Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Another Day, Another Country, Another Story Of The Heart Break Of Clerical Pedophelia

This 'technicolor eccentric' was also a sadistic pedophile.

There's a truly sad story making the rounds in Britain and Ireland involving the missionary religious order the Rosminians.  The story is about Fr Kit Cunningham who had spent ten years in Tanzania and reportedly sexually abused a number of the boys he was supposed to supervise.  He subsequently became pastor of an influential parish in London and presented an entirely different face.  The following article from the Guardian UK written by Peter Stanford eloquently describes the confusion Cunningham's truth wreaked on his flock, friends, and admirers.  This aspect of the abuse crisis is rarely discussed, which is unfortunate, because this damage is very real.

He was my priest and my friend. Then I found out he was a paedophile

All journalists like seeing their articles discussed on television, even when they're being challenged, but the sight of John Poppleton holding a copy of an obituary I wrote earlier this year for the Guardian made me feel profoundly ashamed.

The subject was Father Kit Cunningham, the Catholic priest who had married us, baptised my son (who shares his Christian name) and was a family friend for 20 years. "A Technicolor eccentric, and widely loved as a consequence," the obituary read.

"I find this," Poppleton said, brandishing the newspaper cutting to camera as if it were contaminated, "offensive. This priest was a monster."

Poppleton had been repeatedly sexually abused as a young boy by Fr Kit, an experience that he says "broke me down and broke my spirit". The abuse took place at St Michael's, Soni, in the 1960s, in what was then Tanganyika, now Tanzania. Four of the priests who taught there, all members of the Rosminian order, and including Fr Kit, perpetrated physical and sexual abuse that made this boarding school, according to Poppleton, "a loveless, violent and sad hellhole"
He is not alone in his trauma. In Abused: Breaking the Silence, a documentary to be shown on BBC1 on Tuesday, reporter Olenka Frenkiel hears from other former pupils at Soni about how they were subjected to a regime of sexual abuse from which they were powerless to escape. Some of them, grown men, break down in tears on camera as they recall being photographed naked, hauled out of bed at night to have their genitals fondled, and worse.

I say worse because I struggle to repeat what I heard, and to reconcile the Fr Kit that Poppleton describes with the amiable, kindly, dedicated parish priest I knew for the years, long after Soni, when he was rector of St Etheldreda's, the oldest Catholic church in London.

In my obituary of him in January, I wrote as I found. A week after publication I received an email. "It is good that he is remembered for his good," my correspondent began, "but there are many who will remember the other side of Kit… a sexual, physical and mental abuser. It would be good if you just let him rest in peace, but I finally reacted as there was too much praise going on for this deviated creep."

Deviated creep? In almost three decades of writing about the church, and a lifetime as part of it, I thought I knew how to read a priest. Since the 1990s, when the scandal of paedophile priests first emerged in the public domain, a question mark has been hanging over almost every cleric as a result of the church's cover-up. Almost every priest, but not, for me, foolishly imagining myself a seasoned observer, over Fr Kit. His vices appeared pretty obvious – drink, obsessive attention to restoring his church, and what looked like an overly close friendship with the (female) parish secretary, who shared his love of wine. But here was a letter telling me Fr Kit was a paedophile.

My first (shameful) instinct was to wonder if my correspondent might be mistaken, but he had included in his note a means of testing his claim. "Suffice it to say," he wrote of Fr Kit, "he returned his MBE to the Queen last year when his past demons came to haunt him." That was something I could check easily. It was true.

A correspondence developed. I am not going to name the other party because he made clear he didn't want that. He is not part of the group of 22 ex-pupils of Soni pursuing a legal case for compensation against the Rosminians. But he was abused there, as was his brother, or so he believes. The two have never discussed it.

As part of that correspondence, I saw the letters of apology written by Fr Kit before his death, and by the other accused (all of whom are still alive, and living in a comfortable retirement home run by the Rosminians in the home counties). They are also shown in the documentary. All are general in tone and claim not to remember specifics or individuals. Perhaps they have blotted them out, or perhaps they have been told by a lawyer not to incriminate themselves. "Poor", "vague", "not from the heart" are the onscreen reactions to these mea culpas from their victims. "I'd like to hear a lot more," one comments.

In one sense the story of Soni is another appalling example of a by now sadly familiar tale. I say that not to play down the suffering of the victims, but rather to acknowledge that the torment of Poppleton and his fellow pupils at St Michael's mirrors the experience of many others, widely reported, at the hands of abusive paedophile priests.

There have also been repeated public expressions of regret by the Catholic authorities as these scandals have emerged all round the globe, revealing this as an endemic problem in the church rather than, as Pope John Paul II originally suggested in 2002, a case of a few bad apples.

