A newspaper editor has accused former President Mary McAleese of “trying to give him a belt of her crozier”, after the former President wrote to the owner of his newspaper to complain that an article about her was “fake news”.

Irish Catholic editor Michael Kelly revealed in his newspaper this week that McAleese had taken the very unusual step of writing to the newspaper’s owner, and not, as would be usual, the editor, to complain about a story that accurately accused her of dishonesty. McAleese accused the paper of having become “a fetid swamp of fake news” where she was concerned, and appealed to the owner to intervene – which would be a breach of the principles of editorial independence that underpins the idea of a free press.

Last week, the Irish Catholic* broke the story that McAleese had, in a speech at Trinity College Dublin, grievously misrepresented the words of former Pope John Paul II, in such a way as to suggest that the former Pope had endorsed rape.

In a piece titled “Calls for McAleese to admit error on John Paul II slur”, the paper’s editor, Michael Kelly, wrote:

“Speaking recently at Trinity College Dublin, the former President read from a section of a 1960 book by then Bishop Karol Wojtyla which appears to argue that sex is permissible even when a woman is unconscious. Mrs McAleese – the incoming TCD Chancellor – told the 200-strong crowd: “that is how we [women] are treated in the Church”.

However, it has emerged that in the book that Mrs McAleese is referring to, Love and Responsibility, the future Pope actually quotes this reductionist vision of human sexuality only to critique it and condemn it rather than endorse it.

Dr Catherine Kavanagh, a philosopher at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick told The Irish Catholic this week that it was “very disappointing to see a scholar of Prof. McAleese’s calibre misrepresent the thought of the then Prof. Karol Wojtyla”.

Dr Kavanagh pointed out that the Pope “described a purely biological fact of sexual intercourse, before going on to reject it completely as a paradigm of human sexuality”.

“This is almost as though one were to accuse an historian of World War II of Nazi sympathies, because such a scholar begins with an account of the problems in post-World War I Germany that contributed to the rise of Nazism,” Dr Kavanagh argued.”

In other words, what the former President did was to take the Pope’s words and give them a totally different meaning to what they originally had. Where John Paul II had spoken to condemn rape, Mrs. McAleese presented him as having endorsed it. Being charitable, this was a tremendous error. Being less charitable, it was gravely dishonest.

Predictably enough, McAleese claimed that she had been “taken out of context”. This is the standard defence in these situations, and, as so often, it proved to be total nonsense:

“In the video, Mrs McAleese is asked by Ursula Halligan: “How would you describe the role of women in the Church today?”

She replies: “Absolutely, even more invisible, deliberately made invisible, deliberately meant to stay invisible.  Structurally the architecture of the Church is designed to create and maintain the invisibility and the powerlessness of women, to corral us.

“If you’ll just bear with me could I just read a little section from the writings of Pope John Paul II? This is a recent Pope, so we’re not talking about the Dark Ages, we’re talking about a recent Pope, from his book Love and Responsibility.”

Mrs McAleese continues: “This is his description of marriage, of sex and marriage. Just listen: ‘it’s the very nature of the act that the man plays the active role and takes the initiative, while the woman is a comparatively passive partner, whose function it is to accept and experience, for the purpose of the sexual act it is enough for her to be passive and unresisting, so much so that it can even take place without her volition, while she is in a state where she has no awareness at all of what is happening, for instance where she is asleep or unconscious’.””

It is very clear here that McAleese was in the wrong, to an enormous extent, in making an allegation that not only was untrue, but could have been shown to be untrue by anyone who had taken the trouble to read just one or two sentences from the piece that she was quoting.

By writing to the owner of the newspaper that broke the story of her dishonesty, and imploring him to intervene, she was explicitly trying to undermine the principles of the free press.

In recent years, McAleese has emerged as a trenchant critic of the religion she espoused for most of her adult life. That is her right. But when she gets it wrong, as she often does, it is right that the media, or at least, the honest parts of the media, inform the public. Her attempts to undermine the free press do her no credit. She is an ordinary citizen, after all, not the Queen, however much she might wish that she was.

*I should note here that in addition to editing this website, I write a regular column for the Irish Catholic. However, I was not in any way involved with their reporting on Mrs. McAleese.