A documentary shown last night on the BBC told a familiar story of clerical sex abuse. Four members of the Rosminian order regularly abused boys in their care at two schools -- one in the UK, the other in Africa -- in the 1950s. 'Abused - breaking the silence' was an extremely well-made, sensitive film, which explored the question of reparation: is forgiveness, especially when it is sought by the abuser, a substitute for justice?

The program brings us into the appalling, lonely, shameful world of the sexually abused child in the grip of a power that is as absolute as it is ruthless. The shock is heightened because those remembering the events are educated, intelligent, professional middle-class men, now in their fifties, who met up again a few years ago in internet chat rooms, recalling their school days. One by one they discovered that what they thought had been their own private hell had been shared by others. That realisation led to them deciding to compiling a record of their experiences and confronting their accusers.

On film they often break down as they describe how they are forced to masturbate priests, are fondled and grasped while in bed or during punishments, and told to keep silent. They showed how the sexual abuse went along with a casual physical brutality. "You could be beaten by a priest who would hours later be fondling your penis", one of them recalls. Complaints would occasionally register, but the most that would happen to a priest would be a transfer to another school and more victims. 

A lot of the advance coverage of the program, however, has been about something else entirely: the shock of discovering that a priest whom you trusted, liked and admired has turned out to be an abuser of children decades before.

The matter has received unusal attention because one of the four abusive priests in the program, Fr Christopher ("Kit") Cunningham [pictured], was until his death in December last year the popular and highly regarded  rector of an old and beautiful City of London church, St Etheldreda's, which was popular with people looking for traditional liturgy. Because of the church's proximity to Fleet St, traditional home of the print media, Fr Kit was the unofficial chaplain to Catholic journalists, and the actual chaplain of a conservative guild of Catholic writers called The Keys. He was a dearly loved friend and pastor to some of Britain's best-known Catholic scribes. 

They are now grappling with a deep sense of anger and betrayal. The article in last Sunday's Observer by Peter Stanford, once the editor of the Catholic Herald, now a Tablet columnist and the author of many books, is well worth reading. Fr Kit married him, and Peter named his son after the priest. When Fr Kit died Peter, knowing nothing of his past, wrote a glowing tribute in the Guardian which caused one of the priest's victims to contact him. Thus did Peter learn, earlier than the rest of us, what the priest had done. 

Or consider Mary Kenny, longtime Catholic Herald columnist, writing in the Irish Independent of Fr Kit's many qualities -- his kindness, his outreach to the poor, his ecumenical friendships -- which she is now trying to reconcile with the man she has discovered abused six boys as young as eight. "We wonder why clerical abuse was "covered up", as well as how it could have occurred," she writes. "Now I know the answer. Because, at first, you just cannot believe it. It seems so utterly uncharacteristic of the guy you knew."

What is fuelling the anger of many are the actions and inactions of the Provincial of the Rosminians in England, Fr David Myers. The program records how, when the victims first contacted him in 2009 with a dossier of abuse they had compiled, he was deeply shocked and took the accusations to those they had accused (by now old men). What followed were letters to the victims asking for forgiveness and meetings arranged between the priests and some of the victims in London. One man, Don, went to see Fr Kit at his care home shortly before his death. Fr Kit, by now in a wheelchair, had two broken fingers and looked frail; after the meeting, says Don, he felt his feelings of anger and bitterness lift for the first time.

Overall, however, these attempts at reconciliation failed (one of the priests, Fr Collins, is secretly filmed denying to one of the victims abuse he has earlier admitted to in a letter). Now, 22 of the 35 victims are suing for compensation. Fr Myers tried to dissuade them, questioning their moral right to financial compensation on the grounds that it would take money from the order's charitable work. Understandably, the victims reject this idea: money is the traditional way, in law, of acknowledging harm and seeking reparation. 

But what so deeply offends the victims and many of writers now in shock is the way Fr Myers led Fr Kit's memorial service in January this year. No mention was made on that occasion of the accusations, nor of Fr Kit's confessions, nor of the way he had returned his MBE award to the Queen. One of the victims recorded Fr Myers's homily, which gives no hint of what by this time were fully acknowledged acts of abuse; such denial is a dpouble slap in the face for those seeking justice. Those who, like Francis Phillips in the Catholic Herald, wrote warm obituaries, feel doubly betrayed -- not just as a friend, but as a journalist.

