If you were sexually abused by a Catholic priest nearly 50 years ago, and that priest was now dying or dead, would it not be wise to keep it to yourself? This awkward question invaded my mind as I watched last week’s BBC1 documentary Abused: Breaking the Silence. It featured mature, respectable and successful men recounting in eye-watering detail what was done to their penises by priests at a Rosminian boarding school in Tanzania in the 1960s. We were meant to be shocked by the alleged foul behaviour. I found myself more shocked by the willingness of these otherwise decorous men to make an emotional spectacle of themselves.
Of course the allegations are very serious. It sounds as if these children of the 1960s suffered a terrible ordeal of fear and abuse in a remote, inescapable school. The men claim that Father Kit Cunningham MBE and other priests groped and fondled them when they were pupils at the school more than 40 years ago. The accusations against Fr Cunningham in particular have sent shockwaves through the media. Cunningham, who died in December last year, was a well-known, apparently convivial man of the cloth, who later in life, following his alleged reign of perversity in Tanzania, became parish priest of the posh St Etheldreda’s Church in Ely Place in London. He had lots of buddies on Fleet Street, many of whom have now written of their alarm at discovering that their mate was an ogre. Perhaps the most disturbing part of this story is the fact that the Rosminian order knew about the abuse and did nothing about it.
Yet at the same time as we rightly question the morality of a religious institution that seeks to cover up sexual abuse, we are also at liberty to ask about the motivations of those who reveal the details of that sexual abuse almost half a decade after it is said to have occurred. Why now? Why go on BBC1 in 2011 to tell a million viewers about something that was allegedly done to you in 1964 or 1965? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that we live in a warped therapeutic era, in which people are implored to reveal everything about their pasts. We are urged to redefine ourselves as emotional basket cases, permanently screwed up by some sad or humiliating event in our childhood.
What really shone through in the BBC documentary — unwittingly, since this was clearly intended as just another titillating film about paedo priests — is that the contemporary Cult of Revelation is now so powerful that it can even tempt well-bred, well-spoken men to weep for the cameras and advertise their wounds. Evil Cunningham and company had turned them into damaged goods, and now, via the public therapy offered by an apparently selfless and caring BBC, they hoped to face up to their ‘demons’ and repair their self-esteem.
The trend for inviting Catholic men in their fifties and sixties to redefine themselves as mental victims of childhood experience is even more pronounced in Ireland and America. In Ireland, the state has explicitly invited its citizens to reimagine themselves as the hapless, unwitting victims of warped Catholic authority. In 1999, the Dublin government unveiled the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, which invited Irish-born people around the world to report instances of abuse that they experienced in Catholic reform schools in Ireland between 1914 and 1989. The commission said that such abuse has a ‘debilitating’ impact on individuals, and it listed various adult problems that can be attributed to childhood sexual abuse: ‘poverty, social isolation, alcoholism, mental illness, aggressive behaviour, self-harm, alcohol and substance abuse, and eating disorders’.
Thus, a whole host of social problems, which have myriad causes, are traced back to and blamed on some priests groping children in the 1950s or 1960s. Priestly perversion is held up as something that can warp not only human beings but society itself. It is not surprising that a majority of submissions to the Irish commission concerned the period 1960 to 1969; more than half of all the claims of sexual abuse against boys during the period of 1914 and 1989 were for that decade. That is not because priests suddenly became more abusive in the 1960s than they were in the 1940s and 1950s, but because the people who attended Catholic institutions in the 1960s were in many ways the main target of the commission. They would have been in their mid-forties to mid-fifties when the commission kicked off in 1999 and many of them would have suffered long-term unemployment, health problems and other disappointments. Reporting their misfortunes to the commission offered them the chance not only of getting financial compensation, but also of validating their difficult life experiences as a result of their having been abused.
In such a climate, is it not inevitable that some people will make these revelations, not for the sake of transparency or establishing an on-the-record account of what was done in certain Catholic institutions, but as a way of absolving themselves? The cult of revelation presents itself as being in the interests of the victim, but in fact it can have a pernicious impact on their lives. It encourages them to relinquish responsibility for their adult experiences and urges them to embrace the worst kind of fatalism.
This is a dangerous and destructive dynamic. It benefits no one, except perhaps the therapeutic and publishing industries, which make money from terrible deeds and pornographic, tell-all memoirs. It is time, surely, to make a distinction between transparency and titillation, between the perfectly acceptable demand that the Church account for its past actions and the transformation of those past actions into entertainment for the public. Of course anyone who was abused by a priest who is still alive and active should feel free to complain or press charges as they see fit, and the Church should cease its habit of shifting guilty priests from one parish or school to another. But for those adults who were abused decades ago by now frail or deceased priests, I believe that they would be better off keeping it private, rather than letting it all hang out on BBC TV.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 2, 2011