Exclusive: Sins of the Father

Inside the Catholic Church's secret treatment centre for paedophile priests in Britain
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The Independent Online

I look at the three men who are sitting in the Portakabin before me. They seem ordinary enough. And yet there is something about them that is desperately menacing. Is this all just in my mind, or is it really there, I ask myself for the umpteenth time in our encounter. The three men are all Roman Catholic priests. They are also child-molesters. So much has been said in recent times about the phenomenon of the paedophile priest. And now, here is the reality, blinking owlishly and looking me in the face.

I look at the three men who are sitting in the Portakabin before me. They seem ordinary enough. And yet there is something about them that is desperately menacing. Is this all just in my mind, or is it really there, I ask myself for the umpteenth time in our encounter. The three men are all Roman Catholic priests. They are also child-molesters. So much has been said in recent times about the phenomenon of the paedophile priest. And now, here is the reality, blinking owlishly and looking me in the face.

We are inside one of only two residential centres for the treatment of clerical sex- abuse offenders in the UK. The men before me know that they are the most hated individuals in the country. "We're pariahs," says one. "We're the people that society is most afraid of."

And yet, when you meet them, they look fairly ordinary. These demonised figures have done things that are beyond the pale of civilised comprehension. But the reality is that they, too, have their tentatively questioning humanity – and to entirely discount it would be a grotesque mistake of a different kind.

Which is not to say that there is not something profoundly creepy about meeting them. Take the first man. Let's agree to call him Peter. He's 55 and has been a priest in an ordinary English parish for 30 years. At least he had been until he was jailed for 15 months for indecently assaulting six adolescents, the youngest aged 11, over a seven-year period. They were altar boys and kids at the church youth club where their parents, without thinking, assumed they would be safe.

"When you first arrive here at the clinic, you say that first incident of abuse 'just happened', but gradually, you come to see that nothing 'just happens'," begins Peter, a heavy-jowled man with small eyes and pomaded hair. He is wearing slacks and a jumper, but you can imagine him in a cassock, perhaps even with a biretta perched naturally on the top of his head. "The abuse springs out of the fantasies you have created."

"The therapists here want all your fantasies," says the second molester priest. We might call him Bill. He is 56, a plausible man, with wavy white hair, a soft Irish accent and an engaging demeanour. He abused eight boys of a similar age, over a 30 year period, in the two schools where he taught as a brother monk. He has made a full confession to the police and is awaiting prosecution. "As you reveal them, you become aware of all the planning that led up to the first act of abuse."

"How," chips in the third, Laurence, "you used your fantasies as rehearsals for what you would actually go on to do." Laurence is a gaunt figure whose skin seems to stretch tight over his bony skull. He has steely blue eyes and though he is now 60, he still has about him a quality that must have made him appear something of a martinet to the pupils in the school where his religious order made up the teaching staff – and where he abused five boys aged nine and 10 over a nine-year period, offences for which he was jailed for nine years.

Today, Fr Michael Hill, the former Roman Catholic chaplain at Gatwick airport, appears in court at the Old Bailey on 19 charges of sexual assaults. The case is bound once again to throw the spotlight on to the conduct of the Catholic Church in England, coming as it does after a succession of events in Wales, Ireland, the United States and Rome. The Archbishop of Cardiff, John Ward, has resigned over the issue of child sex abuse, as has a prominent Irish bishop, Brendan Comiskey. And the entire college of US cardinals was summoned to the Vatican for a crisis meeting with the Pope over a child-abuse scandal that has rocked the American Church – and forced the pay-out of hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation to victims of clerical abuse amid allegations that the hierarchy engaged in a collusive cover-up.

But what of the UK? Here in Britain, 21 Catholic priests have been convicted of sexual offences against children in the five years between 1995 and 1999 – years in which the church purportedly had new guidelines to counter clerical abuse – and some 63 more were investigated but never charged, though six of them were given an official police caution. The contrast with America has prompted commentators to ask whether the problem is not so grave here as in the US, where hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse have been made against priests – or whether the Catholic hierarchy in the UK has just been more adroit at managing the scandal.

