clerical authority, continues to this day.’ Perhaps we ought to consider that the harm done to Maurice McCabe was at least in part an act of disobedience, a rejection of clerical authority, of the teachings of the Church. Gaudium et Spes par 26 speaks of the sublime dignity of human persons – outlining rights and duties of human beings which are universal and inviolable. These rights include the right of a person to their good name, to respect, to act according to the dictates of conscience and to safeguard their privacy. The spreading of malicious gossip as a means of undermining Maurice McCabe and his family is a rejection of the teaching of Gaudium et Spes and it is also a rejection of Child Protection guidelines. The Catholic Church’s Child Protection guidelines incorporate the Stay Safe Program which is implemented in all primary schools in Ireland. On the Stay Safe web site, http://www.staysafe.ie, under the parent’s tab, guidance is given in relation to bullying. Bullying is defined as repeated aggressive behaviour of a verbal, physical or emotional nature. Verbal bullying includes ‘spreading mean, hurtful or untrue gossip or rumors about an individual.’ All types of bullying are damaging but ‘particularly verbal and emotional bullying – due to the secrecy upon which it relies.’ If we are to encourage whistle-blowers then we must reject the culture of rumor and gossip which destroys the happiness and emotional well being of so many people in Ireland.

  8. soconaill

    Thanks, Clare, for that timely reminder of the teaching of Gaudium et Spes (1965) on the equal and infinite dignity of all.

    What a tragedy that the opportunity for the absorption of that principle, dialogically, was missed when Gaudium et Spes was promulgated. The challenge of conveying that same principle to all – in dialogue – still awaits us.

    You have reminded me of another Vatican II teaching, from the Declaration on Religious Freedom: that ‘the truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth’. Back in 1965 the Irish church still relied far too heavily on something other than the compelling inherent authority of the truth – mere fearful deference to clerical say-so. (I remember a P.P. here who, when asked why a particular parish matter had to be decided in a particular way [c. 1978], gave exactly that answer: ‘Because I say so!’)

    How ironic that it was precisely that kind of bullying misuse of clerical authority that undermined the authority of church teaching in the end and left us where we are, picking up the pieces.

    Yet, as you say, Gaudium et Spes still awaits as a resource for the recovery of clerical authority, based on respect for the inherent authority of the truth itself.


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