I got a shock yesterday morning. I had been half-listening to the Sunday programme on Radio 4, with children’s author Philip Pullman explaining, yet again, why he is very fond of biblical prose and the culture of the C of E in which he was raised, but dislikes the “political power” of official religions; all well and good and mildly irritating.
This was followed by a news item about the Rosminian order of priests and the public accusations of priestly abuse they are now facing. Not another cover-up, I thought with a sinking feeling. And then the shock came: here was the voice of journalist Peter Stanford explaining quite simply and without emotion how one of the four accused Rosminian priests, whom he had personally known for 20 years and who had married him and baptised his children, was the late Fr Kit Cunningham, the much-loved former parish priest of St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place, unofficial pastor of Fleet Street and well known to the Catholic Herald staff.
I had not known Fr Cunningham personally but had been asked to write his obituary for the Herald when he died last year. In the obituary I quoted one of his friends, who described him as “a very caring, modest and deeply spiritual man”. I added my own estimate, based on all I had read and heard about him: “A man of energy and imagination, full of good fellowship, pastoral zeal and hospitality.”
Little did I realise when I briefly mentioned in the obituary that he “had spent 10 years as a missionary in Tanzania”, that it was during this period, in the late 1960s, that Fr Cunningham had not only regularly sexually and psychologically abused young boys, the sons of expatriate Britons, in St Michael’s School, Soni, in the then Tanganyika, but that he had also covered up for fellow priests who he knew were doing the same thing.
Full-page articles in yesterday’s Sunday Times and the Observer (the latter written by Peter Stanford) make it clear that these are not merely allegations of as yet unproven abuse. It appears that Fr Cunningham had quietly sent back his MBE last year, at the same time writing to his victims: “My conscience is deeply disturbed by the breach of trust that God placed in me as a Catholic priest. Many of you have suffered and been scarred by your experiences. After much reflection I have decided to return my MBE.”
So, an admission of guilt which tarnishes forever the memories his wide circle of friends have of him; which casts a shadow over the parish that he brought to life and where he was pastor for so many years; and which makes all the fulsome tributes written after his death now ring very hollow – not to speak of the long anguish and emotional scars suffered by his victims, now in middle age. And the worst aspect of all is what looks like a cover up in the Church; not just priests covering up for each other in a local culture of sinful complicity, but the Rosminian order itself: it knew of the truth of the allegations against Fr Cunningham at least a year before his death if not longer – and yet they still held a memorial service in January which duly echoed all the tributes paid to him on his death. This is appalling.
BBC One is broadcasting a programme about all this on Tuesday at 10.35pm. It is called Abused: Breaking the Silence, and I shall watch it with a heavy heart.