It’s now less than forty-eight hours before Pope Benedict XVI will arrive in Britain. As expected, I have been busy, doing interviews, responding to media queries asking if I opposed the visit etc.
For the record I don’t. The visit is creating debate on important issues related to the Vatican and how its dogma and political power plays impact upon the lives of many millions of people. It is offering opportunities for engagement with others on either side of opinion on these issues and such debate and engagement can only be positive in the longer term.
So the interviews will continue and the debate will intensify and hopefully when the Pope and his entourage head off back to Rome we will all have learnt a little and might even continue to push for change where it is most needed. All good hopefully.
But it is a moment for personal reflection too. I find myself thinking back to 1979. I was thirteen and another Papal visit was all across the media here in Ireland. Pope John Paul II was on his way to tell the young people of Ireland that he loved us. He was greeted by ecstatic crowds everywhere. It was a joyous occasion in a country living in self-deluded denial of the corruption at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church ruled by this absolute monarch with the smiling eyes and charismatic presence.
All that has changed. And whilst it has been a shattering, painful expereince for so many people in so many ways, that change is for the better. More change is needed. Having cast off a dishonest over reliance on a corrupt institution that we looked to in order to be told how we should live, that told us, as if we were just infants, how to behave and what our values should be, we are struggling to take full responsibility for deciding those values for ourselves. But I believe that we will get there.
But there is no avoiding the loss of what was a deep connection for many of us. I know I have felt that loss. I loved my church once.
I thought it might be a fitting moment then to re-post an essay I wrote for a collection published here in Ireland last year by Columba Press.
Here it is:
I loved my church once
I’m not catholic anymore. I never formally quit the church or anything, I just came to realise that I was no longer part of it. I didn’t write to a bishop or the Pope, didn’t go through a defined process through which I renounced my allegiance to the “one true holy roman apostolic church”. I reckon that if my entry by proxy as an infant was valid, then my mature and considered decision to leave was certainly at least as valid and not at all subject to the demands for signed declarations from men who for me no longer held any moral authority.
I’ve been asked a lot over the years if I still consider myself to be catholic, and my answer was always the same. No, I no longer did. And yet there is something so very real about writing it in the context of this essay that feels very emotional to me, a realisation perhaps of the enormity of that decision and the events which led to it. I have felt clear in my decision, in fact it has been clear to me for some time that I could not possibly belong to this church which has at an institutional level so betrayed me and the values it has professed, but nevertheless in considering this essay I have had cause to reflect back upon what the church has meant to me across my life and I am left feeling hurt and saddened in many ways.
There was a Sacred Heart picture in our kitchen when I was a boy. It had a flickering red light beneath the image of Christ who exposed his heart surrounded by thorns, a symbol of divine love for humanity. I didn’t know what it represented as a boy, but I could see that it was about love, about a demonstration of love on a powerful level that I couldn’t understand fully but felt captured by completely. That image was a gentle but extraordinarily powerful presence in our home, as it was in most Catholic homes at the time. I loved it, though I didn’t really understand it.
Church was everywhere in my life then. At home as we knelt as a family to say the rosary, at school as I learnt my catechism and at mass on Sundays where I went with the rest of my family dressed in our Sunday best. Our church was a very ordered place back then. The women sat on the left hand side of the church, many with their heads covered by scarves, and the men on the right. Boys sat with their fathers and girls with their mothers. A few rows of men, maybe two or three deep, always stood at the back of the church. As the mass came to an end they would duck out and head for the pub next door, for that other Sunday ritual, the after mass pint. They were an incongruous crowd, standing together at the back of the church, shuffling and mumbling their way through the mass, waiting to be released. But they were there, week in and week out, just as their fathers before them. It was who they were. It was who we all were.
I loved the rituals of the church. I loved the certainty of them. The way Fr Redmond would intone the words of the mass, the weight of those words, words which spanned two millennia and which celebrated a great sacrifice, the sacrifice of a son for the love of humanity. The reverence of it all, the way we knelt with heads bowed as Fr Redmond head aloft the host and the Altar boy rang the bell to mark the moment of transubstantiation, when the bread became flesh and the wine became blood, when we were all in the presence of Christ. I was in awe of that sacrifice, of the love it was testament to, a love of humanity so great that God would give the life of his only Son. This was a loving God, a God of hope and truth.
