He had been granted the grace of ‘time for amendment of life’; and he had used it well

Like Fr Alexander Lucie- Smith, I, too have come to the conclusion “after much hesitation” that I have to say something about Fr Kit Cunningham. This is not an easy topic to write about. I have written about child abuse in the Church before; and however much you make it plain that this is a crime for which there is no excuse, if you try to write about it in anything less than an uncompromisingly condemnatory way you will be accused of trying to excuse this hideous crime or in some other way diminish its seriousness.

This is the first time I have personally known one of these “monsters”, as one of his victims described him. And at first, I simply did not credit it (I suppose that’s why it’s so easy to cover these things up – nobody believes it). I was glad that Fr Kit had died before having to run the gamut of what I assumed were a string of unjust and fantastic accusations (it would not have been the first time, after all, that a priest had been falsely accused). But there was no getting away from it. The accusations weren’t unjust or fantastic: he had accepted that they were true. He wrote to the victims asking for their forgiveness: he resigned the MBE he had been given for his services to the community.

It is as though the abusive priest, the “monster” he undoubtedly had been, and the good and kindly priest I knew were different people. And of course the reason for that perception is that they were different people: not because behind the kindly façade there still lurked the monster I was too imperceptive to detect, but because however bad you are, with God’s grace it really is possible truly to change: and he had changed. Ever since these dreadful crimes were revealed, I have had another of the Anglican prayers I wrote about the other day – this time the words of absolution after the General Confession from the Book of Common Prayer – running through my mind. The minister says: “The Almighty and merciful God grant unto you, being penitent, pardon and remission of all your sins, time for amendment of life, and the grace and comfort of his Holy Spirit.” That’s what Fr Kit had been granted, being penitent: “time for amendment of life”. And during that time, over 40 years of it, he had indeed amended his life. He had become a different person.

It is also true, of course, that though he had amended his own life, the lives of his victims had been permanently scarred. And now, the greatly loved Fr Kit will be remembered by most people for the lasting harm that he did, for the crimes he committed. Perhaps it is right that it should be so. But it is surely also right that he should be remembered too, by some at least, not only as the evil-doer he had been, but also as the person he had become. He did great harm to a number of people: but he also did a great deal of good to many others. So let us remember, too, the words of Fr Alexander (who knew him well in his latter days) in his Tablet obituary, about “his profound loyalty and love for the Church and the Gospel” and about “those he helped in distress…” Fr Alexander was right to say that “his sense of good humour and his kindness of heart will be remembered by many with profound gratitude”. Despite everything, they will be remembered by me, for one. Consider, too, the words of Mary Kenny, written in shock after the dreadful revelations about his past life had been blazoned across the media:

Fr Kit Cunningham, who died last December in Dublin, was one of my oldest friends. He was an adorable man; great fun; a little too fond of the vino, perhaps; and, on occasions, a benign flirt with the ladies – he had that unmistakeable glint in his eye of a man who likes women…

Above all, Kit was kind. As rector [of St Etheldreda’s] Kit never overlooked the down-and-outs who often came to the door for help. He set up a special cafeteria to feed the needy…..

We wonder why clerical abuse was “covered up”, as well as how it could have occurred. Now I know the answer. Because, at first, you just cannot believe it. It seems so utterly uncharacteristic of the guy you knew.… he was always so kind to all our children… he was like a genuine father. My sons and my niece had enormous respect and affection for Kit—and they knew him from childhood. You just cannot put together the man you have known and the “monster”.

No, indeed; you can’t put them together: because they were different people. There had been a conversion, a metanoia, a “turning again”. It is, after all, the whole point of the Christian religion. Of course, the law, rightly, takes no cognisance of such things. And if he had still been alive, the law would doubtless have taken its course. He would have ended his days either behind bars or, at the very least, in public disgrace. And few would have had any sympathy for him.

Perhaps I am wrong to say so: but I am profoundly grateful that it never came to that.