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The men abused by Rosminians deserve compensation

I hope the order learns a lesson from Canada, where a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is working to bring healing to victims

By on Wednesday, 22 June 2011

One of the men abused at Grace Dieu Manor preparatory school, Leicestershire (BBC/Blakeway Productions)

One of the men abused at Grace Dieu Manor preparatory school, Leicestershire (BBC/Blakeway Productions)

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?

  • Mary Rutley

    I watched the programme with anger and horror. I believed all the victims, and understood their feelings. I only hope that the order of nuns (Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy) who made my life hellish at boarding school, will also be exposed - especially as this order was far more cruel to the children at its orphanages.

  • Jonathan West

    Let nobody call this a case of a few bad priests acting against the orders of the church. The Catholic Herald itself has nearly 60 articles tagged “clerical abuse crisis”, describing cases from UK, Tanzania, Canada, Kenya, USA, Ireland, Belgium, Netherlands, Australia, Austria, Germany and probably a few other places that I have missed.

    It is time to realise that this is, if not normal behaviour by priests, at least distressingly common.

    It is not a problem of just the way some seminary or other has trained its priests, it is worldwide.

    It is not a problem of sexual licence introduced to the world in the 1960s, it has been going on much longer than that.

    It is not a problem of a few rotten apples, it is too widespread for that.

    It is not a problem of homosexuality, some abusers (Cunningham himself for instance) were heterosexual.

    It is not a problem of liberalism, abuse was going on before Vatican II.

    Of course, this individual example of the problem is going to have to be resolved in a way that offers some degree of justice and healing to the victims. It is tragic and scandalous that Fr Myers and the Rosminians are digging their heels in against this.

    But the wider causes of the problem must be addressed, and real effort put into introducing proper child protection measures everywhere in the church, and more importantly, establishing a culture of awareness and zero tolerance.

    No more saying “Oh, but Fr Kit was a wonderful priest who brought lots of people to the faith”, as if that excuses his actions. It doesn’t.

    No more saying “Fr XYZ would never do such a thing” and so failing to pass on a report or allegation of abuse. We know that priests – even very prominent priests – can do such a thing.

    No more of the attitude that equates reporting abuse with an attack on the priesthood or on the church itself, unless you want the church to remain in a position where it institutionalises the defence and protection of paedophiles and sexual abusers.

    That such a prominent priest as Fr Kit Cunningham, who knew everybody who was anybody in London Catholic circles, should have been revealed to be an abuser will be making a lot of people feel awfully foolish and betrayed today. Let this be a wake-up call. Abuse isn’t something that only affects other people and places. Nobody can be treated as being above suspicion, and robust protection measures are needed to ensure that any abuse that happens near you is detected quickly and stopped immediately. That is happening in some places, but not nearly enough.

  • Oliver

    Or perhaps Fr. Collins is telling the truth and his accusers are lying through their teeth. Have any of the prating sanctimonious creeps posting here thought of THAT? All that is certain is that the “victims” here have their snouts in the money-trough. The Order tried to placate them by forcing the priests to write signed confessions. Bad idea! That only made things worse, and when the cheques eventually change hands they’ll be worse still. The Rosminians won’t just have brought ignominy down on the heads of their priests. They’ll have bought it as well.

  • kevin robertson

    My son, give glory to the Lord God of Israel, and confess, and tell me what thou hast done, hide it not. (Joshua 7:19)

    There can be no redemption without confession, no repentance  without acceptance of responsibility for our sins, no restoration without restitution. 

    Restitution is gonna hurt. But there’s no other way. Painful as it may be, we must look long and hard in the mirror, know ourselves for who we are and own it.

  • Jeannine

    I believe it was 1 of the reasons why the Vatican audited, interviewed & sent questionnaires to all convents housing sisters who had public apostolates, about 2 yrs ago in the USA.