I sometimes struggled with the messages I was given by those who instructed me on that faith. I found it difficult to reconcile that idea of a loving God with the heavy judgement of original sin or the notion that only by allegiance to this church could I find redemption. I loved the God that loved, that so believed in us that he was prepared to sacrifice his son for us. I didn’t understand this other God who was to be feared and who would cast me out if I proved not to be worthy of him. But that was how it was. I was taught that I was bad, that I was sinful and that my redemption from my sinful state was to be found by allegiance to those who spoke the words of God. If I did as I was told I could be saved from my base self, I could be made good again.
And that is what I believed. I believed that those who spoke the words of God were good and true and pure, even when they were not. I believed it because that is what I was required to believe. That was the truth of the world in which I lived and there was no room for other beliefs. That is what everyone believed, and who was I to disagree?
Imagine then how it was when a priest raped me. How was I to make sense of that? If he was undoubtedly good in the eyes of all then how was I to understand what had happened? There was only one way. I was bad. It was me, not the priest. After all I was the sinful one, the one in need of redemption, redemption that was in his gift. And so it was. I judged myself as I had been judged and took on the guilt of the sin that wasn’t mine. I carried it for years, turned it in on myself and it festered there, in a place where love did not exist, where God could surely not be found.
Years later I fought my way back to love. I confronted that past and forgave myself for crimes that I had not committed. I learnt to love myself and have compassion for the boy I was and the man I had become. I found out I wasn’t so bad after all.
The tragedy is that I did not discover this through a communion with my church. In fact I discovered it despite the actions of that church.
When I realised that I needed to speak about the things that had happened to me as a boy I had no idea of the complicity of the church. I did not know that the man who so harmed me had been ordained despite the knowledge that he had abused children. I did not know that my church had stood on the sidelines as he raped and abused and looked away, taking action only to protect itself and its money and leaving me and countless others at the mercy of monsters it had helped to create. I did not know, but those who led my church did, and they stayed silence in the presence of my pain. They did not speak, they did not own their crimes or try to comfort me. There was no love; no sacred heart that bled for those whose innocence and faith had been so offended.
When I turned to the Church that purported to be the church of the loving Christ I was not met with love and truth but with lies and obfuscation.
The denial and deceit of the hierarchy of the institutional Catholic Church was a final and terrible revelation of the corruption of its values by those who lead it. How could I trust the word of men who lied about their knowledge of such crimes and who facilitated the rape and abuse of children? For years Bishops, Cardinals and both the current and former Popes had suggested that the problem didn’t exist, or that it was wildly overstated by an anti-catholic media, or that it was an issue of homosexuals in the clergy, or most often, that they had no understanding of the reality of child sexual abuse and the recidivist nature of offenders.
But these were lies.
In early December 2002, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, made a staggering statement suggesting that media coverage of clerical sexual abuse was a conspiracy to bring down the Roman Catholic Church.
The current Pope was then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In that powerful and influential role he was often referred to as Gods Rottweiler or the Vatican Enforcer. His position as head of the department once known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition, placed him in charge of managing and responding to cases of priests who abused children.
More than any other senior church figure apart from the Pope he had both the authority and knowledge to fully appreciate the scale of the problem. Speaking to journalists at a Catholic Congress in Rome he said, “I am personally convinced that the constant presence in the press of the sins of Catholic priests, especially in the United States, is a planned campaign, as the percentage of these offences among priests is not higher than in other categories, and perhaps it is even lower.”
“In the United States, there is constant news on this topic, but less than 1% of priests are guilty of acts of this type,” he said. “The constant presence of these news items does not correspond to the objectivity of the information nor to the statistical objectivity of the facts.
“Therefore, one comes to the conclusion that it is intentional, manipulated, that there is a desire to discredit the Church. It is a logical and well-founded conclusion.”
So in his view the truth was not that he and his colleagues who presided over the Church had covered up the rape and abuse of children, allowing paedophile priests to wreak havoc with virtual impunity. In fact, the real issue as he saw it was as “a planned campaign…intentional…manipulated”, based not upon outrage at the sins and crimes of the Catholic Church, but upon a “desire to discredit the church”.
