Spare a prayer for Reverend Tracey McRoberts and wronged women
Published 03/07/2013 | 08:00
When the sniggers have died down what we're dealing with here is the stuff of Greek tragedy ... In 1998 Donaghadee Church of Ireland minister the Rev Leslie Stevenson had a relationship with a parishioner, divorcee Tracey McRoberts. The pair's romance didn't contravene any church rules (and, for the record, he too had been divorced).
For Ms McRoberts, the relationship seemed to blossom. It was a thing of hope and happiness, not fear or despair.
Unfortunately, not all was what it seemed. Out of the blue, the clergyman confessed to her that not only did he have a fiancée, Ruth, but that he was going to marry her. In four days' time.
Which he duly did.
It's hard to understand what was going on in the Rev Stevenson's head. Was he a simple cad and bounder, toying with his parishioner's affections? Or were there more complex factors at work? Stupidity? Human vanity? A terrible misjudging of the nature of his relationship with Ms McRoberts?
Had he fallen in love with two women, unable to choose? Why leave it to days before his wedding to confess? Was he a man paralysed by the crisis he had wrought around himself? What must he have felt, as wedding preparations gathered pace, knowing that soon his double life would be exposed?
Who knows? But clearly his terrible miscalculation has brought untold misery upon himself, Tracey and, arguably most of all, Ruth. Her now public humiliation must be hard to endure. After all, he deceived her too. When did she find out about 'the other woman'? Before walking up the aisle? Or ... after? While the woman he spurned says that she has long forgiven Leslie Stevenson, it's obvious that her life has been marred, if not scarred, by his miscalculations, his callowness and possible callousness.
But Leslie Stevenson is not uniquely wicked. We all make mistakes but we rarely pay as heavy a price.
After his wedding and following consultation with senior church figures about his relationship with Ms McRoberts, he moved to Co Laois to take up a rectorship and begin what he described as a period of "personal discipline".
The root of this strange tragedy is that the protagonists are not private figures. Leslie Stevenson is a minister. Tracey McRoberts – her faith unshaken by the events of 1998 – was ordained in 2009.
The Church, in full knowledge of the episode, should have known better than to offer the Bishopric of Meath & Kildare to the Rev Stevenson. It was obvious the public would not view his behaviour as a private matter. But the Church ignored commonsense.
As, in another disastrous miscalculation, did Leslie Stevenson. He should never have accepted the position. He may have been truly sorry about his actions but he hadn't cast off the last rags of worldly ambition.
Alas, the painful truth is that a cleric's past is never going to go away. Because, when you get down to it, a man of any cloth has only one vouchsafe: his character – and how does character reveal itself except in the record of what we have said and done. Leslie Stevenson's past is all too tragically a matter of the present. For Tracey. And for Ruth.
This is the Hardyesque tinge to the story. The higher Leslie moved up the Church, the more certain his past would come to light.
He must've known at some point the Rev McRoberts would have her life turned upside down again. That his wife would find her marriage scrutinised.
Within days of his appointment in January this year, the Press was on to the story. In April, the Rev McRoberts was publicly named as "the other woman". The next day – less than a week before his elevation – Leslie Stevenson stepped away from the proffered Bishopric.
Scandal is an ugly thing for a cleric. The Rev McRoberts had again been placed in a false position by the Rev Stevenson and was the subject of ill-informed gossip. Which is why she had to clarify what had happened in 1998. A totally innocent party, it must have been difficult dealing with the ghosts of the past.
With near inevitability, lives are exposed to ridicule, long cherished dreams unravel and real people suffer. For a slip, a mistake, an aberration – call it what you will – that happened a decade and a half ago.
True, the Rev Stevenson behaved badly while a minister in Donaghadee. But haven't we all done stupid things in our private lives?
Unlike Leslie, Tracey and Ruth, however, most of us only get punished with unseen moments of personal shame and regret. But they have not been afforded this mercy. This slowly unfurling story has been nothing less than the exposure of the secrets of the human heart. And that is why it is not the stuff of laughter. Rather it is the stuff of tears.