The Rosminian order must face up to its past: what happened in Tanzania was a moral catastrophe

One of the men who suffered abuse at one of two Rosminian-run schools in the 1960s (BBC/Blakeway Productions)

After much hesitation, I feel I must comment on the one story that is causing great distress in the Catholic world this morning, namely last night’s television programme on BBC One, Abused: Breaking the Silence.

The programme was both sober in tone and sobering, even anguishing, to watch. The men who have suffered abuse have been cruelly treated, but they have retained their dignity; their testimony was both moving and convincing; they were clearly concerned for the truth to come out, and for justice to be done, as we should all be.

What happened at St Michael’s School, Soni, in Tanzania (as well as at Grace Dieu in Leicestershire) represents a moral catastrophe. There is no way around this. These things should never have happened. Even in those far off days, the 1960s and 1970s, schools were inspected, and teachers were supervised. In the religious life all religious had superiors, and those superiors answered to a chain of command. So – what went wrong there? Questions need to be answered about this. If the order did not know about what was going on, then the order was not doing its job properly. The alternative, that it did know and did nothing, is even worse.

As for the late Fr Kit Cunningham, who enjoyed so high a media profile, and who will now be seen as a child abuser forever more, I knew him; I lived with him for three years; during that time he was my religious superior; I wrote the obituary of him that appeared in the Tablet, that was written years before his death. There were an awful lot of people who liked Kit, and the obituary reflected this. His friends are now devastated, as one can see from Mary Kenny’s commentary in the Irish Independent.

One of the men in the programme talks of wanting to know why he was abused. I can understand his desire to know the truth, but that is an elusive truth. Why do people act this way? I doubt even the psychologists could tell us. I do wonder about what it was that drove Kit, and I now see that he was a driven man, but I very much doubt I will ever understand him or why he acted the way he did, even now that we know more of the story of his life.

A very level-headed friend of mine (who also knew Kit – I introduced them) had this to say to me: “My faith does not depend on an individual priest’s behaviour, luckily. It rests on something much bigger than that. But how I do wish that our clergy would stand up and do what we expect of them!”

What she wants, as do all Catholics, is something very simple: for a religious order (as it is in this case) to face up to its past, and to make amends to those who have been so badly hurt. That, surely, is not too much to ask.