Suffer the little children
The Catholic Church not only allowed priests to destroy hundreds of young lives, it blamed the victims and covered up the crimes for decades. For Laurie Taylor it’s personal
I began my diary in February 1949 when I was just 12 years old and two years into my stay at the Sacred Heart Boarding School in Droitwich. Even though the writing has now faded it’s still clear enough to reveal my childhood preoccupations. There was my constant concern with accumulating money. “Collected debts up to amount of 4/6d.” “Got 3/- PO from granny.” “Found myself with 8/6d when I had collected up my debts.”
Even more space is devoted to religious observance. “Went to communion and offered it up for Mummy.” “Retreat was on today. Made my Lent resolution and I am going to try and keep it.” “Passion Sunday today. Did not serve mass. This is the first time I have not served for the last five Sundays.”
And then, running like a thread through all the assiduous debt collecting and pious altar serving, is my friendship with Richard Glenister. “Founded a club for essays with Glenister. Decided to read only good books.” “Had a bit of a quarrel with Glenister but made it up quickly.” “Memo. To try and keep up the Literature Club with Glenister and not let anyone else in.”
But nowhere in the closely written pages is there a single reference or a solitary allusion to the most significant feature of my life at boarding school with Richard. There is not a word about the fact that at the time we were both being sexually abused by two of the priests who ran the school.
Probably because he was a far prettier boy than me, Richard bore the brunt of these assaults. Whereas I had to endure little more than having my penis stroked by Father Dunworth during my weekly bath – “we must always make sure to wash this little part very thoroughly,” he’d say, wetting the sleeve of his cassock as he dipped his hand below the water – Richard was regularly called out of his dormitory bed at night and made to stand naked in front of Father Hodgson.
We talked to each other about what was going on. We knew that it was not right but both of us were caught in the trap that has been described so well by other victims of the Catholic priesthood. Our deeply ingrained religious beliefs made it almost impossible to believe that priests could be anything other than holy men. Somehow we must be the sinners. And, of course, the priests knew how to play upon this belief. “Look what’s happening to you,” they’d say when their gropings produced an involuntary erection. “Look at that. You’re a very naughty boy. But if you keep quiet I won’t say anything about it.”
Somehow, though, we plucked up enough courage to go and see the headmaster, Father Lythgoe, with our concerns. We stood nervously alongside each other in his office and made our complaint. Said that we didn’t like to be touched. Said that we thought it was wrong.
He told us that we were making very serious accusations. These priests were holy men. Very holy men. Their lives were devoted to the service of God. Didn’t we know about the missionary work that Father Dunworth had done in Africa? And why were we the only ones who had ever complained? Were we really so free of sin ourselves that we could afford to accuse others of wrongdoing?
Only a few weeks after this meeting Richard became ill. My diary says, “Poor old Richard. He is definitely feeling ill today. Hope tomorrow is nicer than today.” On the next day Richard was moved from the dormitory to a separate room. I was not allowed to see him. My diary records the official story. “All my hopes about Richard getting better are washed away.”
The final entry in my diary is for the following day. “Glenister has gone home and I feel terribly lonely and a bit homesick. What an awful day it has been.”
Richard never came back. I never saw him again. My parents visited me shortly afterwards and I told them about Richard’s sudden departure. I also told them briefly about how we’d complained about the priests. It must have been quite enough for my father because shortly afterwards he withdrew me from the school.
When I went on fretting about Richard, mother finally told me the secret which the headmaster had imparted to her. Richard hadn’t come back because he’d been expelled. Why had he been expelled? Mother said that according to the headmaster there’d been no other option. Richard, 12-year-old Richard, he’d explained, was “a homosexual” and had therefore been told that there was no longer any place for him in a Catholic school.
It was years before I fully recognised the brutal horror of this ploy. Not just the manner in which it inverted the truth but the way in which such an absurd verdict might have impinged upon Richard for the rest of his childhood and adolescence.
But I now realise, after reading through the 650 pages of the recently published Report into the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin, that the cynicism of my Droitwich headmaster in the face of accusations of sexual abuse was almost a minor matter compared to what complainants of such abuse had to endure in the Irish Republic.
For unlike the earlier and more publicised Ryan Report, which established that thousands of boys and girls in the Irish Republic had been subject to rape and sexual molestation by priests and nuns, this latest enquiry carried out by a Commission of Investigation concerned itself solely with the ways in which the Church and State authorities in Ireland handled allegations of child sexual abuse by clerics. All in all it provides a chilling account of what happened to hundreds of Irish children and their parents who were brave enough to pursue their allegations beyond the stage that poor Richard and I attained at the Sacred Heart College.
As the Report shows over and over again, there was a general refusal by the Church authorities to acknowledge or recognise any allegations of child sexual abuse unless they were made in strong and explicit terms. Individual complaints about particular priests were often simply ignored, with the complainant hardly ever made aware that many other complaints had been made about the priest in question. Accusers were also told that they were now bound by an oath of silence and must not take their complaints elsewhere. They were reminded that the penalty for the breach of this injunction would be excommunication.
But the truly devastating aspect of the Report lies in the details it gives of what happened to any complaint that did make it through the initial thicket of denial and obfuscation and get as far as the bishops or archbishops who were supposedly responsible for the conduct of the priests within their diocese.
For even though, according to the Report, these ecclesiastical dignitaries appear to have accepted the validity of most of the complaints, time after time they failed to invoke any sanctions whatsoever against those priests whose deeds had been laid before them. In some cases the priests were moved to another parish, but when this occurred members of the new parish or institution were given no knowledge of their new cleric’s past behaviour. In other cases the abusers were sent away for a short time to the church’s own therapeutic facility and then allowed to return to full priestly duties.
