Gove must act to clean up the Church's mess

13th January 2012 at 00:00

Graham Wilmer, who founded the Lantern Project to support adult victims of childhood sexual abuse, wants the government to set up a truth and reconciliation commission. It will "determine a complete understanding of the impact and legacy of childhood sexual abuse" and help the thousands of victims to recover.

But the response from the Catholic Church - by far the biggest player in all this - is cool: "This is a proposal from an individual about society as a whole, not specifically about the Church, and would require the agreement and co-operation of organisations and institutions across the country. The Church would of course be interested in assisting were it to be set up."

Meetings between the Church and survivors' organisations ran into trouble in November when the Lantern Project and another organisation pulled out, saying the Church was dragging its feet over admitting what its priests did to young people in their care.

Britain's Catholic hierarchy has so far managed to keep the lid on sex abuse scandals better than its counterparts in Ireland, Australia, Canada and the US, but now it is threatening to blow off. St Benedict's School in west London has been taken out of the hands of the Benedictines after the former head of the junior school was jailed for abusing boys in his care. And at Buckfast Abbey in Devon, the man entrusted with helping victims has turned out himself to be a danger to young people.

The Church will have to pay compensation to victims at St William's, an East Yorkshire care home where more than 150 young people were assaulted in the 1960s. The St William's case helped trigger the near-breakdown of talks, because the courts have ruled that the compensation should be paid by the diocese and the diocese wants to hand the bill to the order of Brothers that ran the home. Mr Wilmer says the victims should not be asked to wait another two years for the courts to sort out which bit of the Catholic Church should pay. "How can we meet and pretend we all want to help survivors when in another room the Church's lawyers are fighting survivors and continuing to destroy their lives?"

Mr Wilmer's only real hope of getting his commission is the government and he has written to education secretary Michael Gove. He has also asked Mr Gove to investigate schools run by the Salesian order of priests. "We have about 60 cases of abuse in Salesian schools and we have instituted two police inquiries. There are six state-subsidised Salesian schools in the country," he says.

Mr Gove's first instinct will be to not get involved. He wants Christian churches to set up free schools and academies, and, as a strong Christian, he will recoil from bringing embarrassment to Churches.

But he should pause. Priestly child abuse may have been just as rampant here as it was in the US. The Church says it never happens now and maybe that's true, but we did not know what was going on in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s until decades later.

And victims have had to fight episcopal obstruction to tell their stories. I have spoken to many of them and a depressingly familiar pattern emerges. Children are coaxed into allowing a priest to rub their private parts and, eventually, bugger them, for periods of two years or so, until - presumably - they develop physically and are no longer of interest. They are told that their immortal soul is in peril if they tell anyone, so they bottle it up, which often leads to a life lost to alcohol and self-disgust. In their fifties they start to pursue the man and the institution that did this to them. And the institution puts every obstacle in their way.

Take Graham Wilmer himself. Today the Salesians admit the abuse. But when he first contacted his old school, in 1998, he spelled his attacker's name Madly - it is Madley - and the school said it had no record of employing a teacher with that name. Three years later the Salesians were still trading on this error. A case summary prepared by their lawyers in 2001 said: "It is a matter of concern to (the Salesians) that at the outset of Mr Wilmer's complaint he was unable to recollect correctly the teacher's name." They offered Wilmer #163;20,000 if he signed a document promising to take the matter no further.

Last month, the Catholic Bishops Conference issued this statement: "Survivors of abuse who come to the Church for pastoral help rightly expect to be welcomed and listened to, and to be understood and supported. We acknowledge that this has not been adequately developed as an integral part of our safeguarding work. We seek to fulfil the injunction of Pope Benedict on his visit to the UK last year. He said 'Our first interest is for the victims: how can we repair the damage done?'"

The statement promises to "develop guidance to dioceses and religious orders on how best to ensure the Church can act pastorally to care for victims without compromising the legal rights and freedoms of all involved".

But the Church cannot afford to make it easy for survivors to sue it. As long as the Church is left to clean up its own patch, there will be trench warfare between survivors and prelates, and we will have only the Church's word that its schools are now safe places for children. Because it has tried hard to diminish the evidence of victims, many people now believe its word is not worth having. The Church cannot clear this mess up by itself. If Mr Gove wants Catholic schools, he has to have the job done himself.

Francis Beckett's book, 'What Did The Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us?', is published by Biteback.

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