As I had anticipated, watching “Abused: Breaking the Silence” last night on BBC One made for difficult viewing. Observing a middle-aged man break down in tears, and others among his peers describe their damaged lives – the word “depression” cropped up over and over again – as they detailed their childhood experiences at the hands of priests in the Rosminian order at a prep school in Tanzania was a painful experience.
St Michael’s, Soni, where the late Fr Kit Cunningham, as well as three other priests, was deeply implicated in the abuse, was a place of violence and terror, “an environment of fear” in which small boys were “terrified into silence”. Given the revelations about other orders and other priests in recent years this is all too easy to imagine. One of the most telling episodes in the programme was when one of the victims confronted his tormentor, Fr Bernard Collins, at the care home where the now very elderly priest is living in retirement, and secretly filmed his response when challenged about abuse. He clearly knew exactly what the victim was talking about, as he had earlier written a letter of repentance – but he still denied the truth of what had happened and made queasy-sounding excuses. He simply could not face up to the implications of his past perverted behaviour.
The response of the Rosminian order itself is also deeply ambivalent. Fr David Myers, the Provincial, met a group of the victims at St Etheldreda’s church in London – the parish where Fr Cunningham had been held in wide esteem for many years – in November 2010; he listened sympathetically to their shocking stories and promised he would take action on their behalf. In fact he did get the priests involved, including Fr Cunningham, to write to their former victims, expressing their remorse and asking for forgiveness. But given the air of deliberate secrecy surrounding this whole episode, it is not surprising that the former pupils found the letters inadequate and perfunctory, “not from the heart” as one explained and bringing more pain rather than the “closure” they had hoped for.
One of the men, John Poppleton (he described Fr Kit as “a monster” who had warned him to be silent about the sexual abuse he suffered), told the TV viewers: “I would like to know a lot more about why he did what he did.” Relations between the victims and the order have now broken down completely. The order accepts what happened but denies all liability; some of the group are now seeking compensation. This would not bring emotional healing but it would be a tangible, legal admission, understood by the world, of the terrible wrong done to past pupils.
When learning of this scandal I read the case of a Canadian friend. Now in his 50s, Michael O’Brien is a well-known icon artist, novelist and public speaker. As a 13-year-old he was sent to a residential Catholic boarding school, Grollier Hall, in Inuvik, the far north of the country. Filled by the children of native Canadians – O’Brien was the exception – the 60 boys in his house were subjected to a “reign of terror, sexual abuse, cruelty and psychological and physical violence” by the lay dormitory supervisor, a man named Martin Houston. What is truly appalling in O’Brien’s story is that after being convicted of abuse and serving nine years in prison, this man was accepted as a seminarian by the late Archbishop Antoine Hacault of St Boniface in Manitoba, and was later ordained a priest.
In a long article published in Catholic World Report in June 2002 under the title “Victims, Scandals, Truth, Compassion”, O’Brien discusses the whole saga and its wider implications, both for individuals and for the Church.
He comments: “An expert in child abuse once told me that most abusers cannot consciously face the objective reality of their guilt. Those who commit such acts must deny their guilt to themselves in order to live with themselves. Consequently, many of them feel no guilt whatsoever.” This would explain Fr Kit Cunningham’s later career, and Fr Collins’s blanket refusal to be honest with the man who confronted him.
O’Brien, who was physically and psychologically abused for many months (for refusing Houston’s sexual advances) has been able to forgive his tormentor. He emphasises that, “if the victim is listened to, prayed with, understood, he can be helped to let go of his hatred and learn to forgive. He can become free. However, this in no way cancels the demand for objective justice. We do not excuse war criminals merely because their crimes occurred 50 years ago…” I hope the Rosminians are listening.
In words that the order might also attend to, O’Brien comments: “None of us likes a scandal… However, the violation of one child, a violation of one human soul, is not worth a public image.” In Canada, the federal government has established a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to bring about healing for the large number of native Canadians who suffered violence and sexual abuse. This commission is hosting a meeting in Inuvik for this purpose from June 26-30. O’Brien says: “It is not a blame session… It is about survivors of gross indignities finding their voice.” He asks to be remembered in prayer on June 28 that “this will be a moment of great grace, healing in Christ and a moving forward for us all”.
Judging from the TV programme last night, the wounds of the former Rosminian pupils are still very raw and their anger is still palpable. Perhaps Fr David Myers and the Rosminian Order could learn a lesson from the example of Canada?