Belfast Telegraph

No good hitting the target if we’re missing the point

By Alf McCreary

Anyone who watched this week's grilling of the NHS chief Sir David Nicholson by the Commons Health Select Committee will have thanked God for the gift of free speech within a stable democracy.

Sir David admitted, among other things, that he was not aware of the degree of the scandal at Mid-Staffordshire Hospital where around 1,200 patients died needlessly even though he was the boss of the regional watchdog at the time.

The forensic questioning from MPs rarely knocked the loquacious Nicholson off his stride. If there were Olympic medals for talking, he would win triple golds, and after being taken almost apart at times, he still had the self-regard to claim that he is the best man to take the NHS forward.

Cynical politicians may agree that he has his short-term uses, but one thing which Sir David said is still in my mind. He claims to have invented the phrase, ‘there is no point in hitting the target, if you miss the whole point of what you are doing'.

It is a phrase which Sir David should examine with his own conscience, but it applies to many other walks of life, including the Roman Catholic Church.

While the mostly aged and rickety cardinals are preparing to elect a new pope, there is no shortage of diverting dramas elsewhere. Last week, Cardinal Keith O'Brien said that he would strongly contest unspecified allegations by three priests and one former priest of “inappropriate” behaviour decades ago.

Just when many of us were asking ourselves about the curious timing of the allegations being made public, and wondering if the cardinal was being unfairly targeted, he then confesses this week to sexual behaviour falling short of the standard his priestly vows demanded. In doing so he left his flock to pick up the pieces. I feel sorry for them, and anyone with a shred of humanity can also see the tragedy of O'Brien's career ending in such a way.

The point about this, however, is not what happens to O'Brien the man, but rather the way in which the Church would have allowed him to take part in the conclave even though Vatican officials knew of the allegations.

If the Observer had not splashed the story, the cardinal would still be in high office and about to take part in one of the most important votes in the lifetime of any cardinal.

Some will argue that if the Vatican had expelled O'Brien from the conclave because of unproven allegations it would have also been unfair.

Yet, if the cardinal had not been put on the spot, he would have been allowed to take part in the conclave. The structure of the Church was more important than the search for the truth.

The same applies to other institutions such as the BBC during the Jimmy Savile scandal where the silo structure of decision-making was hitting various management targets, but missing the point about the welfare of abused children. Again back home our senior politicians are hitting their own targets by pandering to their party voters and missing the point that their primary role is to lead all of us out of our collective cesspools of sectarianism. There is very little political leadership or courage on show right now.

Sir David Nicholson, if nothing else, has left us with a handy catchphrase about hitting the target and missing the point. Someone else made the point even better over 2000 years ago when he asked “Whatsoever shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?”

That's still worth thinking about.

Belfast Telegraph Digital


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