Cardinal Ratzinger’s assertions were entirely discredited by a few years later by research in the US. In June 2002, US Bishops commissioned independent research into the scale of the problem. The research was carried out by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and found that clerical sexual abuse was “widespread” across the US Catholic Church, affecting some ninety-five percent of dioceses and involving between two and a half and seven percent of all diocesan priests. Overall, the research discovered that four percent of all priests in active ministry in the US between 1952 and 2002 had been accused of sexually abusing a child.
The study also revealed that of the 10,667 people who made allegations of rape and abuse by priests, two thirds had been made prior to 2002. This means that in the US alone, the Catholic Church was aware of over 7,100 cases of children allegedly abused by its priests prior to the public emergence of the issue.
Early Church law also reveals that the Catholic Church has had an awareness of clerical sexual crime going back many centuries. The earliest reference to forbidden sexual behaviour in church literature dates from around the end of the first century. The Didache, which set out structures and rules for the newly emerging church, condemns many sexual practices and includes a specific ban against “corrupting youth”.
Many early church laws relate to sex with adult women and homosexuality, but there are frequent references to the crime of sexually abusing boys. Sexual sins ranked as high as murder and idolatry in early church law, the three gravest sexual sins being adultery, fornication and the sexual corruption of young boys. In fact some of the earliest church law refers explicitly to that crime. The Council of Elvira, which took place in 309AD, set out early church law in the area, detailing how clergy were to abstain from sexual offending under this new law.
Canon seventy-one of the Council of Elvira condemns men who sexually abuse young boys and sets out the penalty for the crime.
In 1051 St. Peter Damian, a monk who became a Bishop and later a Cardinal wrote extensively about the sexual crimes and immorality of the clergy of his day. His strongest criticism was of the irresponsibility of church superiors who refused to take action against offenders. He condemned homosexual activity by clergy, but clergy who abused young boys especially angered him. He attacked church superiors who ordained offenders and who failed to expel those who abuse from the priesthood. He also made a direct appeal to the reigning Pope, Leo IX, to take action.
No doubt then, what this eleventh century bishop would have had to say about his modern day brother bishops and cardinals who ordained abusers and appointed them to parish after parish allowing them to rape and abuse with near impunity.
On August 30th 1568, another Pope explicitly acknowledged the issue of clergy abusing children. In his papal order Horrendum Pope Pius V said that priests who offended were to be stripped of the priesthood, deprived of all income and privileges and handed over to the secular authorities.
There are scores of other references to the issue throughout Catholic Church history that expose as a lie the many statements made by the modern Catholic Church hierarchy claiming innocence and ignorance. They have known for centuries that priests could and did abuse children. They simply failed to do anything of any real significance to prevent it.
I loved my church once, when I believed in it. But I do not anymore. It gives me no pleasure to say so, no satisfaction or closure. I remember the Sacred Heart in the kitchen of my childhood, the faith of my grandmother, the power of the sacraments, the constant presence of the faith as an anchor in all of our lives. I remember how we looked to Church to make real the momentous moments of our lives; birth, marriage and death. I remember the faith of my forefathers and I feel nothing but sadness.
 The Nature and Scope of the Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 2004
Triumphing over a tormented childhood
Eamon Maher reviews Beyond Belief in The Irish Catholic
It would be difficult not to know of Colm O’Gorman. He is regularly on the radio and television, mostly in the past as Director of One in Four, the organisation set up to provide support for people who have suffered from sexual abuse or violence. From his polished calm exterior, one would never suspect the massive traumas he has had to endure in his life.
Abused by two local Wexford male sexual predators at the age of five, as well as by an adolescent boy who invited him to his house on the pretext of giving him music lessons, it is not surprising that Colm had problems with bed-wetting as a child. At no point did he dare to mention the cause of his anxiety to his parents.
He had a huge desire to impress his father to whom felt he was a disappointment because of his lack of interest in ”normal” boyish activities like sport. Another reason for his silence was the fact that the Ireland of the 1970s and 80s was not ready to face up to the horrors of child sexual abuse.
Horrific as these initial sexual experiences were, the actions of Fr Sean Fortune would leave O’Gorman totally shattered. Having spotted the 14-year old at a youth group event, the priest arrived at his house two weeks later ”with the absolute expectation of an open door; that he had the God-given authority to impose himself was never in question”.