Bishops and cardinals have pledged to confront past wrongs, to work with victims to address their pain and to set up procedures to make sure nothing of this kind ever happens again. However, Frenkiel points out in her film that on the day that Pope Benedict XVI, during his visit to Britain last September, was in Westminster Cathedral expressing his "deep sorrow to innocent victims of these unspeakable crimes", the Rosminian order was writing to refuse to pay any compensation for what it has openly acknowledged are the crimes of four of its own priests.

There is a running debate that takes place at the gates of my children's Catholic primary school. "What are we doing?" parents ask each other, "sending our children to a school run by the Catholic church when we are reading about the abuse in its schools elsewhere that it has covered up?" (Parents are asking this same question in Kansas City-St Joseph too.)

The ready answer – and I have been as ready as anyone else to utter it – is that most allegations concern episodes several decades ago, our school is a warm, loving, nurturing place, governed by extremely strict rules of conduct (I am the safeguarding governor) and that, more broadly, Catholicism in Britain has set up a system to ensure no abuser will ever again use the church to prey on children.

Then I found out about Father Kit and it has shaken me out of my complacency and shaken my faith – shaken it because here is a religious order still reluctant to own up to the damage its members have done. The Rosminians appear, to this Catholic at least, to be placing defending the institution – ie their order, its good name and its properties – above a heartfelt acceptance of the catalogue of depression, broken marriages and suicide attempts recounted by victims in the documentary. Yes, I know that compensation money doesn't wipe the slate clean, but it is the most common way our society has of shouldering the blame.

And shaken it too because I felt that Fr Kit was a priest I could trust. If he kept his "dark side" so well hidden, if the church authorities allowed him to keep it so well hidden that even the Queen awarded him an MBE, what of all the other priests I admire for their work with the poor and marginalised? Who can I trust now when my children go into the sacristy to be altar-servers? And if I am struggling to trust priests, what on earth am I doing in the church at all? (Coming face to face with the certain knowledge the clerical system must be reformed or expunged from the Church.)

Such questions might nag away slightly less insistently if I thought the Catholic authorities were genuinely trying to understand the root causes of this scandal. But this month the quasi-official Catholic Truth Society published a booklet on clerical sex-abuse that blames it on the "permissive society" of the 1960s. So while everyone else took sexual liberation to mean you didn't have to wait until you were married, priests took it as licence to abuse children?

When I think about Fr Kit today, as well as a powerful feeling of betrayal, happy memories of time in his company continue to crowd in, making me feel as if I am part of that culture of cover-up and denial of abuse. It is probably a process that everyone goes through who discovers, out of the blue, that a trusted family friend is an abuser. How to reconcile my image, there in our wedding pictures, of genial Fr Kit with the younger, slimmer version photographed at Soni in old home-movie footage, unmistakable in his TV-screen specs, but soon to abuse another helpless boy? So far, it has proved impossible.

The church would urge greater understanding of human frailty and forgiveness. On a broader canvas, that distinctive demand for forgiveness in a secular society that is ever more punitive keeps me going to mass every Sunday. But for forgiveness, there must also be genuine acknowledgement of the damage done. Privately returning your MBE when on your deathbed, without explanation, doesn't quite count. Neither does refusing compensation, or holding a memorial service for Fr Kit where not a word of this scandal was breathed.
As an institution, despite claiming to have turned over a new leaf, the church – still, falteringly and often uncomfortably my church – emerges from this particular story as failing distressingly to practise what it preaches.


And so another parish in another part of the world tries to come to grips with a charismatic pedophile priest and a Church body that refuses to acknowledge it's complicity in said priest's activities, refuses to offer justice to victims, refuses to deal in any remotely pastoral actions, and leaves even more victims in it's wakeIn the meantime the Vatican organizes more dog and pony shows in preparation for the Pope's visit to Germany.  Germany, of course, is another country dealing with the aftermath of it's own clerical abuse scandals.  I'm sure the Vatican is working over time attempting to grease wheels for this particular dog and pony show.

 Eventually, I hope enough lay Catholics and priests of integrity can understand there will be no real healing for anyone until there is reform in the clerical system.  Until then, the abuses, the cover ups, the corruption, the denials, the blaming of everyone else, and the apologies given in the place of real justice will continue.  Until the laity take the priesthood off the pedestal and really look at priests as human beings and not the mini gods who grace our family tables and baptize our children, well meaning Catholic laity will continue to be duped by the anti social narcissists who get through to ordination. And at that point these 'priests' will be free to plunder as they see fit because no one who should hold them accountable, will hold them accountable.  That just has to stop.


