Desmond Fisher  Photo: © Margie Jones

Desmond Fisher Photo: © Margie Jones

Arthur Jones is a former Editor of the US publication, National Catholic Reporter. He has just published a history of the paper, marking its fiftieth anniversary. He worked for my late father Desmond Fisher in the Catholic Herald in London in the 1960s and they kept up a friendship since then. He wrote an obituary when my father died and his report was taken up by many other outlets including L’Osservatore Romano. In October 2011 Arthur and his wife Margie visited Ireland and he interviewed Des for an article in NCR about the state of the Irish Catholic Church.

Ireland’s struggle to become ‘a mature society’


Boys work at the Artane Industrial School in Dublin, Ireland, in this undated photo contained in a report released in 2009 by the Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse. The report stated that physical and sexual abuse occurred at the school, which was run by the Christian Brothers from 1870 to 1969. (CNS/Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse)

DUBLIN, IRELAND — The Irish Free State was founded in 1922. Irish journalist Desmond Fisher was then 2 years old. Now 91, Fisher, grew up with the state. A former editor of the London Catholic Herald, Fisher covered the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), later joined Radió Telefís Éireann as deputy director of news and became head of current affairs.

To Fisher, “Irish culture has always had a large complement of religion in it. Traces of Druidism and nature worship are probably still there. St. Patrick contributed the solid core. The rest is a mishmash of superstition, pietism, a sugary sentimentalism, a streak of Puritanism, and a bleak authoritarianism borrowed from Victorian England.

“It was well into the 1960s when the changes, now accelerating rapidly, in Irish culture began to manifest themselves. This was the time that Irish bishops and the whole Catholic church needed to realize that religious practice needed to change to match the cultural changes. The mistake the Irish bishops made — and are still making — is to regard theology, like the basics of the faith itself — as uniform and immutable.”

Desmond Fisher           Photo:           © Margie Jones

Nothing reflects Fisher’s remark on “bleak authoritarianism borrowed from Victorian England” more than the horror story that is Ireland’s “institutional abuse” in the religious congregations-run industrial training schools and reformatories for boys, and institutions and laundries for women and girls.

The 2009-released Ryan Report by the Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse is a five-volume catalog of page after page of gross and widespread “sexual abuse” of “poorly clothed, undernourished” boys who were subject to “brutal beatings and punishments” and “poor, inadequate, overcrowded living conditions, and were “emotionally deprived and psychologically” maltreated.

Ireland’s clerical sexual file begins with a suit against the Ferns diocese and the papal nuncio (he claimed diplomatic immunity) by Colm O’Gorman, sexually abused as an adolescent in the Ferns diocese in County Wexford. O’Gorman, later an Irish senator, now Amnesty International Ireland president, was awarded some $450,000 damages. He founded an abuse-victim advocacy group, One in Four, in England and Ireland, and his subsequent BBC documentary “Suing the Pope,” helped his campaign for a Ferns diocesan investigation. The report finally disclosed more than 100 allegations of abuse against 21 Ferns priests. His BBC documentary, “Sex Crimes and the Vatican,” aired in 2006.

“We in Ireland now are struggling with ways to have the kind of public conversation we needed to have at the time of the foundation of the state,” O’Gorman said. “If you look at some of the principles that underpinned the notion of what this republic might be, its first duty (incorporated into the 1937 Irish Constitution) is to safeguard its children. But can you have a common morality if that morality is dogmatically enforced, rather than considered and engaged with and developed? Without these steps we cannot have a mature society, and we don’t have one. Yet.”

After Ferns (2008), came reports on the Dublin archdiocese (2009), and the Cloyne diocese (2011) — the latter triggered Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s attack on the Vatican. The same litany of sexual abuse in Ireland is familiar to all countries dealing with it: denial and cover-up, and hovering over all, papal, Vatican and local hierarchical obfuscation or worse. Due next: a report on the Raphoe diocese in Donegal.

