Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor has said he has become a “wounded healer” who can help to rid the Catholic Church of the evil of child abuse.
The Emeritus Archbishop of Westminster told priests gathered at St Patrick’s College at Maynooth, near Dublin, that his ministry as a bishop was marred by a single mistake in the 1990s while Bishop of Arundel and Brighton.
He referred to his appointment of Michael Hill as chaplain to Gatwick Airport, near London, in spite of receiving credible allegations against him. Hill went on to abuse again, and one of his victims was a 14-year-old boy confined to a wheelchair because he had cerebral palsy. The priest was later jailed for five years.
In a speech on Tuesday at Ireland’s national seminary and pontifical university, the Cardinal said: “The things I remember about my life as a priest are not the successes but rather the failures and one particular and painful failure occurred 10 years ago when, owing to my grave mishandling of a priest who was an abuser, I was attacked and vilified for nearly two years.
“How well I remember the feelings of failure and isolation and shame, not so much for myself but for my family, my diocese, for the Catholic people of England and Wales who, to a certain extent, felt the shame of my own failure and of child abuse in general,” he said. “But I also began to understand in a new way, by talking with victims, the pain and grave damage done to them. I say this to show, I suppose, that I myself am not free from blame but have had to learn from mistakes to become, as someone described it, a wounded healer.
“From that experience I learnt yet again to pray for perseverance, obedience to my vocation, and of suffering in a way which I did not expect and which, in the end, brought some positive benefit because of the national safeguarding policies, procedures and structures which are now in place and used in all our parishes and dioceses in England and Wales.”
The Cardinal’s remarks came at the Maynooth Union 2010, a celebration bringing together the “jubilee classes” of priests ordained in 1950, 1960 and 1985 along with many others. They also coincided with the final celebrations of Pope Benedict XVI’s Year of the Priest.
The 77-year-old Cardinal, who was born in Reading, Berkshire, to Irish parents, was last month named as one of nine apostolic visitors to Ireland following the clerical abuse scandals.
He has been given responsibility for the Archdiocese of Armagh, historically seen as the most pre-eminent of the four Irish archdioceses.
The Cardinal was invited as guest speaker to Maynooth before his appointment but his speech focused on the issue of abuse and he told priests that their sense of loss, betrayal and mistrust was nothing compared to the suffering of the victims of such crimes.
He also invited his audience to learn from St Luke’s account of the “road to Emmaus” when Jesus accompanied two disciples mourning his crucifixion.
The Cardinal explained how the story suggested that hope and renewal could grow from shame and devastation. “My sense is that we are on that same road as those disciples,” said Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor. “Though the recent revelations about child abuse and the failure at so many levels of the Church’s leadership can make it difficult, I believe we can have confidence in the road that we are walking. I want to assure you, there is the joy of resurrection after suffering and death.
He said it was clear that the Church could not repeat the “formulas of the past” that had given rise to the abuse crisis.
“Some have spoken of this time as the ‘dark night’ of the Church in Ireland,” he said. “Yet, painful though the dark night is, we know it is also a time of learning; a time of purifying and of trusting. In the dark night all we have is our faith that God has not abandoned us.”
In the wake of the Hill scandal Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, then Archbishop of Westminster, asked Lord Nolan to review child protection procedures in the Church in England and Wales.
The recommendations were published in 2001 and revised five years later with the result that the bishops of England and Wales now have one of the toughest child protection regimes in the world, and numbers of allegations have fallen dramatically in the past five years.
The latest figures show that in 2008, 51 allegations were received against 38 priests, religious, lay employees, volunteers and parishioners. Two of these have resulted in prison terms. The English and Welsh bishops invited Catholics to carry out acts of penance each Friday in May to help atone for clerical abuse crimes.