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Why didn’t the Rosminian order tell us the truth about Fr Kit?

The order apparently knew the truth of the allegations at least a year before his death

By on Monday, 20 June 2011

Fr Kit Cunningham died last year

Fr Kit Cunningham died last year

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.

  • Siobhan

    I understand entirely how you feel and the way you expressed yourself speaks straight to my heart. All my life i have lived the faith, I have had my large family baptised and all of them teenagers and younger attend mass. However I the mother who has encouraged this faith, have now lost it. Like Londonistar I too have read about all the trashy affairs, footballers, IMF leader, etc I read also about the terrible plight of child brides in far of lands and the evil of hospitals in parts of India where no female births take place. Where is God in all of this? Is this how He wants it to be? It now appears that the church has such dirty hands and conscience it cannot defend basic Christian values. A few years ago I had cause to suspect abuse was taking place at a well known London Catholic boys school where a number of the staff including the then headmaster were known to be gay. I doubted myself so never followed it up, how I regret my actions when I now see that the seemingly impossible is all too possible.

  • ex-ratcliffe and Grace dieu

    just an additonal note and a correction because I think I logged in wrongly above! One of the stories that used to circulate was about the jokari bat- something I never saw: it was the peculiar instrument of torture used by Duffy’s predecessor, so presumably Collins. It is the pleasure with which people like Galway referred to this device that was so detestable… the ultimate sanction. Equally beating was seen as a necessary rite of passage. This must be wrong. I knew it then and I know it now. The stress on Fr Cunningham is unfortunate because the real villain is Collins and his performance on tv was worthy of the most detestable character in any drama- a self-righteous, hand-wringing hypocrite. I am simply glad I left this church!

  • Londonistar

    When you consider how often the issue of homosexuality is raised in relation to these situations even here on this thread, I do wonder if this subject will ever be broached when hypocrites like Peter Tatchel are the ones cheerleading the hatred against the church.

    I haven’t lost my faith Siobhan. I don’t believe God is responsible for man’s shortcomings and failures and when I read about the wave of sexual crime endemic in society that creates such horror stories and hurt, or the levels of divorce wrecking families or even girl babies killed in India I put this down to man.

    Yesterday I watched the film Senna – about the racing driver – the beauty of this man’s divine inspiration, his firm belief in God – at the very heart of a successful man who’s heart was also in the right place in terms of philanthropy – that restablishes my faith in God. Throughout the film his belief in God was what drove him onwards, what made him a success, humble, kind. A man that so many people loved and not just in Brazil. It was very powerful. That Fr Kit’s sermons often grounded me and set me up for the week ahead in a way I could deal with life remain in my heart in spite of the flip side of this man which I simply cannot imagine. 

    I understand why you would lose faith and I understand fully how life tests us in that faith to the limit but in the end I always come back to it. I just hope and pray that the Church can rid itself of these men who cannot control themselves and subvert faith to their own ends causing so much pain. There are days when I can see why the Church covered this up. I don’t condone it but I can see why. These days that will be impossible. But we must now challenge the role of homosexual priests in the Church as distateful as some might find this, it is way less distasteful than the results of their sexual frustrations.

  • ex ratcliffe and grace dieu

    the more I hear about this the more incredulous I become. Allegedly, Fr Kit Cunningham was heterosexual and the evidence for this was his “loving and close relationship” with his housekeeper. I take this to be a euphemism. Clearly the man I thought I knew was an old goat who could not keep control of his libido. Equally, of course, he found himself in positions of trust and power so that he could take full advantage of whatever was on offer. I suppose a chance to break his vows and frolic towards the end of his life with his housekeeper was also a chance to establish a good cover story that might hide the past. So, a “beard” and a hypocrite and here I was trying hard to see sense.

  • jeremiah

    Londinistar, In what way is Peter Tatchell “a hypocrite”? He’s gay but not, as far as I know, a paedophile, which is what you seem to be implying. Making accusations like this is very dangerous. If he is breaking the law, then perhaps you should produce the evidence and approach the police (unlike those in authority in the Catholic church); if not, then be on the lookout for a libel summons! Your talk is cheap, bigoted and full of hate. I pity you.