At the clinic, whose identity and location I have been asked not to disclose as a condition of securing the unprecedented interview with the three abuser-priests, there is no doubt about the enormity of the problem in the UK, though the focus is on the individual's rather than the institution's offending. The treatment for the paedophiles lasts a minimum of 12 months intensive daily individual and group therapy. It takes them through a process of acknowledging what they have done, identifying the twisted thought patterns with which they justified their behaviour to themselves. They then are taught strategies to change those distorted attitudes, beliefs and behaviour patterns.

"This place is very confrontational. If you go to hide in a corner, they pull you out and make you face things," says the martinet Laurence, who has been at the clinic for just six months, only half the time of the other two. "Also, some of the abusers were abused as children; and it's when they talk about that that you see the anger. It's quite frightening. And you realise, 'it's me he's angry with'. You cry, and cry."

Bill joins in. "At first, it's tears of self-disgust," he says, "but then you begin to cry for the children you have abused."

Interestingly, they expect me to be unimpressed at these paedophile tears. Sympathy, they know, is not high on the list of most people's initial response. Peter and Bill, after all, have been in jail, where sex offenders are regarded by fellow inmates as the lowest form of life. And the therapists they now daily meet know just how extraordinarily clever, manipulative and deceitful child abusers learn to become.

They change tack. "What you learn here is just how distorted your thinking had become," says Laurence. "I had come to see the child no longer as a person, but as an object. I had desensitised myself."

"I came to see that my fantasies did not just come from nowhere," adds Bill. "I constructed them to answer some need I have. I felt inadequate with adults; I felt at ease with children and wanted to be loved by them. Of course, I now see that it was a false idea of 'love', but at the time I convinced myself that I had a relationship with each victim: extending friendship, buying presents, mentoring them, and then with the sexual aspect entering in, with me 'loving' the child sexually and vice versa.

"Images of children wouldn't arouse me. You could show me a photograph of a naked child and it wouldn't do anything for me. It was only with the children with whom I had built a relationship. And I groomed each of them over a long time and convinced myself each time that I had 'fallen in love' with the child and that sex was a 'natural progression' of that."

Laurence's pathology is almost the opposite. "I didn't ever think I was in love with the child," he says. "I knew I was picking the most vulnerable pupil, the one who had difficulty fitting in with his peers, the one who came from a dysfunctional family, or who had no operating father. I chose them quite consciously. I would say to myself that I was helping the one most in need of help, but I knew even then that that was a lie. I knew I had chosen them 'to have my fun with'. But I knew it was wrong."

There is something chillingly forensic about this hindsight. And yet, when I subsequently suggest to the senior therapist that this makes Laurence the most threatening of the three, he contradicts me. "No, actually Bill is the really dangerous one," the therapist says. He didn't just abuse the child physically, he abused the relationship he had carefully built up. "It is his plausibility still in being able to build relationships – because, in part, his character is gentle and amiable – that makes him a continuing danger."

That becomes clearer when you hear the byzantine logic with which Bill once convinced himself that wrong was right. "I began to think of my life as building a wall, with the different qualities in my life as the bricks I'd been given by God. There was a brick for love, a brick for goodness, a brick for kindness. Somehow, I reduced my abusing to a single brick, too. So there was just one bad brick among so many good ones. And I told myself that I needed that one brick. I didn't have a wife. This was the only compensation I had. And I did as much good as I could in the rest of my life thinking that would somehow make up for the abuse."

He was not alone. The rest of the church allowed itself to fall prey to self-delusion, too. Until comparatively recently, the official line goes, those in positions of authority inside the church, like those outside it, had no real understanding of the nature of child sex abuse. Bishops thought it a moral weakness, rather than a highly addictive sexual pathology; offending priests were therefore given moral and spiritual guidance and moved to another parish to be given "a second chance".

This line won't quite wash. Partly because, as Margaret Kennedy, the founder of Minister And Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors, points out, second chances all too often turned into third and fourth opportunities to abuse. And partly because the church itself acknowledged the problem in 1994 by drawing up a set of guidelines to prevent clerical abuse, which were so poorly implemented that five years later it had to set up the Nolan Review into child-protection issues inside UK Catholicism.