Shortly afterwards the abuse started. It would continue for a couple of years. The descriptions are harrowing: ”Words like abuse are easy to use. Words can’t show what it was. Words can’t describe the smell, the sounds, the taste of it all.
”It was sordid and degrading and hateful. Hateful was an important word here, it was full of hate. This priest manipulated me into his bed and used my confusion and innocence against me. And once again the world as I knew it, as I was required to know it, as defined by every authority in my life, came crashing down.”
The day after the first incident, Colm felt as though he was in some way responsible for what had happened – Fortune had told him he had a ‘problem’ and that he would have to discuss it with his parents. Naturally, the boy recoiled from that prospect:
”In order to escape I would have to name the abuse and that couldn’t happen because to do so would destroy the very fabric of the society I lived in.”
Thus silence and denial continued for years. At the age of seventeen, after his parents were on the point of separating, Colm found himself homeless in Dublin, where he sometimes allowed himself to be used by men in return for food and a bed – never money. He ended up in London, where he trained as a therapist, a process that forced him to face up to his demons.
All the time, the memory of what Fr Fortune had done to him left him angry and concerned at the thought that he might be doing the same thing to other boys. Finally, he made a statement to the Garda Siochána and initiated court proceedings against the diocese, and subsequently against the Pope. Others followed suit and soon there was a considerable file on the priest. However, the suicide of Fr Fortune prevented his victims from ever proving their case against him in court.
In spite of this setback, Colm kept busy. He founded One in Four and featured in a stirring documentary aired initially on BBC2, entitled Suing the Pope. He also was awarded damages for the failure of the Church to act on the threat posed by Fortune, against whom there had been several allegations, dating back to the year before his ordination.
When the Ferns Report was finally published, it confirmed the extent of abuse in the diocese and the inactivity of successive bishops and the hierarchy to deal adequately with the issue: ”Their overarching priority was to prevent scandal and protect the reputation and authority of the Church.”
What emerges from this stirring book is the resilience of the human spirit. After all he endured, Colm O’Gorman could so easily have ended up in the gutter. That he did not is a credit to his courage and fortitude.
He managed to be reconciled with his father months before the latter’s death, to find true love with his partner Paul, to pit himself against the powerful institution that is the Catholic Church and win, while maintaining a dignity and a balance that are admirable.
Beyond Belief brought tears to my eyes, anger to my heart and the joy that comes from reading about how truth wins out in the end. I cannot recommend this book too highly.
Brodcast on May 20 2009, on this episode on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek Libby Purves is joined by Colm O’Gorman, Penelope Wilton, Donald Reeves and Bradley and Soren Stauffer Kruse.
Colm O’Gorman is Ireland’s executive director of Amnesty International and founder of the charity One in Four, which helps victims of abuse. When he was 14 he suffered sexual abuse over several years by a local parish priest, who went on to be accused of 66 charges of sexual offences against teenage boys. In 1998 he sued the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope. Beyond Belief is published by Hodder & Stoughton.
Penelope Wilton is one of Britain’s leading actresses. She is about play Gertrude in Michael Grandage’s production of Hamlet. Her work is extensive and includes – for theatre – The Family Reunion, The Chalk Garden (for which she won the Evening Standard Award for Best Actress) and The House of Bernarda Alba, for television Half Broken Things, Dr Who and Ever Decreasing Circles, and for film The History Boys, Pride and Prejudice and Calendar Girls. Hamlet is part of the Donmar in the West End season at Wyndham’s Theatre.
Donald Reeves is probably best known for being Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, where he created a radical church with a coffee house and street market. In his book, Memoirs of a Very Dangerous Man, he tells of life in the church as well as his several brushes with Lady Thatcher and his devotion to working for peace in the Balkans. Memoirs of a Very Dangerous Man is published by Continuum.
The Sugar Dandies are made up of Soren and Bradley Stauffer Kruse. They are the same sex ballroom dance champions and the first male couple to be regular ballroom dance competitors.
Listen to Colm’s first major interview about his memoir Beyond Belief with Ryan Tubridy.
This interview was broadcast on RTE Radio 1 on May 11th 2009.