Next is the unresolved Magdalene laundries abuse. The account of decades-long institutional incarceration of women in these laundries sears the soul: Women slaved away, unpaid, bullied, often underfed, and basically unappreciated. This because they had children out of wedlock, or were prostitutes, or girl children considered “at risk” — their families couldn’t control them or didn’t want them — and first offenders were sent to laundries rather than reformatories. Many lived and died there in these institutions, unmourned, relatives never notified, buried in unmarked graves.

A subtext to the laundries’ shame is the suppression of women’s rights in Ireland. Contraceptive use was a criminal offense from 1935 until 1985. Women could not collect their own children’s state allowance until 1974, their husbands did; nor could women sit on juries until 1976. Divorce was constitutionally prohibited until 1995, five years after marital rape was criminalized. If women’s rights were delayed, adoptees’ rights were nonexistent. Adoption was secret; babies were secretly sent to the United States. Files remain closed.

In the past eight years, as the group Justice for Magdalenes stepped up its pressure on religious congregations and the Irish government for apologies and restitution for Magdalene victims, the organization has made adoptees’ rights a companion issue to laundries’ redress. Magdalene laundries exposés in books, television programs, newspaper investigations and Peter Mullan’s 2002 movie, “The Magdalene Sisters,” keep the topic before the public.

Finally, in 2009, a parliamentary all-party investigation into the Magdalene laundries was announced. Its report is pending. The Conference of Religious of Ireland, an association of 136 religious orders of men and women, this year stated on behalf of the four congregations who operated Magdalene laundries (Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, Religious Sisters of Charity, Sisters of Mercy and the Good Shepherd Sisters), “As the religious congregations, who, in good faith, took over and ran 10 Magdalene homes during part or most of that time, and as congregations still in relationship with many residents and former residents, we are willing to participate in any inquiry that will bring greater clarity, understanding, healing and justice in the interests of all the women involved.”

No governmental or congregational redress, compensation or apology has yet been made, said Justice for Magdalenes.

In a statement to NCR, Mercy Sr. Coirle McCarthy, her order’s congregational leader, said, “The sisters believe they have been misrepresented and demonized in recent years and portrayed in a way that seeks to undermine their voluntary service.”

To further the sisters’ earlier offer contribute to an independent fund for Magdalene survivors, the Mercy Sisters have requested a meeting with Education Minister Ruairi Quinn, she said. (Quinn’s office confirmed to NCR he would meet with them.) McCarthy said their 2009 offer includes (in approximate U.S. dollars) $27 million to an independent fund and properties valued at $15 million. Properties worth a further $110 million have been offered to the state, and $20 million in property offered to the voluntary sector.

“In the last 10 years alone,” she said, “the sisters have [also] donated cash and property in excess of $1.4 billion to ensure [their other] voluntary services continue for present and future generations.”

If, as Fisher said, the bishops continue to regard theology as “uniform and immutable,” what then? Mary Condren of the Dublin-based Institute for Feminism and Religion contends Ireland will retain “the same scapegoat theology that brought us 35 years of terror, clerical abuse and the Magdalene laundries.” Even worse, she said, such a theology “is likely to be reinvigorated with the forthcoming centenary celebrations of the Irish 1916 Easter Rising, at a time when what’s still needed is a theology of mercy, not sacrifice.”

What is also needed is latitude for theologians to deal with the issues of the time, whether in the church, in Ireland, or in the broader West with its rising evangelical fundamentalism and atheism. According to Dominican Sr. Margaret MacCurtain, for centuries it was the religious orders that provided the men and women “with the intellectual and spiritual energy” to meet society’s and the church’s contemporary major challenges.

The major losses in vocations to the religious orders, then, remain one problem, Rome’s penchant for silencing dialogue and debate, the other.