  • Alistair Macdonald

    The jokari bat was routine in my day. Boys were beaten daily at Grace Dieu and it was pretty painful. But corporal punishment was regarded as ‘normal’.

    Galway, our Latin master, was also regarded as ‘normal’. How on earth could our parents ever have regarded this unctuous, odious, cologne-soaked little twerp as normal! I wasn’t personally afraid of him but a general climate of fear pervaded Grace Dieu. I had some good times there but I also remember feelings of  isolation and sheer misery at times. Bullying was routine too but nothing was done about it as many staff probably regarded it as ‘character building’.

    However, I did make some good friends at Ratcliffe and Grace Dieu and I’m in regular contact with them to this day. Several were at my 60th birthday party two years ago and three will be here with their wives for dinner tomorrow night. Can’t think what we’ll find to talk about!

  • Londonistar

    Dont threaten me. And dont misquote what I said. If you wish to ask for an explanation then fine Ill gladly explain it to you but do NOT threaten me when you are way off mark.

  • DdV

    > All I can say is….these priets that abuse young boys deserve the penalty of death….if anyone disagrees with me…..just imagine it was your kids that got abused…..I know id want to carry out some SAW or texas chain massacre on him……..(wont sleep tonght after watching that documentary… blood is boiling…and not only at those men…..but at the church…..holding a blooody memorial…the world we live in today……pure disgust!!!)

    This is a disgraceful comment, contrary to the Christian spirit and a betrayal of Our Lord. Shame on you.

  • Paulw

    David Myers must resign, pass all documents to the police and pay compensation to the victims. I’m sure the order can well afford it!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Celtes

    Any decent person would have resigned by now.

  • ex ratcliffe and grace dieu

    Sadly, these people, messrs David Myers the “Father Provincial”  and James Flynn, the “Father General” are self-righteous. They are, also, incidentally, genuinely affable and nice people. I am sure this whole scandal comes as a great trial and a shock to them both! But it will take more than a nasty editorial and a tv programme to knock some sense into them- they, like their Rosminian charges, have been brainwashed into a belief that they are doing the “right thing”. The vow of Obedience meant that because Flynn and Myers demanded it, the men accused wrote letters of apology to their victims, and that same obedience means that now there is a curtain of silence. Please study the way the Rosminians work: there are the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but it is obedience that takes priority over all- and obedience, as I understand it, in some blind way to a person’s immediate religious superior. Obedience was invoked to sanction all manner of cover-ups and if there is any residual humanity left, that is bashed by a further exhortation to accept the judgement of the immediate superior as a manifestation of the providence of God. (Indeed, the headmaster of Ratcliffe invoked exactly this language – of humility, surrender to providence as an act of obedience to the will of God, even when he accepted it was wrong – when my parents made a complaint about a member of the teaching staff, and the matter went no further) On 22nd August 1838, in the Catacombs of st Sebastian, some of the Rosminian priests took a fourth vow which continues to this day, of special obedience to the Pope. This is not an order that appeals to common sense or, despite Rosmini’s writings on the subject, a serious understanding of the value of individual conscience; it is an order that is wholly and thoroughly militaristic, even fascistic – maybe more so even than the Jesuits, despite their more fearsome reputation. The only reason this order has avoided public scrutiny is because it has remained small and largely insignificant. It is a shame that this scandal drives all these details into the public eye. So, Maybe it is to Benedict, the current Pope, that you should be addressing this comment “any decent person would have resigned by now” because he has the authority and right to demand that resignation and he, of course, leads by example!
    The implications of this fact are interesting because they through doubt into the honesty of Kit Cunningham’s confession of guilt. What he wrote he was ordered to write, and the instruction to surrender the MBE was probably the decision of his superior. Having taken legal advice, Myers and Flynn are no doubt wondering where obedience and the Pope will direct them next! I cannot imagine it will be resignation.

  • Siobhan

    Thank you Londonistar for your reply, I should have clarified I have lost faith in the church but most certainly not  in the merciful sacred heart of Jesus whom I continue to place all my hope and trust in. I do also agree with you re Peter Tatchell, it is unacceptable that he hedges around the very grey area of friendship between older and younger men and the age of consent. Also I find nothing admirable about a man who is happy to cause disruption to church services in order to bring attention to his cause but who bulks at disturbing Friday prayers in a mosque where he can be certain that the congregation will not sit passively back as they watch his antics.