  • dufus

    absolutely awful- i felt so sorry for these men being broken so low and having to build their lives around what happened to them as children. The men who did this  are liars , dispicable and gosteque . How dare they ask for forgiveness so trivially. They should be punished no matter how old they are now and the victims should be paid compensation  whether it helps them or not. I hope you men can carry on with the rest of your lives now without dwelling on images of them and what they did. May the real ‘god’ bless you all.

  • Anonymous

    This is a disgraceful comment. You should think of the feelings of the victims before accusing them of lying on the basis of nothing but far-fetched speculation. 

  • John Bowles

    And perhaps you should consider the feelings of the wrongly accused, if that is the case. 

  • John Bowles

    No Jeannine, it was because they have all become bead wearing, crystal sucking, guitar twanging, dungaree wearing, new age feminists. Bring back the old days. Mary Rutley has a lot to be grateful for.

  • Anonymous

    I do believe that there is a serious risk of putting up some of the good wheat while we are ripping out the tares. The church needs to be very careful not to automatically assume that all accusers are victims. Otherwise I suspect at some future date the church will be apologizing again, this time to falsely accused priests that it failed to support or defend.

  • Guest

    Money which generations of the poor gave to the Church must not be used to ‘make good’ for the vile behaviour of a few, as though money could solve these problems.

    I’d rather see every guilty Rosminian in prison than have one penny of the Faithful’s money given away.

  • Jeannine

    Your mentioning of the other reason is absolutely true! Not wearing their habits & practicing new age stuff is a good indication that they may not be following their order’s charism. 

    When I was a youngster in the 1970s I not only heard about priests abusing children but also sisters abusing children too. As the poster, Jonathan West implied we’ve only scratched the surface.

    BTW, Mary Rutley should not have witnessed or been a victim of any cruelty dished out by a sister. Good, holy sisters never gave children hell in boarding schools or in any other environment.

  • Guest

    Photograph is of victim of Bernard Collins at Grace Dieu Manor Preparatory School, not Soni.

  • Tagati


    I have a letter of apology from three of the priests, as the fourth was unable due to mental health.
    Some students started talking about abuse 5 years ago, online, and of course we spoke about it with our parents, but were ignored.
    There were many that went through the school at Soni, unaware of what was happening.
    To say that we are lying about the abuse is absurd, as why would we have letters of apology?
    I was not in the film as I chose not to participate, as no one knows about this in my circles, and I would prefer it remained out of my colleagues knowledge. I also withdrew from the compensation group, as it was getting nasty with the Rosminians saying they don’t believe in compensation..
    I will say however that if some money is going to be given out to everyone who was abused, I will not say no, as my elderly parents could use it in their old age, as they paid a lot of money in the 60s and 70s to put us through school, three brothers.
    They can not compensate just those who are suing them, as many did not know about the lawsuit.
    Thank you


  • Wayne

    I was there, this happened.
    Years have been spent by many individuals to bring this “out”, for your “viewing pleasure”
    Some seem to miss the fact that this is about exposure, revelation, and truth, and hopefully some closure.
    I hope we are a voice that will aid all children world wide

  • Anon

    As a child, I served on the altar for Cunningham for several years. Like most people who knew him, I liked and admired him. He was a big character – full of anecdotes and good natured jokes. His sermons were amusing and blessedly short. A French priest and World War II veteran, Jean-Marie Charles-Roux had earlier provided the heavyweight theological counterpoint to Fr Kit’s jovial English bluster. The services were beautiful and the parishioners were proud of their colourful priest. He always had a few friendly words for his young altar servers.

    I’d long since stopped attending Ethel’s when he finally retired and was sad to hear of his death a couple years later, assuming that would be the last I’d ever hear of the man. It’s been a huge shock to see the documentary and the incredibly sad, and undoubtedly sincere testimonies of his now middle-aged victims.

    I finally know how all the neighbours of murderers and terrorists feel when they say they would never have guessed as the man next door always seemed so nice. If Fr Kit could be a child molester, then anyone can be anything. Somehow the world is a slightly darker place.