Altogether the Commission examined a representative sample of 42 priests in their study of Church and State reactions to abuse. Nearly every case tells a story of shocking inaction to sexual abuse which in many cases stretched over several decades.
Consider the story of Father James McNamee. The first allegation against him dates back to 1960 when a former altar boy spoke to another priest about McNamee acting in an inappropriate manner with some members of the local football club. He had not only showered with the naked adolescent boys but had also placed the naked boys on his shoulders.
These matters were investigated by the auxiliary bishop, Bishop Dunne, who accepted McNamee’s innocent version of the events, as did Archbishop McQuaid when the matter came to his attention. The Archbishop noted that “as he is a worthy priest I agree that we could not refuse to accept his word.”
But McNamee’s interest in bathing with naked boys was far from sated. He proceeded to construct a private swimming pool in his own garden. The records of the Archdiocese show that several complaints about incidents at the pool were made to both the local bishop and archbishop. But again nothing was done until a complaint came in from a parishioner that Father McNamee and a number of boys were exercising in the nude in the swimming pool and that a nude boy had sat on the priest’s knee for a chat. A parish priest was asked to investigate. He found the story credible and concluded that “a possibly explosive situation exists locally, which could be very scandalous indeed.” He then consulted with the local curate and other priests who knew McNamee. From these he learned that only selected boys were allowed to use McNamee’s private pool and that he was also known for holding the hands of young boys in the playground and taking young boys for spins in his car.
When finally asked about these allegations McNamee confirmed that he had built the swimming pool himself and that owing to space constraints only six boys were permitted in the pool at any one time. He admitted that nude bathing did occasionally occur but did not see anything morally wrong with this. He indicated his desire to retire from active ministry but was encouraged by the authorities to stay on as parish priest “in order to avoid any damage to his reputation”.
It was not that much of a reputation. Father McNamee was so well known in the area at the time for his habit of picking up young boys in his car and abusing them, that he was known by the local youth as “Father smack my gee” (Dublin slang for female genitalia).
Finally, in 1979, nearly 30 years on from the date of the first complaint, Father McNamee’s resignation was accepted and he was appointed chaplain to a Carmelite monastery. The Carmelites were only told that he’d been appointed “for health reasons”. It sounds as though his health soon picked up. After saying mass every morning he’d happily set off to the seaside for a long swim with a selection of local altar boys.
Following further complaints, McNamee was at last seen by a Bishop Murray who asked him whether he had any concerns about the recent scandals relating to child sexual abuse, suggesting that there had been some things suggested about him in this area. McNamee replied that this was “just talk, talk, talk. There is a kind of conspiracy going on: people seeing evil where there is none. A lot of what is been (sic) said is evil and mischievous. The people who make false allegations are themselves evil.”
In March 1995, 35 years after the first of a long series of ineffectual complaints to the church authorities, a new complainant reported his concerns about McNamee to the Garda (the police). But although an investigation was requested, for some unexplained reason the request did not arrive at the proper place until four months after the complaint was made. In the end, the DPP declined to prosecute.
Appalling stories like this might never have been made public if the Church authorities had been allowed to have their way. Archbishop Connell told the Commission that giving access to archdiocesan files “created the greatest crisis in my position as Archbishop” because it conflicted with his duty to his priests. “I think you’ve got to remember … that confidentiality is absolutely essential to the working of a bishop because if people cannot have confidence that he will keep information that they give him confidential, they won’t come to him. And the same is true of priests.”
And the three other archbishops who presided over the Dublin archdiocese in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s all seemed to have subscribed wholeheartedly to this view. In all those years not one of them reported any aspect of their extensive knowledge of child sex abuse to the Garda.
But even if they had done what was required of them under civil law there is still no guarantee that the serial sex offenders in the priesthood would have found their activities drastically curtailed. Complainants who by-passed the Church and went straight to the law were often met with delay and downright cover-up.
Senior figures in the Church who sought to excuse their record of complacency and neglect spoke of being on a “learning curve” in relation to the issue of sexual abuse. But as the Report observes this explanation is somewhat difficult to reconcile with the news that the Archdiocese took out insurance cover for any compensation claims against its priests as early as 1987. This sounds rather more like deep cynicism than a growing recognition of the need to halt the abuse.
As you read this report you are gradually aware of one glaring omission from all the accounts given by bishops and archbishops of their reasons for inaction: a concern about the damage that these serial abusers were inflicting upon young children. Whenever any mention is made of harm or damage it is always in reference to the standing and reputation of the priest. It is this that must be protected at all costs.
It is a testament to the authors of the Report that they not only lay bare the structural failures of Church and law which allowed the serial abuse to occur but also reinstate the welfare of the children concerned at the heart of their final damning indictment.
“The Commission has no doubt that clerical child sexual abuse was covered up by the Archdiocese of Dublin and other Church authorities….The structures and rules of the Catholic Church facilitated that cover-up. The State authorities facilitated the cover-up by not fulfilling their responsibilities to ensure that the law was applied equally to all and allowing the Church institutions to be beyond the reach of the normal law enforcement processes. The welfare of children, which should have the first priority, was not even a factor to be considered in the early stages. Instead the focus was on the avoidance of scandal and the preservation of the good name, status and assets of the institution and of what the institution regarded as its most important members – the priests….It is the responsibility of the State to ensure that no similar institutional immunity is ever allowed again.”
Meanwhile back in Droitwich, England, a housing estate now covers the area once occupied by the Sacred Heart College. There is, though, still a Facebook site for the college on which over 53 members are busily engaged in exchanging their memories of former pupils and teachers. Richard Glenister and Father Dunworth have not so far rated a mention.