Scandal in a society of secrets: An oppressive climate stifles liberating debate on Ireland's Bishop Casey affair, says Jane Marshall

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AS A BY-BLOW of Scottish Presbyterianism, I cannot pretend to be very familiar with bishops. It is only now that the one in whose diocese I live, deep in the west of Ireland, is on the run from revelations about his secret son, that I wonder if the cultural underthings I thought I'd burnt still cling, for my voice as I raise it sounds more foreign even than its accent.

For all the tittle-tattle doing the rounds following the publication of Annie Murphy's book about her affair with Bishop Eamonn Casey, there is no discussion. There is instead a profound silence at the heart of the subject - which is, surely, not Casey at all but Ireland itself: mute, emblematic, unreal, a state in which the most dangerous things prove themselves over and over by remaining unuttered.

Bishop Casey, his affair 18 years ago with a young American woman in his care, the birth of their son and the years of secrecy that followed are common totems here in Ireland since the publication of Murphy's account, Forbidden Fruit. The book is on the news-stands and selling out. Serialisation in the British Sunday Times doubled the number of that paper's copies imported weekly. (This is the same country that blocked imports of the Guardian when it carried abortion information.)

As with other scandals here, the work to uncover and develop the story comes from outside. Only now, after a slow and reluctant start, are there the beginnings of a home-based industry catering to the new market. Of the few media events connected with the book, none has done other than obscure this story, deepening and darkening the outline of grudge and personal tragedy.

The chief such event was the television appearance of Annie Murphy, the bishop's ex-lover. Friends of the bishop were in the front rows and accused her of lying about everything from the colour of a poodle's hair to the weather on the night she claims to have conceived. A vast amount of viciousness remained focused on minute detail. Murphy, however, survived; she even prospered in a wave of short-lived popular outrage at the way she had been treated.

Personal vindictiveness has conceived and aborted each opportunity to confront the man. He has softly been allowed to slip into hiding.

There was an opportunity to question him, some months ago, when he returned secretly to Ireland. But the news of his visit was not broadcast until after he had left. Neither he nor his family have suffered the hounding I suspect other associates of such a newsworthy figure would have received. This obvious fact was never remarked upon, just left to speak for itself, in a climate in which respect for the private, and presumably painful, nature of the visit made any question of it appear indecent. Yet the climate which finds it brutal to demand investigation, simultaneously relishes the exposure of secrets long held captive.

The Irish media, despite their crucial role in the facts (Murphy, of course, approached them), have not behaved as impresarios in the manner of the British press dealing with the royal turmoil of recent months. A show with far more substance, and at least as much sex and scandal, is only gingerly revealed at the milestones that cannot be ignored (not least because of the foreign press). Unlike the British monarchy, the real subject of the story here is not disempowered. Silences are always powerful.

How is this climate maintained? I see it as a movement against the light: something dazzles - but do not try to look too closely at the hand holding the secret up, or ask where it came from, or why. Be dazzled, and keep your real secrets safer, deeper in the dark and the silence.

In fact, some secrets aren't safe and we all know it. The thing about the Casey affair seems to be that we acknowledge this much, we afford the discussion a token liberalism and then, after a limited hue and cry, we turn to the personalities involved.

It is easiest to concentrate on Murphy, and best if we do. It is made to seem that as a story of commonality, on the scale of my secrets, or yours, it is easily digested: Annie Murphy was wronged; Casey wronged her, life wronged her, maybe she even wronged herself. You could say she wreaked vengeance. It is redolent of so many other lives, and (with the one significant difference that her baby's sire was a bishop) she is no more and no less to blame than countless other women in this new age of nun-runs and relative enlightenment.

I balk at this. To dispose of the story on this level is not merciful. It is a trade-off against what it really means. It isn't only a private tragedy that can be unravelled in the public domain by analysing the individuals. It is about us, and we diminish ourselves if we avoid this.

Look again at the story. Hold up its secret to the light. Now look at the hand holding it and ask the dangerous questions. Whose hand is it?

It belongs to an alien. As an Irish- American, Murphy is an even more complex outsider than I am; with her treacherous bloodline of exile smudging the boundaries of where she belongs. Her definitive notion was not to become the mistress of a bishop, or to bear a child, but - by using her own secret for whatever reason she had in mind when she began - to use her voice. She broke in on some of the terrible silences Mother Ireland keeps, about sexuality, about churchmen, about meaning.

But what she said was of relatively little consequence in itself compared with its implications, compared with what would happen if we thought about what we should do about it. For this reason it was vital that we should be made to concentrate on what she did say - which, after all, in a society of secrets, wasn't all that strange. As an intruder, her status was easy to dilute in a wash of unthreatening obedience to general rules of conduct - those rules which seek no explanation and mutely accept buried wounds and pain.

But who is really protected by this? I have found that it is mainly only old women, and they are particularly condemning of 'that woman'. Yet I know some of these old ladies' secrets, the way women know each other's confidences. I know gynaecological histories which were entirely the result of church teachings and these women's faiths; hysterectomies urgently needed and never permitted, babies stillborn in endless succession. I know of sexual abuse to which women were told to return week after week from confession, and not to invent. These are only domestic examples; we all know more. It is easier for these old women to blame Murphy than it would be to face the fact that their loyalty has been to an institution incapable of returning it to them.

The establishment is far from disempowered. It gets stronger all the time. It is not just the church that benefits, or one man such as Bishop Carey. It is a society that works on preferment and in which silence cloaks a horde of detail to be drawn out at the right time. That is why everybody understood Annie Murphy; they just weren't prepared to let her make a difference.

But Ireland is now a country filling up with outsiders. We take the spaces of her own young, who are continuing to be ejected; maintaining the roads of exile somewhere along which Murphy and Casey were already related, as cousins, before they conceived a child.

Emigration and exile are as deeply a part of Irish life as silences, and all stem from the same root: exploitation and powerlessness. There is a need to eradicate that root, more so now that it is not the responsibility of a foreign oppressor. Utterance is power: broken silences, answered questions, exploded feelings and cleared air permit new things to grow, and could even create a climate in Ireland for its own growth. As a blow-in, I hope so.

(Photograph omitted)