The Rosminian order has admitted that its response to revelations of physical and sexual abuse of boys by four priests in the 1960s was “inadequate”.
Fr David Myers, leader of the Rosminian order in Britain, which is facing a multi-million-pound lawsuit, said today: “I apologise without reservation on behalf of the Rosminian brethren in the UK to all those who have suffered. Such abuse was a grievous breach of trust to them and to their families. We are appalled by what was done to them.
“I and all my brethren are deeply shocked at what has happened and acknowledge our inadequate response. We are committed to the pastoral care and support of those who have suffered abuse and to the procedures laid down by the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission.”
Among the priests guilty of abuse was Fr Christopher Cunningham, the popular rector of St Etheldreda’s in Holborn, London, who died last December aged 79.
Fr Kit Cunningham, who taught at St Michael’s school, in Soni, Tanzania, in the 1960s, is alleged to have sexually abused six boys as young as eight, alongside three other priests from the order, officially known as the Institute of Charity: Fr Bernard Collins, Fr Douglas Raynor and Fr William Jackson. All confessed to abuse in signed letters witnessed by the Rosminian provincial Fr David Myers. Fr Collins and Fr Raynor also physically abused the children, who described them as “sadists”.
The victims spoke out in a BBC documentary, Abused: Breaking the Silence, broadcast last night.
The 22 men who have taken legal action also include 11 former pupils of the Rosminian-run Grace Dieu Manor prep school in Leicestershire.
Fr Collins had worked at Grace Dieu where he sexually abused nine-year-old Donald MacFaul. When Mr MacFaul’s father raised his complaint with the school, he was told that Fr Collins would not return after the holidays.
Instead, he remained for another term and was then transferred to St Michael’s in Soni.
Mr MacFaul, now a barrister in Newcastle, said that until 2009 and the revelations from Soni he had assumed that Collins had been sent away from children. He said: “I found that to be appalling that was quite distressing. Essentially they harboured this nest of vipers.”
Francis Lionnet, a former Grace Dieu pupil, recalled that Fr Collins used to sexually, whip and on some occasions fire a rifle at boys. He said: “I have spoken to men in their 50s and 60s who have broken down in tears talking about what happened. There have been suicides linked to these schools.”
Mr Lionnet added that just one former pupil from either school was still a Mass-going Catholic.
Martin Marriott, who was sexually abused by Fr Cunningham, said it “troubled me all my life” and that, like many pupils, he was “furious” that Fr Cunningham had received an MBE.
“It was difficult to describe the feelings of fear at the school. There was no one to turn to, even our parents didn’t believe us because they thought priests were good.
“We were absolutely furious that Collins had been transferred. When he arrived at Soni he founded kindred spirits but he had a very strong intellect, very dominant. The masters were as terrified of him as we were.”
The allegations came public after a group of former Soni pupils met via a website forum. It quickly transpired that, on top of the violence in the school, sexual abuse had been widespread too.
In September 2009 they approached Fr Myers with the dossier of claims relating to the two schools and in November were invited to St Etheldreda’s, where Fr Cunningham had been rector for almost 30 years.
Fr Myers contacted the four priests, who all admitted to abuse and wrote letters to some of their victims. Fr Rayner, now 92, admitted to using excessive force and to groping pupils, and accepted that he would have to leave his current parish.
Fr Cunningham wrote to John Poppleton, now 53, to say: “It is with deep shame that I write to you to ask forgiveness for inappropriate actions that I did to you. It has been on my conscience ever since and the thought of what I did has often preyed on my mind these last 40 years.”
Fr Cunningham was a high-profile and popular figure in London, often called the unofficial chaplain of Fleet Street, as well as being the founder of the Westminster diocesan newspaper and chaplain of the Catholic Writers Guild.
He wrote regularly for The Catholic Herald. He also worked as a prison chaplain and was active in helping the homeless.