Sins of the fathers: child sex abuse in the Catholic Church
Two new books highlight the horrific scale of child sex abuse within Catholic institutions in Britain.
This article is a preview from the Winter 2014 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
Betrayed: The English Catholic Church and the Sex Abuse Crisis (Biteback) by Richard Scorer.
The Devil’s Advocate: Child Abuse and the Men in Black (Devil’s Advocate Library) by Graham Wilmer
Priestly sex abuse has done far more harm to the Catholic Church in the USA, Canada, Ireland and Australia than it has in Britain, which leads some British Catholics to the comforting conclusion that there is less of it here. But at least 61 Catholic priests have been convicted of sexual offences in the criminal courts of England and Wales since 1990, and there may well be more, for the church still has no single centralised record of known offenders.
However, American courts award much higher sums in compensation to victims, which is why American dioceses have been ruined. And the English Catholic Church has been ruthless in its efforts to keep the lid on the scandal, to silence victims, and to protect priests who use young children for their own sexual gratification.
Over and over again, the princes of the church have silently and cynically moved a priest from one school or parish where he was discovered to be abusing children, to another where he was unknown and could find more children to abuse. Of course children were abused in many institutions, not just Catholic ones, but the fact, though Catholics refuse to face it, is that the church had a culture of abuse like no other organisation. If there was ever any doubt about that, two new books have dispelled it.
Richard Scorer is a lawyer who has represented many victims of priestly sexual abuse. He has written Betrayal in clear, luminous prose, telling us only what he has heard and seen. He avoids conjecture, does not seem to be anti-Catholic and does not editorialise. The result is compulsive reading.
Scorer tells us of Fathers Grant-Ferris and Carroll, discovered to be abusing boys at the up-market Benedictine public school Ampleforth. So they were exiled to what were known as mission parishes – poor areas with rapidly growing populations of Irish Catholic immigrants – where no one was told they were sex offenders. There they abused poor children, who were less likely to make a fuss.
Graham Wilmer was a victim of abuse at a school run by Salesian priests. When he finally found the courage to tell the priests what had happened, they asked him probing questions about his own developing sexuality, and forced him out of the school. The man who destroyed his life, not a priest but a lay teacher, was offered a job at another Salesian school, where he taught for three more decades until his retirement.
Wilmer told the story in his compelling first book, Conspiracy of Faith. His new book, The Devil’s Advocate, is an account of his work since then to uncover the culture of abuse in the Catholic Church generally and the Salesian order in particular, and the growing body of evidence that suggests that the priests who made him feel like the guilty party were themselves prolific child abusers.
It is fair to say that The Devil’s Advocate is not as stylish or forceful as Wilmer’s first book, mainly because he quotes a large number of documents verbatim. The story would be told better if he had summarised their contents, though I understand why he wanted to put them on the record.
But it’s an important book. The publication of Conspiracy of Faith emboldened dozens of others, once frightened and abused children, now confused and unhappy middle-aged men, to come forward with their own dreadful memories, both of the abuse and of the Salesian order’s ruthless drive to sweep it under the carpet, and their testimony makes harrowing reading.
What neither Scorer nor Wilmer can tell you is why there is so much child abuse in the Catholic Church and when it started. The earliest cases we know about date from the 1950s, and it’s hardly likely that earlier ones will come forward now. Scorer does tell us that one prolific child abuser, Father John Tolkien, was himself abused as a child in the 1930s, in the home of his famous father, Lord of the Rings author and Catholic convert JRR Tolkien. The abuser was a distinguished Catholic man of letters, whose identity Father Tolkien frustratingly took with him to his grave. So how long has it been going on? Decades? Centuries? Millennia?
Scorer tells us that Catholic boys in the 1950s and ’60s knew it was going on, even those who were not directly affected, and I can confirm that. I was not abused by the Jesuits who taught me, and neither were any boys I knew – not sexually, anyway, though it seems to me at least arguable that regular beatings and enforced religious belief and practice constitute abuse of some kind. But that’s a different matter.
But we all knew it was commonplace. It was the stock playground joke: Father So-and-So was “a homo”, Father Such-and-Such had a crush on this or that younger boy. We were, I think, generally wrong in our specific assumptions, but we were not wrong about the culture.
Our parents knew, too. I remember, when I was 12, telling my parents about a priest from a local retreat house who regularly fell into conversation with me on my walk from school to the station, and they started asking elaborately casual questions. I remember too the priest who used to write to me regularly, and how my parents would always contrive to see the letter. They did not know the word “grooming” but they knew the practice. Yet they still wanted me to be taught by priests. It is a mystery.
As to why is it so strong in the Catholic Church, some say it is down to the requirement for priests to be celibate, but I don’t buy that. I think the answer is power. Sex abuse is, as much as anything, an abuse of power. The Catholic Church, in relation to the faithful, is very powerful, as a religion has to be when so much relies on revelation and authority. Scorer quotes the mother of one victim saying: “I had never contradicted a priest.” He says the priest “sees the role of the laity as being to pay, pray and obey.” The priest has the power to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, and to forgive sins.
The connection with power helps explain why sexual abuse goes with the violence that was also a part of much Catholic education for as long as it was legal. It was well known that the Christian Brothers got their kicks by beating young boys to a pulp. My father, much as he wanted me to have a Catholic education, would have sent me anywhere before he let me go to the Christian Brothers. Wilmer chillingly describes how, on his first day with the Salesians, the old priest who taught him, whose body smelled and whose black cassock had a heavy dusting of dandruff, hit him suddenly and sharply in the face.
The Catholic Church has had to call on all that fear and all that authority to keep the lid on the child abuse scandal, and it has not worked. Or has it? The Salesians still have five secondary schools in the UK, and most of them are now state schools, which means that the state education budget is paying for them. If we must have faith schools in the state system, might we not at least demand some proof of fitness from the organisations we pay to run them?