More than that, says Richard Scorer of the Manchester-based solicitors Pannone & Partners, who has acted in compensation claims against the church, in the early years, the church stonewalled on his clients' claims. It only began to settle out of court when one of the bishops accused of laxity in dealing with paedophiles, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, was promoted to become Archbishop of Westminster, and faced calls for his resignation. "The potential for embarrassment was suddenly much greater," says Scorer, who has settled 25 cases at a total cost of £100,000 to the English Church. The sum is not an index to the seriousness of the offences: "The figures are much higher in the US only because there, juries fix the level of damages."

Most damning, Scorer says, is the fact that the case over which the Archbishop of Cardiff was forced to resign came after the 1994 guidelines in total defiance of which – even despite a warning from a fellow-bishop – he ordained a priest known to be a paedophile. It was after that that the English bishops established a review under Lord Nolan that set up a child-protection system at national, diocesan and parish level, along with procedures to vet all Catholic priests against a new national database that combines all police, school and social-work files on sex offenders.

The woman charged with implementing all this is Eileen Shearer, who worked with the NSPCC on child-abuse cases in the 1980s and became one of the first social workers to comprehend the hidden extent of child abuse in British society. Shearer, a non-Catholic, is director of the new Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults. She is convinced that the church is at last taking the issue seriously.

"I wouldn't have taken the job otherwise," she says. "A lot has been done in the four months since I took up the job. The majority of dioceses now have a child-protection committee with a police officer, lawyer and paediatrician on it. I'm now working on getting their roles and responsibilities consistent. Bishops have undertaken to go straight to the police when any new allegations are made. Now, the big job is awareness-raising to make the church a safe environment for children – teaching people that it's not disloyal to the church to report suspicions, getting parents involved in everything."

There are many, like Margaret Kennedy – who trains social workers and police officers on child abuse, of which she was herself a victim – who remain to be convinced. "The church sounds so eminently reasonable when it makes public statements," she says. "But I won't believe it has had a true change of heart until it investigates all the historical allegations, which still blight victims' lives, and treats survivors with the same care and compassion that it demonstrates to abuser priests."

Interestingly, Eileen Shearer agrees. Investigating historical allegations is at present taking second priority to "protecting children in the here and now", she says, but bishops "would be unwise" to try to shelve the undertaking. "I do have an annual public report to make that gives me a platform to blow the whistle if I feel I need to," she adds.

Whether she can persuade the bishops, and the Curia officials who advise them from the Vatican, to her view is another matter. Last week, two of the most senior canon lawyers in Rome pronounced the sex-abuse crisis as a "defamation campaign" by anti-Catholics. And they have condemned as unjust the Nolan recommendation that a priest accused of abuse should be moved pending investigations. And inside Vatican circles, all manner of excuses are being trotted out to explain away the child-abuse crisis. It is, variously, a problem with homosexuality, with money-grubbing litigants, with the sex-obsessed decadence of the industrialised world, or with liberal Catholics out to undermine church teaching on celibacy.

Inside the paedophile treatment centre, things look rather different. "For me, celibacy isn't the problem," says the abuser- priest Laurence. "Many of the other offenders in here are married, after all." The other two offenders disagree. "For me, emotional celibacy was part of it," Bill says. "There was something cold and dehumanising about life in a religious order. No one remembered your birthday. There were no Christmas presents. You weren't allowed to go into someone else's room for a game of draughts or a cup of tea. There was no possibility of love or affection in community life. Not that this excuses what I have done. But it all pushed me to make the awful choice that I did make."

None of the three abusers, they admit to one another as if revealing it for the first time, had ever had an intimate relationship with anyone. "By that, I don't mean anything sexual," says Laurence, "I mean no 'head' intimacy. It was part of the theology that we were trained in; the idea that we should be open to all men but special to no one."

Laurence, like Bill, had been a member of a religious order. But, according to Peter, the problem had been the same in the life of the ordinary parish priest. "In all my six parishes over the years, there was a terrible aloneness," he tells the others. "Even when there was a curate or a housekeeper in the house, there was no heart to the house. No togetherness. When we did talk, it was just about sport. This clinic is the first place in all those years that I feel is my home. Maybe we need a two-tier priesthood, with celibacy as an option for those who can manage it."

