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Behind the liturgy, a litany of abuse

The Archbishop of Westminster's response to a paedophile priest has raised disturbing questions about the Catholic Church's attitudes
  • @pvall

The procession of priests in their white vestments - some solemn, some smiling - moved slowly down the aisle at Westminster Cathedral. "It makes you wonder," said the woman standing next to me, "how many of them are child abusers."

The procession of priests in their white vestments - some solemn, some smiling - moved slowly down the aisle at Westminster Cathedral. "It makes you wonder," said the woman standing next to me, "how many of them are child abusers."

The scene was the enthronement of the Most Rev Cormac Murphy-O'Connor as Archbishop of Westminster. Only this time the procession was being rebroadcast behind a TV news report claiming that the new archbishop had knowingly allowed a paedophile priest to continue in a ministry where he had access to children. Suddenly it was possible for the passage of the priests to take on an altogether more sinister aspect.

In Ireland, where cases of child abuse by Roman Catholic clergy seem to have reached epidemic proportions, some priests no longer wear their dog collars. The symbol that once opened doors as well as hearts has now become a goad to verbal and even physical abuse. Last week as Archbishop Murphy-O'Connor went on to the back foot, looking shaken, it seemed as though things might yet go in a similar direction here.

The archbishop denies that he acted irresponsibly in failing to control Fr Michael Hill, who was jailed in 1997 for assaults on boys as young as ten. The victims' families insist otherwise. Many social workers agree; Michelle Elliott of the child abuse charity Kidscape demanded that the archbishop should resign.

Whatever the truth, perceptions are as important as facts here. The public appears prepared to think the worst of Catholic clerics, which is hardly surprising after the litany of betrayal that has filled the press in recent years.

The case which first brought home the seriousness of the problem was that of a Birmingham priest, Fr Sam Penney, who in 1993 was jailed for seven years after admitting charges of indecent assault on seven children. It was only the start. Over the past five years no fewer than 21 Catholic priests have been prosecuted for child abuse. The tales that came out in court were sordid ones.

One case gave a particular insight into the obsessive world of the fixated paedophile. Fr Adrian McLaren, "a fine parish priest" in Durham, did not just abuse young boys but posted photographs of them on the internet. When police raided his home four years ago they found the biggest collection of child pornography ever seized, on hardware capable of storing all 29 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica 11 times over. It took four policemen seven months to catalogue.

All this was bad enough. But the institutional church compounded the sins of its individual ministers with a conspiracy of silence and a culture of cover-up.

In the case of Fr Penney, the archdiocese of Birmingham merely moved the culprit for at least six years - despite reports of abuse and one arrest - to new parishes and new victims, while he still paid return visits to a family where he was abusing all five children. In Glasgow, it has recently been revealed, paedophile priests were moved across Scotland from parish to parish, with Cardinal Thomas Winning refusing to report them to the police and instead paying £42,000 in damages to one victim in a secret deal.

This became the pattern for dealing with other paedophile priests. When another case eventually became public, the Glasgow archdiocese defended its secrecy, saying: "It was the parents - not the church - who said they did not want to go any further with this." Critics did not believe them and spoke of a celibate freemasonry closing ranks to protect its own.

Yet there are those who argue it is important to set all this in the right historical context. "The first medical paper on child abuse was not published until 1978," says Dr Kevin Illsey, one of the pioneers of child abuse diagnosis in this country. "Even in the years which followed people still didn't believe sex abuse really happened."

The two complaints that Archbishop Murphy-O'Connor received about Fr Michael Hill before 1983 were interestingly couched. One couple said the priest was showing "too much interest" in their boys. Another accused him of "inappropriate behaviour".

"In retrospect, we all know what that means," says Dr Illsey. "But at the time such phrases were not euphemisms but vague expressions of unease. Given the general state of knowledge of child abuse at the time, Archbishop Murphy-O'Connor did what was then thought to be required - withdrawing the man from his parish and sending him for treatment at two therapeutic institutions."

Such a response sounds naïve now. But, says Dr Illsey, in those days the received wisdom among doctors, teachers and care workers, as well as bishops, was that paedophiles could be successfully treated and rehabilitated. "We're not so sure about that now and would be far more cautious. But at that time the action taken would have seemed right."

Even so, doubt must be cast upon the decision to send a paedophile priest to a busy airport full of children. Yet it is clear that from this point the Catholic Church in England and Wales, at any rate, began to respond more adequately as an institution. In 1994 its Bishops' Conference drew up much more informed guidelines on how the church should handle abuse allegations. Two years later it produced a report on the pastoral care of survivors which said it had to move from a "culture of disbelief" to one of openness and honesty. Dioceses set up child-protection teams (which have since, ironically, been accused of being "over-zealous" in their scrutiny of priests). Most recently the new Archbishop of Birmingham made a public plea for forgiveness from the victims of sex abuse.

It may not be enough. There are child abusers in all walks of life but in the church the problem is tangled up with the issue of celibacy among a generation of priests many of whom entered seminaries as teenagers and were never able to develop a proper understanding of their sexuality.

There are those in the church who dispute this. "The real problem with celibacy is loneliness, not sexuality," says Mgr Kieran Conry of the Catholic Media Office. "The estimates are that some 4 per cent of the male population are child abusers. If just 21 of the country's 5,500 priests have been prosecuted for child abuse it means that the percentage of child abusers among priests is less than a third of 1 per cent."

There will be many who will be unconvinced and who will ask how many undetected culprits lie behind the 21 who have been caught. But there is a more damning consideration. In the end it is not enough for the church to argue that the proportion of child abusers among Catholic priests is probably no greater than in the rest of the population. For we do not expect our priests to be no worse than the rest of us. We expect them to be better.

Which is how the police were first alerted to the Durham paedophile priest with the massive internet porn collection. They received a tip-off to say there were paedophile videos at the presbytery. The call came from outraged burglars. They might have been criminals, but they did have some standards.