  • Midsummer

    What is so very disturbing is the delusion of the Rosminian
    Friars, Fr. David Myers, that the religious texts and prayers over
    rides the law of the land. Not so.  The law of the land has been
    determined by ongoing democratic societies and their tooled legislation. 
    These are societies that have seen fit to separate the church from the
    state. It is very clear cut case, having seen the evidence presented in the
    BBC   that the men who have decided to sue the Rosminians have found
    their voice. They are now seeking justice and I seriously doubt they, like a Tsunami
    that has gathered force and speed over decades, will be stopped.It is far
    too late for Fr David Myers to learn lessons  as he was the given the
    opportunity and chose to withdrawn and remain silent! His irresponsibility only
    furthers the humiliation and abuse of dignity and humanity these men so desperately
    need. There is no possibility of restorative justice while Fr. David Myers is
    in denial…That is why the men resort to the law of the land. And it is
    very clear those who withhold evidence and do nothing knowing the crime will be
    deemed complicit, responsible and rightly punished.

  • Guest 2

    I have every sympathy with the victims and abhor the acts  but if a family member becomes a paedophile the family are not expected to pay compensation. The individual does. Why must church members pay for something another individual does. Even if it were my son who was a paedophile & I had covered up for himI would not be expected to pay compensation

  • Jonathan West

    If you had covered up your son’s abuses, then you would have shared in the responsibility and you would be liable. You might actually be criminally liable as well as liable for civil damages.

    To suggest that the church should not have to pay compensation in this or similar cases is to establish a principle that no charity would have have to concern itself with the harm done by its employees, since to pay compensation would impede the ability of the charity to do good, and would in turn cause the money given by the donors to be diverted to a purpose other than the one for which they intended the money to be used.

    Once you get past the special pleading for the Catholic Church, I’m sure you will see how bad a principle that is.

  • Amanda

    I truly hope that those who suffered abuse eventually find some peace. That there are people who abuse religion in this way is beyond words – unfortunately we have so many examples of abuse from so many different sources it is something that unfortunately I have come to realise is widespread in the Catholic church. I question if the priests in question truly believe in God as I cannot imagine a God that would forgive abuse/torture of children in any form. I am a Catholic, although not practising and it is a crime that the church cover up these issues and allow Priests to hide within it.

  • Claireriche2

    My pleading is not for the Catholic Church. It is an inner belief which I hold very strongly that Christ died for all our sins. We therefore do not hold a corporarate  guilt for the sins of others so should not be asked to pay compensation individually and anything paid by the “church” is paid by those of us in the church. I feel just as strongly when individuals get large government funded  compensation paid from our taxes. That is not why I pay taxes. I also disagree with people of this generation having to make public apologies for wrongs of the past generations. It does not make sense to me. If my grandfather was killed years ago and all our family have been brought up to believe that all our misfortunes today are a result of his being killed an apology today from one of his family who did not even know the killer would be meaningless to me. I regard all the above in the same light. I still feel absolutely devastated by the experiences of the Rosminian boys and pray constantly that God will somehow compensate them in His own way & give hem peace.  

  • Mary Rutley

    Should I really be grateful for being sexually assaulted by a nun at my Catholic boarding school when I was four years old?

  • Wayne

    Perhaps the SPC band of bothers have lost a few sister?

  • Bill Allen in Oz

    Not all of us who went to Soni all those years ago were sexually abused.  Some, an unknown number, most certainly were, and I know / knew several and narrowly escaped myself.  The vast majority of those hundreds that were pupils at that establishment were actually mentally and spiritually abused, as well as brutalised by the most vicious and regular of beatings.  The permanent terror that permeated this place has affected far more than those just sexually abused.   This whole saga is not just about some deviant paedophiles, who by the way confessed and apologised to all those that have officially complained.  It is also about a brutal regime allowed to run unchecked for twenty years by its leadership in UK and Rome.