Critics of the church see more than celibacy as the issue. Also to blame, they say, is the organisation's clerical culture, its exclusive masculinity, its ethos of privilege and secrecy, its almost feudal hierarchical structure that feels itself accountable to no one but God, whose views it alone claims to have proper authority to interpret. Therapists treating abuser priests reflect interestingly on this debate. Donald Findlater is the manager of the Wolvercote Clinic, which has treated nearly 200 sex offenders over the last five years and which, according to an internal Home Office report, has "good success in producing overall change, even in high-deviance offenders, with 71 per cent showing reduction in pro-offending attitudes", which were maintained 12 months after discharge. "People," says Findlater, "look for single causes and single solutions – it's celibacy, homosexuality, clericalism, the church's attitude to sex, institutional corruption... The truth is, it's all of these, and yet more than any of them."

Such complexity is not palatable to conventional public opinion on paedophiles. But therapists like Donald Findlater look beyond prison to ask what kind of life offenders can live when they leave jail, as they inevitably will. To aid that, they furnish the child abusers with a raft of strategies to recognise the early warning signs of offending behaviour patterns. Offenders are also taught exit strategies, ways of interrupting inappropriate fantasies, as well as being coached in what an apposite sexual reverie might be.

It is a slow process. "I remember when I was first asked to fantasise in group therapy about a woman of my own age. I spoke about going out for a meal with her and having a nice conversation," the abuser Bill says. "Everyone laughed. And then I suddenly realised that they wanted me to masturbate to this – to develop an appropriate fantasy, reinforced by masturbation to ejaculation. In the past, we had inappropriate fantasies, and indulged them, and this led to inappropriate behaviour. By training me to change the fantasies I've run through my head for 30 years, perhaps I will be able to make my new fantasy real, too – of a relationship with a woman of my age. I'm pleased to say that I'm beginning to get aroused by the appropriate fantasy now. Which delights me."

As an account, it makes sense. Yet, as with so much else these child abusers say, it causes me to hesitate. Are the lessons they have learned in therapy being repeated by rote? Or have they been assimilated to change behaviour? And do their stomachs now churn at the thought of what they had done as mine does?

Bill's response is as disarming as ever. "Of course, people still need to be afraid of us," he says. "I don't think that the fact that I'm aroused by children will ever go away. I can't be cured completely. But I can be given strategies and skills to help combat and control that. Without this place, I would have kept promising I wouldn't do it again, but I couldn't have kept the promise. Now I know how to break the cycle of offending thinking. That's the difference."

The day before I encountered Bill, he had had a visit from the head of his religious order as part of his final appraisal before leaving the clinic. They had discussed what might happen after any prison sentence. "I had assumed that I was going to be drummed out," he says. "But he said, 'To keep you safe, and to keep children safe, we're prepared to look after you'. There could be no public ministry. It would be an insult to my victims for them to hear that I was back on the altar. But they would find me a place in a religious community with no children."

The paradox is that, inside the church, in a closed community where there are no children, may well be the safest place for men like Bill to be. Safest for children, as well as safe for the abuser. But that does not really satisfy society's need for vengeance or even for outrage. There are, clearly, no single solutions for dealing with Bill and his like. And yet, so far as the church is concerned, there are many things that can be done to stop making matters worse.

To restore public confidence, it has to stop dealing secretly with the issue. It has to stop looking for scapegoats among gays, liberals and the outside world and instead turn its powerful scrutiny inwards to examine the contributory part played by its own culture of isolation, privilege and power. It has to stop regarding child abuse as a sin and see it as a compulsive disorder. It has to stop talking about forgiveness and address the question of reparation. It has to start treating the victims of abuse with the same level of care and concern it shows to abusers. It has to put the needs of people before the reputation of a clerical organisation. Only if it does this will a highly complex problem become more, rather than less, amenable to discovering mechanisms for coping and control.

The three paedophiles that I met in the treatment centre have, at least, learned that. Now, the lesson has to be taken on board by the bishops and cardinals in both England and in Rome.

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