Brendan O’Neill Brendan O’Neill

Confessional culture

The costs of our prurient fascination with decades-old abuse

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.

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