DSC_0907 (2) (612x800)CATHOLIC HERALD:  January 9 2015      Home News  p.8 Revered ex-Catholic Herald editor is mourned

Herald editor who reported on Vatican II dies aged 94

THE FORMER Catholic Herald editor Desmond Fisher has died aged 94.

In a career spanning 70 years, Mr Fisher worked at the Irish Times, RTÉ news, the Economist and the Irish Press in London. His last column for the Irish Times appeared on September 30.

As editor of the Herald from 1962 to 1966 he covered the Second Vatican Council. His reporting of the Council sessions was regarded as so incisive that Cardinal Franz König of Vienna said he learned more from reading Mr Fisher’s reports than from being there.

Arthur Jones, who worked for Mr Fisher at the Herald, wrote on the American National Catholic Reporter that with Mr Fisher’s death “the legion of writers who covered the Second Vatican Council has thinned practically to vanishing point”.

Mr Fisher, who was born in Derry in 1920 and grew up in Dublin, died on December 30, surrounded by his family, leaving behind his wife Peggy, daughter Carolyn, sons Michael, Hugh and John and four grandchildren. His funeral was held in Dublin on January 2. Mr Fisher married Peggy in 1948, and they celebrated their 65th anniversary last year. (2013)  DSC_0909 (2) (794x800)


My father Des Fisher was Editor of the Catholic Herald when Arthur Jones worked there. Their paths crossed again when Dad was guest Editor of the National Catholic Reporter in Kansas City MO in 1980. Arthur kept in touch over the years and recently sent my father a copy of his new book on the history of NCR, which he read with interest.

In September 2011 Arthur Jones visited Desmond Fisher in Dublin. He then travelled to Belfast to meet me and he gave an interview to the BBC Radio Ulster ‘Sunday Sequence’ programme presented by William Crawley. He wrote to me before departing from Baltimore, Maryland, on the trip:


Liverpool-born journalist Arthur Jones entered Catholic journalism in America in 1962 on the Catholic Star Herald in New Jersey, before the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council began. The Ruskin College, Oxford-educated Jones was soon covering the “social gospel” issues: poverty, racism, traveling with the migrant farmworkers. At the highest levels he covered the first meetings between the US and Latin American hierarchies. In 1963 he used his British passport to report from Cuba on the suppression of the church under Castro. The following year he wrote the first extensive coverage of the Pius XII and the Jews drama. In 1965 he was on Fleet Street writing for the Catholic Herald where Irish journalist Desmond Fisher, later RTÉ Head of Current Affairs, was editor. Forty five years later, “we’re still fighting with one another, trying to outdo each other’s stories and jibes.” They lunched together in Dublin last Saturday (September 3rd **2011**): combined ages 166.

In 1975 he became editor of the independent National Catholic Reporter and expanded the newspaper’s range and investigative reporting in Central and Latin America, Rome and, most particularly, the United States. After serving also as the paper’s publisher and president of the company, in 1980 he stepped aside to return to reporting as editor-at-large, covering the globe, acting periodically as Washington correspondent, moving back to national and by the mid-1980s,  building the case regarding clerical sexual abuse.

in June 1985, seventeen years before the first secular U.S. national coverage, Jones broke wide open the American sexual abuse crisis in the National Catholic Reporter…Jones is the author of a dozen books, and has a separate career world as an economic and financial writer. He’s a former New York associate editor and European bureau chief of Forbes Magazine, a business magazine, a former FT correspondent, and, he says, “more besides.” He has worked for the National Catholic Reporter for 35 years, beginning as editor and after serving as editor-and-publisher, slowly worked his way down the ladder to become a reporter again.

Vatican II reporter Desmond Fisher dies at age 94

With the death on Dec. 30 of the noted Irish Catholic writer Desmond Fisher at age 94, the legion of writers who covered the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), has thinned practically to vanishing point.
Desmond Fisher  Photo: NCR/Pam Bauer

Desmond Fisher Photo: NCR/Pam Bauer

Fisher, as editor of The Catholic Herald on London’s Fleet Street, was in Rome in 1962 before the council opened to set up the Herald’s coverage. (His anecdote of Pope John XXIII from that time appeared in NCR’s 2012 Vatican II anniversary special. Fisher was also NCR guest editor for three weeks in 1980 and an occasional contributor.)

