Main Site         

The day a priest told me to lie on the floor and then deliberately walked over my fingers

2000 August 5
by Paul Vallely


Our lust for naming and shaming paedophiles highlights just one way in which we fail to face up to mistakes we make ourselves

I MADE a mistake the other day. Writing about paedophiles in the Roman Catholic church I said that we expect priests to be better than the rest of us. The subject of child sex abuse, it seems – as we have seen from the frenzy of naming and shaming which has dogged press and public alike again this week – lures most people into statements, and sometimes actions, which feel sound on an emotional level but which, with some little reflection, prove to be flawed.

I have never been misty-eyed about the priesthood. When I was a boy, having committed the terrible infraction of remaining inside the school, standing by a radiator, chatting with three friends, instead of going out to the cold winter playground during break-time, I was punished by a priest. I have never forgotten what happened. He made the three of us lie spread-eagled on the floor of the school foyer, and then walked over our out-stretched fingers. Even now I can remember, along with the pain, the sense that this could not be happening.

Comparatively recently I told my mother about the incident. “Why didn’t you tell us?” she asked. You just didn’t in those days. The world was divided in such a way that adults – parents, teachers, policemen and priests – were on one side, and children were on the other. Adults backed one another, from a worldview to which we had no access, or at least from which there was no appeal. Things are different now. The axis has shifted. A parent paying a visit to a school, it nowadays seems, is as likely to thump a teacher as agree with them. But the past was a different country. Had I told my parents about the finger-crunching priest my assumption was that I would not be believed. In an odd way I did not quite believe it myself.

It is chastening to remind ourselves that 20 years ago we did not believe much about child sex abuse which we now know to be a ghastly commonplace. Of course there were stories about scout-leaders and choir masters fondling their charges but few people believed the full awfulness of what was sometimes involved, nor that the practice was as common as we are now told, nor that its consequences were so profoundly damaging as in many cases they clearly prove to be.

The Catholic Church evidently took the same attitude. Last week The Tablet reprinted the relevant sections from the 1985 revision of the Roman Canon Law. In the light of what we now know it makes disturbing reading. In dealing with sexual offences by priests “the well-being and future ministry of the offending clergy are key considerations” said an official commentary on Canon 1395, para 2. Another approved commentary said: “Proven paedophiles are often subject to urges and impulses which are in effect beyond their control” and went on to say that such “diminished imputability” might mean an offender needed “perhaps only a mild penalty or formal warning”. A therapeutic rather than a penal approach would frequently be best, the document said, going on to warn against setting in train a penal process which could produce internal documents which the police might use against the paedophile priest.

This is pretty shocking stuff. With documents like that on their bookshelves it is perhaps not surprising that bishops pursued policies of cover-up and confusion. But having said that, it is important to acknowledge, as many journalists seem unwilling to do, that the bishops of the Catholic Church in England and Wales then in 1994 drew up guidelines on how the Church should handle abuse allegations which are much more in line with the best practice in secular organisations, in which the police are called in at an early stage. 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 and set up independent Child Protection Teams to scrutinise allegations against priests.

None of this is to excuse, only to submit that neither Church nor society can move forward unless both acknowledge the truth from which we start. It may be lame to suggest that there is just the same proportion of paedophiles among priests as there is among the rest of the population. But it is bad theology to suggest, as I did last week, that priests should somehow be better than the rest of us. Since the Second Vatican Council we need to be thinking about what has been called “the priesthood of all believers”, which means that priests should be regarded as neither paragons nor scapegoats. Yet it is also bad journalism, on the part of others, to dismiss honest explanations as excuses. For without them society cannot establish the place from which we need to go forward to curtail and control the impact of paedophilia, and not just among priests.

The alternative is to feed the fear which brings us to the kind of vigilante attacks on paedophiles – real or supposed – which we have seen this week. The tabloid hysteria on naming and shaming, which has shamefully affected some broadsheet journalists too, leads us into nothing less than the psychology of the mob and the lynching. None of which is to suggest that there isn’t a problem. Only that we have not yet hit upon the right way of handling it – and that unless we step back from our own fear and prejudices the likelihood of us continuing to make mistakes is high.

Comments are closed.