  1. Colleen, You are right until there is reform in the clerical system Catholicism can not move forward. Since it is more than evident that Rome will not do it and since the original Christians who followed the way of Christ had nothing to do with this type of clerical medieval structure , it seems that those who have any sensitivity to living in The Way of Christ will ignore the Episcopacy, its canon laws and not just its dead language masses but all the masses celebrated by members that are tied to this ugly clericalism. I suggest instead the original model of those who followed The Way of Christ and that is for small groups of people to meet in their own homes and celebrate their own Eucharist and have their own prayerful services. I suggest that our Children be helped to find their trusted mentors among trusted friends in these groups of mostly people in committed relationships. I suggest that anyone that harms our children should swiftly be reported to the police. This is probably the only way we can escape the deadening effects of these clerics who have certainly lost all their integrity as priests and human beings. dennis

  2. Amen, rdp46. Amen!

  3. I agree with you rdp46. For some time now, I have been thinking about home Masses celebrated by the members of these small groups.
    Clericalism, in my opinion, is destroying the RCC as we have known it. I pray that the Holy Spirit will guide us all in The Way of Christ.

  4. As a diocesan teacher in Kansas city, I took the "Protecting God's Children" training. Every month teachers took updates. A parent could not even be a room mother without having passed the training. So, I see the Bishop Finn fiasco as a criminal coverup - plain and simple. Now another case in England. As for small Masses in the home - those are a thing of the past. Here in KC, the bishop has elevated himself so far above the rest of us, I hope he will soon float away. Aghast in Missouri

  5. Another tragic story. Yes, it is heartbreaking.

  6. I don't understand why the rosminian peodophile priests have not been arrested and put in prison, surely there is enough evidence in this shocking documentary for this to happen. I am devastated that my holy catholic church has actually condoned these activities by not exposing and getting rid of these so called priests. The catholic church must take responsibility and realise that their actions of covering up and moving peodophile priests to other parishes to carry on abusing in a different place, just made things worse. We need to keep our children safe. The catholic church needs to be open and honest in order that we can trust our priests, which at the moment is very difficult to do.

  7. Br,

    "The catholic church must take responsibility and realize that their actions of covering up and moving pedophile priests to other parishes to carry on abusing in a different place, just made things worse. "

    Yes, the RCC must take CRIMINAL responsibility for the coverups as the priests that committed these crimes are criminals.

    "As for small Masses in the home - those are a thing of the past."

    Yes they were done this way in the past and there are now more and more people doing that way in their homes currently. You see the most important priesthood and the one that allows the consecration of the Eucharist is Baptism. Formal Ordinations and Consecration to the Episcopacy including the Pope were not seen until many generations after the death of Christ. People who wish to identify themselves with The Way of Christ may revert to this system. Also for generations after Christ the name of this movement was The Way and certainly not Roman Catholic. dennis

  8. Dennis, I have a very close friend whose sister lived up in the White Fish area of Montana and got to know John Corapi well enough that he came to their house for dinner and held home Masses. They are devastated and her sister told me they were under the impression the Church forced laicisation on Corapi. Of course that's not true. I tole my friend to google Blacksheepdog and read the truth.

    Home Masses are also a hook. We have to be very careful about who we permit to enact our spiritual rituals. There is no panacea other than discernment and right now I think every lay person in the Church should be begging for the the gift of discernment--and that includes priests of integrity.

  9. I think you are correct about being careful Coleen, but my impression is that we certainly do not need ordained clergy to celebrate these rituals. It was not part of The Way as the early church was known before being called Catholic. The priesthood of Baptism is enough. I attended, years ago home masses with priests, and they were usually at the homes of wealthy contributors to a RCC cause. This of course is not what I think people should do at all. I know there are many particularly in Europe that are already not afraid of celebrating their own liturgy without the aid of an ordained priest. The leaders are usually respected community members with outside professions. There are many theologians that have stated that this indeed can and should be done. Clericalism is the problem. This effectively does away with that.

    Not that all clerics are bad, many are not, but they are under the thumb of a very unreasonable Episcopacy men.

    I also am a big advocate of the Independent Catholic Church movement that may be in its infancy now but should explode with the problems produced by this extremely poor leadership. Many Independent Catholic Churches are shepherded by former RCC priests. Many of them are married. There are also many Old Catholic Priests that are shepherding some very emotionally hurt former Roman Catholics. In Brazil and Argentina there are many more of these independent Churches than here in the USA. They are showing The Way. dennis

  10. The ECC is one of those Catholic Communions here in the states that offers a home for those of us disillusioned with the RCC, inclusive, welcoming and affirming.

  11. rdp46: The home liturgies sans ordained clergy that you mention... What form of liturgy is used? Are they more-or-less copying the current RCC-approved liturgy? Developing their own? Something in between? I'm just wondering how that works.