Fisher himself covered the 1963 and 1964 sessions of the council for the Herald and the Irish Press Group. Vienna’s Cardinal Franz König said in a note to Fisher that he learned “more of what is going on at the council from your superb reports” than he heard “while on the spot.”

In equal measure, Fisher’s council coverage offended some cardinals, not least Cardinal John Heenan of Westminster, England. The Catholic Herald’s owners — whether pressured by Heenan or not — recalled Fisher to London.

When Fisher resigned in 1966, an anonymous article in Herder Correspondence described the backdrop. Many bishops in England and Scotland, plus Dublin’s over-bearing Archbishop John McQuaid, had strongly opposed Fisher’s interpretation of council events — McQuaid called it “very objectionable.” When Fisher resigned, dozens of other bishop-attendees wrote to say quite the opposite.

Desmond Fisher in NCR Newsroom 1980  Photo: NCR/Pam Bauer

Desmond Fisher in NCR Newsroom 1980 Photo: NCR/Pam Bauer

Fisher was born Derry, Ireland, on Sept. 9, 1920. Ireland was still a united land: This was prior to the “partition” that created Northern Ireland.

His father, who worked for a firm of wholesale wine and tea shippers — which explains in part Fisher’s own fondness for and knowledge of wine — moved to Dublin to establish an office there.

At age 11, Fisher won the all-Ireland scholarship that provided five years of secondary education at a school run by a religious order. He took the education, but not religious orders. His Irish, Greek and Latin were exceptional, and at 91 he completed a new translation of the Stabat Mater.

With a bachelor’s degree from University College Dublin, his first job, at age 25, was assistant to the editor of The Nationalist and Leinster Times. He became an experienced copy editor and reporter. His first editorial said, “True peace cannot be based on fear. For true peace transcends the bounds of policy and diplomacy. … It must be founded on freedom and justice, on the recognition that man is a spiritual being created for an eternal destiny and not a pawn in the game of power politics.”

Sixty-five years later, Fisher remarked, “It was a bit full-blown for an Irish provincial newspaper. But I would change very little. Pope John XXIII said much the same 18 months later in Pacem in Terris.”

Fisher and his wife, Margaret (Peggy), wed in 1948 and marked their 65th wedding anniversary in (September) 2013.

For four years, Fisher was with the Irish Press, and in 1952 became its London editor and daily columnist. He became the Press political correspondent and traveled widely overseas in the early 1960s. That began with a three-month United Nations Fellowship. He was present at the U.N. General Assembly during the famous scene when Nikita Khrushchev banged his shoe on the desk.

In 1962, in his first Catholic Herald editorial, he wrote that a lay-owned and independent Catholic paper had “a freedom that is journalistically necessary if it is to carry out what it conceives to be its function and which relieves the hierarchy and the clergy generally of any responsibility for opinions expressed in its columns.”

Recruited by RTÉ (Raidió Teilifís Éireann) as deputy head of news, by 1973 Fisher was head of current affairs. There, after several years of bureaucratic infighting over an unhonored agreement to make current affairs its own division, Fisher was promoted sideways to director of TV development.

For 14 years, he was also Ireland correspondent for The Economist. He left RTÉ on “early” retirement and returned to his origins, as editor and managing director of The Nationalist and Leinster Times, where his career had begun.

The Fishers lived in Dublin. Survivors include Peggy, four children and four grandchildren. Desmond Fisher had outlived practically all his journalistic contemporaries.

[Arthur Jones, NCR editor from 1975 to 1980, worked for Fisher at The Catholic Herald from 1964 to 1966.]