In what looks like a spectacular lesson in how not to deal with such accusations, Fr Myers declines to take part in the program, refusing, in a letter to the BBC, to be "video-ed and edited", and quoting Lamentations 3:16: "It is good to wait in silence".

Not only is there no apology, contrition, or acknowledgement of the pain and damage caused by the order's failures, but Scripture is invoked to justify what looks inevitably like high-handed insensitivity, putting institutional reputation above justice and accountability. Although today Fr Myers appears to have received better counsel and put out a statement -- good, but why not say it yesterday, in advance of the broadcast? -- the Rosminians appear to have learned almost nothing from the lessons of the clerical sex abuse crisis. This is even sadder given that much of this drama took place last year at the time of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI, who set great store by justice, reparation, accountability and transparency in child protection. 

Unsurprisingly, just one of the 35 victims of abuse in those two schools still goes to Mass.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

Carolyn Disco | 6/23/2011 - 9:41pm
Thank you, Ed Draw, for your note to David Smith.


One point in identifying perpetrators, no matter how belated, is the knowledge by other possible victims that their abuser is identified as such. The sense of relief that brings is incalculable. Now, others know too, and that person consequently has a better chance of being believed should he be in an emotionally safe position to come forward at some point.


Likewise, families of victims who never knew why a son's life was so self-destructive may appreciate that it was not their fault that a life was destroyed.


I sent an obituary for a priest in NH to the Attorney General's office to complete a file about a report of sexual abuse I had sent in a few years ago. The survivor's parents are still alive and the survivor did not want to be identified, so I was asked to make an anonymous report on his behalf.


I am dealing with the confusion and anger that this abuser gets all the usual honorifics of a priest's passing, while the truth remains hidden. Another much worse abuser, perhaps still living, left ministry to marry a woman with several sons and remains unidentified publicly because a survivor cannot bear to endure what is involved in reporting. 


It matters greatly that abusers are named publicly. There are so many cases still in the dark. Another survivor knows about numerous childhood friends who have not reported, even though he has. I believe we only see the tip of the iceberg, and the church is just as happy to keep as much as possible in-house. 


Early on, when we posted names on the wall for a press conference in DC, survivors came up in tears just touching the paper with their fingertips, sobbing in gratitude. The meaning of seeing those names for all to know was profound beyond my imagining.


Cunningham got away with everything while he was alive. Rosminian provincial David Myers' responses are damnable and disgusting.

Charle Reisz | 6/22/2011 - 11:43pm
David Smith, you shrug off sexual abuse of youth as though it was no more than taking a quarter from the collection box.  Your sense of moral values is a far cry from those of the general public in this day and age.  God help you because I certainly want no part of you. 
david power | 6/22/2011 - 8:11pm
David,

I think words will have little effect on your thinking on this matter and maybe a three month spell in a male prison with a slippery bar of soap would do wonders but of course by now you are a man and could possibly shrug off a rape at this age as you do so casually here.
The Pedophiles already have a patron Saint even though he is so far only beatified. 
This article is not about hanging a permanent guilt on child rapists but pointing out a clerical culture unable to reform itself.
Pope Benedict may in words put great store in accountability but in reality Cardinal Law is still at St Mary Major and those two Irish bishops are still in their positions.
Most of the clergy ,and I include those who write here ,seem to only feel this on a superficial level.  
Something that requires words and maybe a few gestures but see no reason to frighten the horses as such.No need for a radical re-thinking of clerical culture.
"It will pass" is their mentality. This all shows the vacuity at the heart of so much of our faith. The Lord is surely getting his millstones ready.
Charle Reisz | 6/22/2011 - 3:18pm
And the beat goes on.... a never ending story.
Anonymous | 6/22/2011 - 12:46pm
Faith is inspired in people by the witness of holiness, an experience of the divine in miracles or martyrdom, and the lived experience of healing in mind, body and soul thanks to good examples and the divine they introduce us to.

Faith is destroyed in people by scandal and evil which rob the little ones of their trust in others and ultimately in God too.

This is why Jesus warned anyone from harming the "little ones" and reserved his strongest words of condemnation for those who would scandalize or harm them and their faith in God.

To restore lost faith will take much more than wrath poured out and mill stones tied around the scandalous and evil doer's necks.... it'll take heroic virtue unto martyrdom and miracles to reach these lost sheep who have been driven so far from the safety of the flock.