herald

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Do you remember 'Angel of Death'?

Scannal! Sunday (TG4)
Would You Believe Sunday (RTE1)

The last thing many of us want to see on TV right now is a man in a clerical collar and an ankle-length frock, yet priests were the focus of two of the weekend's best offerings. Firstly, Scannal!, which was originally shown in 2007 but was well worth a second look.

It told the story of Father Michael Kennedy, a priest in Dungarvan, Co Waterford, who in 1995 sparked hysteria when he claimed from the pulpit that an "Angel of Death" was preying on the men of the town, trying to infect as many of them as possible with Aids.

Kennedy told parishioners at Sunday mass that this sexual spectre had slept with "as many as 60, maybe as many as 80" men, and that at least five of them had tested HIV-positive -- although he would subsequently randomly revise his figures up and down.

Journalist John Murphy happened to be among the congregation and hastily scribbled the details of Kennedy's ramblings on the back of a payslip.

The national and international media pounced on the story. British tabloid reporters swarmed over Dungarvan, while Sky News even carried an interview with a woman, her identity protected in silhouette, who claimed to know the perpetrator. She turned out to be a hoaxer.

Meanwhile, Kennedy -- a photogenic former hurler and Sinn Fein politician who is also distantly related to the Kennedy political dynasty -- basked in the limelight, spouting embellished versions of his original fairy story, but refusing to identify the mysterious woman.

At one point he said he'd spoken to her on her deathbed and that she had only weeks to live. By the following Sunday, Kennedy's story had unravelled as medical experts poured scorn on his claims and the media -- shamefully late, it has to be said -- began to question his motives.

Kennedy ducked out of a scheduled meeting with the local health board and suddenly stopped talking to reporters. As a reminder of how some gullible people will swallow any baloney a man of the cloth throws at them, this was timely.

Would You Believe is a quietly excellent series that suffers from being labelled religious programming and jammed into an insanely late slot. This week's episode followed singer Brendan Shine as he discovered the truth behind the murder of his great-uncle, Father James Coyle, in Birmingham, Alabama in 1921.

Family lore had it that Father Coyle was killed by the Ku Klux Klan, which hated Irish Catholics as much as American blacks.

The full story was even more intriguing.

Father Coyle was shot dead by a Methodist minister called Edwin Stephenson, who was outraged that the young priest had officiated at the marriage of his daughter to a Puerto Rican Catholic. Though Stephenson, a Klansman, immediately turned himself in and confessed to the killing, the judge and jury at his trial were also in the KKK and he was acquitted.

Overlooked in his homeland, Father Coyle is revered by both Catholics and civil rights activists in Alabama. Like the man himself, this outstanding WYB film deserves wider recognition.

TOMORROW: Pat reviews Gay Byrne's new documentary Impact: Tragedy on Irish Roads (TV3)

Stacey's Stars

Scannal! ***

Would You Believe ****

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