  • Peter Hoody

    Shame on them

  • Jo Higham

    You sound to me as if you disagree with this film being shown and the Holy Kit Cunningham being exposed for what he truly was. A paedophile who made young boys suffer not just as boys but into their manhood. This is not hysteria and you are extremely narrow minded to think this. When will the Church get their act together and stop this abuse?. You have the atitude that they are Holy Men who should not be questioned. They are unfit to be called priests and wether or not they confess to God does not make their vile sins acceptable to anyone other than people of your calibre who are prepared to sweep their vile acts under carpets. You should be downright ashamed of yourself.

  • Celtes

    It is all so wrong and makes me so angry that these so called men of God think they are above the law.  Someone should be phoning the police to dig out these cowardly priests who are hiding away in Surrey.  They should be prosecuted for their crimes against children who were entrusted in their care.  Let me also say how utterly sad and sorry I feel for what you went through as a boy.

  • Jo Higham

    How can you possibly think that because Kit some good work it outweighs the disgusting acts he committed to young boys. You are totally deluded and if there are people around with your mode of thinking no wonder boys are being abused and the perpatrators are not brought to call.

  • Dormcm

    The catholic spokesman tells us the victims of these dispicable “priests” should find healing in forgivness & not in publicity!!!   This in itself is a disgraceful statement & suggests to me they are more concerned at their priests being named & shamed than they are at the revolting,disgusting abusive actions of the priests who were in positions of trust over these young boys. How can they EVER think that these priests even deserve forgiveness. I applaud their victims for having the monumental courage to be televised in a bid to put a stop to others suffering as they have done. No punishment for the perpatrators of these vile crimes would be severe enough in my eyes. The perps are vile, disgusting, cowardly apologese for humanity & deserve no peace in their old age. I wish them the ultimate in a damned existance for their remaining time on this earth & will pray daily for their victims to be granted peace…though I doubt they will ever have that. These beasts have sentenced their victims to hell from a very early age. I would not spit on the perps if they were on fire!!!
    Well done to all the are truley good & courageous men & by bringing this out in the open I am sure you will have helped other little boys from the ordeals you suffered.
    I just cannot find the words to describe my disgust at these priests & the Catholic Church for covering for them & others. What a thoroughly evil institution it is in my opinion

  • Samson

    A betrayal of our Lord? Who said in three of the Gospels that it would be better for this sort of crimianl to have a millstone tied round his neck?

  • Celtes

    You are so right, this whole affair stinks to high heaven.  Those evil, cowardly priests should be locked up for cruelly destroying the childhood of so many young boys.

  • Yondi

    dvd are you a priest? Are you defeinding pedophile priests?

  • John Sims

    I was a pupil at Ratcliffe in the early 1950s when the young Brother Cunningham joined the staff. I remember a lively, likeable man (and slim then), more open-minded than most of his colleagues. Indeed I remarked on this to my fried the Irish English master (a layman) who responded “Ah, good my boys, his mind’s so broad there’s nothing in it.”
    I heard no rumours about him then. Perhaps it all started at Soni. We should take a closer look at the people who headed up these corrupt communities. I think at Soni it may have been Fr. McCarthy, a repellant human being whose sadistic activities I remember from post-war Grace Dieu where I was a contemporary of David Armitage.

  • John Sims

    As a contemporary at Grace Dieu (1945-1950) I too remember Doug Rayner though fortunately I never attracted his sadistic attentions. There was a story that he made a lash of inter-knotted lengths of electric light flex, who, after he had flogged one boy violently enough to draw blood, was sent to a mission in Tanganyika. I remember that on one occasion Br. Baldwin caned the whole school – was he using a billiard cue?
     No one in these exchanges has mention the headmasters who at the very least allowed these things to happen under their authority. Fr. Francis O’Malley and from late 1948 onwards Fr. J. Canavan. O’Malley (who later became the parish priest at St. Ethelreda) was a trained Jungian analyst.
    Many people following these discussions will not know that while Grace Dieu and Ratcliffe are still Rosiminian foundations, they are now run by laymen. Grace Dieu is now a day school so there are now more night walks through the warren into the woods to reach the White House which was used as a dormitory for the older boys.