    I'm also seeing some news reports about China wanting to ordain bishops in the state-approved Catholic Church without Vatican approval of the selection process. I don't think I'd be comfortable with a state government imposing their selection of bishops anymore than I am with the Vatican imposing them. I find it interesting though that the Vatican loyalists in that country are reverting to the more secretive Masses in private homes. At least 1 article claims that China has backed away from ordaining non-Vatican approved bishops because they couldn't get enough local Roman Catholics to attend. I wonder how this tension between China and the Vatican will impact what happens in the US and Europe.

  12. Most of the home masses that I know of celebrated by Catholics using their Priesthood of Baptism are the English Versions of the !980's and 90's, I am not certain what they do in Europe or in South America. I suspect that their are some variations just as there must have been variations in the original Church know as "The Way".

    I think that the RCC will attempt to nullify anything done by the non ordained by using Cannon law. This law of course was not a part of The Way of Jesus and they know it.

    The China situation is about one authoritarian trying to control another. I have no opinion about it as either side is equally bad.

    There are several churches like the ECC in the US. Some of them are more in line with the Old Catholic Church, some not. I welcome these Churches if you look at what they believe you will see a lot of the outline of Vatican 2 with some progression beyond.

    I think it time that we The People of God make sure that we are indeed following The Way of Christ and not the way of some fearful men that use their fears to attempt to control their own life style. I think it important that most of the People we choose as celebrants of our liturgy have a profession outside of the clergy. For those independent Catholic Churches, at least there Bishops are chosen locally. dennis

  13. My small lay community has a priest (a jesuit) occasionally, but more often, we have a lay presider. We have had liturgy in this way for a number of years. As the years have gone by, and the Church has become increasingly clerical, we have started consecrating the bread and wine ourselves, claiming our priesthood gifts.
    For a short time, we invited a woman priest to be our leader, but we decided we didn't want a permanent leader or pastor, even a woman.
    It has been a very gradual process for us, and we are always wary of the "Temple Police." We sometimes feel like the early Christians, holding onto something wonderful.

  14. That's because you are anon. I'm all for the type of community that calls forth it's own celebrants. Maybe because I've seen that happen in Native American practice, and it works. Until we get past the notion that only ordained priests can make the connection through the Eucharist, Catholicism is out of touch with it's own history and it's own communion of Saints and angels. As Dennis says, Baptism is the only ordination we need to be one with the greater Catholic reality and fully capable of bringing forth Jesus in both our personal and sacramental lives.

    It seems to me that more and more people are beginning to entertain that notion the more Benedict and company stress otherwise. I've often said it takes multiple points of view to make a legitimate choice. In that sense I honor Benedict for upholding his end of the bargain even though I totally disagree with the outcome of his position and know it can't sustain itself.

  15. Coleen,

    I am not certain that Benedict at this point deserves much honor as a Pope. He certainly is culpable for many of the RCC abuses. It would be hard for me to say that he has very much integrity. If you look at his early writings and his recent actions, they are completely not congruent. Early in his papacy he was so feisty that he said, he would debate other theologians and they could not prove him wrong because, he was RIGHT. He does not seem to see that theologians can be right and wrong at the same time. That almost all theology is right and wrong. Debate may cause some elucidation of thought but it proves not much amongst theologians. Slow and rigorous persuasion is much better, but since Benedict feels he is right, he feels he has the right to say who is a "Catholic" theologian and who is not.

    I think Benedict is far from The Way that began the Church. I have very little respect for his way. As a person, I do not condemn him, but think he should submit to the International court of justice for the Vatican is a signed the treaty about protecting children. They certainly have an extremely poor record in doing that. I feel the Benedict may well be a felon and should be judged by a proper LAY civil court. The real question is he as bad a Pope as Pius !X and many others of a medieval Italian family. dennis

  16. Dennis, I don't disagree with you at all. I honor Benedict because he is upholding the opposite end of the Church and choice I see as instrumental to who I am at this stage in my life. I'll get into this more on a post I am currently working on, but here's where I'm going with it. Catholicism as I originally learned it, and as Benedict is attempting to take it back to, was about sacramental grace. That idea of grace had nothing much to do with love. Love is the Way, grace is supposed to be the way of Catholicism. Jesus was about love. Substituting theological notions of grace is great for the Catholic clericalism, but infantilizing for Christians.

  17. Colleen, I am not certain that I agree with you that grace does not have a lot to do with love. When I see grace, I see a swan swooping through the ski, a skillful ballerina, a wonderful communicator, a good parent. I see grace as something acted out by a person, the more energetic and loving that person or animal is, the more graceful.

    The question about do we get that kind of grace from a sacrament? I don't know! I do know that if we don't see sacraments like Baptism and marriage as something we act out every day in love then, we are not receiving a sacrament at all.

    I think Benedict wants to believe that grace is something controlled by the church or by individual clergy men. He could not be further than wrong. Just a few thoughts and as always, I will be interested in yours. dennis