THE COMBONI MISSIONARIES AND THEIR SILENCE — “The Unaccountability of Silence” by Brian Hennessy


The phrase “silence is golden” is obscured in the mists of time. There is a version of it that dates back to ancient Egypt and it has been commented upon by the great and the lowly throughout history. My parents used to remind me of it when they tired of my chatter. One wise man, William the Silent, gave it more attention than most. He said that silence “was the art of concealing thought” – to the extent that silence has the power to both stifle and suspend thought – and to such a degree that nothing in the recesses of the mind remains to be concealed. I have not tried it myself and so I am unable to vouch for its success. I do know individuals, however, indeed a whole group of individuals – that parade as the hierarchy of the Comboni Missionary Order – who have been experimenting with silence for some years. For them, it does seem to work. They have discovered that there is a significant degree of “unnacountability” in perpetual silence. With total silence, they have realised, no doubt with an opportune degree of shrewdness added to the mix, that even such essentially intrinsic values as “truth” can diminish, recede and ultimately vanish from their own minds – or at the very least be postponed for an indefinite – but very long time – hopefully.

More commonly, silence is an aggressive tactic to deny the “truth”. We have all heard the short expedient phrase, “No comment”! There is a finality to that phrase. It means, in effect, that however often you ask the question, you will receive no response – no acceptance of the truth of the matter about which you have enquired. Thus, “No comment” becomes a euphemism for the outright “total denial” of an accusation. Ultimately, the more that “truth” is demanded, the more it is denied. – and the more the denier will become entrenched in denial. The lie is, of course, the denial itself – and thus“Truth” becomes the very casualty of the silence that results from the unwillingness to respond to attempts to solicit it. For the Denier – in this case the Comboni Missionary Order of Verona, Italy – silence is truly a blessing – even if not quite “golden”.

There is another dimension that often embellishes denial so as to soften it, make it more acceptable – or to instill doubt. It is called “suggestion”. I give you an example.
In the 1960s and 70s, a group of seminarians (about twenty of them) at the Mirfield seminary of a Religious Order (known commonly then as the Verona Fathers, but now as the Comboni Missionaries) allege that they were sexually abused by clerics of the Order. These Victims knew the “truth” of the matter – because it happened to them. They have not forgotten about it as it has pretty much ruined the lives of most of them – and almost ended the lives of some. They reported the abuse on some twenty occasions at the time to nine priests of the Order. Twelve of the Victims have made statements to this effect in the current decade. Other cases are on-going or under consideration. There are some 42 witness accounts of the abuse – and three of those witnesses are priests themselves. Three Victims reported the incidents of the abuse to the West Yorkshire Police and that Force has said that the the cases are substantial to the degree that they consider that there are charges to be answered. Two living priests of the Order of Comboni Missionaries are cited (in statements dated as recently as September 2013) as having acknowledged that they had known of the abuse of two of the abusing clerics. It all sounds pretty clear cut on the face of it, but what was said about these allegations to the press by the Comboni Missionary Order was not clear cut at all. In fact, they feigned, shammed and dissembled:

• A Comboni Missionary Spokesperson stated publicly that there are priests alive today who were at Mirfield at the time of the alleged abuse, but they have no knowledge of the abuse. (Observer Oct 2014) (Note: they ommitted to state that there are priests alive today who were at Mirfield at the time of the alleged abuse, who do have knowledge of the abuse!)

• A Comboni Missionary Spokesperson stated that “we know that anyone subjected to abusive behaviour will experience suffering and we are dismayed to think that such suffering may have been caused to youngsters who attended our junior seminary. If that is the case, we are deeply sorry to anyone who has been hurt in this way. ( The Observer Oct 2014, Mail On-Line Feb 2015)

• A Comboni Missionary Spokesperson, Kathy Perrin, a lawyer with the Catholic Church Insurance Association, said “Everything happened an incredibly long time ago and two of the priests who were accused are now deceased. My clients simply don’t know what happened at Mirfield and don’t feel that it can be established now.” (The Telegraph, 14th May 2015)

• A Comboni Missionary Spokesperson, Father Martin Devenish, provincial superior of the London Province of the Verona Fathers, stated publicly: “It was with great sadness and regret that the Verona Fathers learned that a number of allegations of historical abuse had been made relating to our former junior seminary, St Peter’s, located in Mirfield, West Yorkshire. “We condemn unreservedly any action which causes harm or distress to others, particularly children. We know that anyone subjected to abusive behaviour will experience suffering and we are dismayed to think that such suffering may have been caused to youngsters who attended our junior seminary. “If that is the case, we are deeply sorry to anyone who was hurt whilst they were in our care at Mirfield and our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families.” (The Telegraph, 14th May 2015)

Silence has yet a further degenerative dimension. It is the fear of the truth – that “in extremis” is known as alethobia. That fear can arise from the possibility of disclosure of lies and deceit – and its possible consequences. Truth can offend the ego of a person or institution and can claw at their perception of self-righteousness – and destroy illusions of superiority and self esteem. For a Religious Order such as the Mendicant Comboni Missionary Order, it may also cause a serious loss of lay support towards an institution’s critical revenue. (Yes – silence really can be that golden – it keeps the money flowing into the coffers). Thus, fear of the consequences of the “truth” might even, in the minds of some, instigate a necessity to attack the reputation of the the very victims of the lie – in order to deflect the possibility of their own loss of reputation (and gold). What was it that I heard in such an instance recently? Ah, yes: “Money grabbing liars”! That was it – a member of the Comboni Missionary Religious Order – referred to Victims of depraved clerical child sexual abuse as “Money-grabbing liars”! How low can you go to deflect your own shame.

I ask myself frequently how it is that “men of religion”, supposedly steeped in the Christian spirit of Charity and the Gospels can deliberately obfuscate and prevaricate and deny the “Truth” presented to them by “Victims”. Did not Christ say, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Light. No one commeth unto the Father but by me”. I propose, being kindly in nature and with vague memories of actually liking and respecting many members of their Order, that they would not readily lie – and thus they choose to remain silent instead – in that false perception of expedient unaccountability. The problem is that the “truth” of the child sexual abuse at the Mirfield Comboni Missionary Order’s seminary is the casualty of that silence. As much as denial can be a lie, so also silence can hide the lie . The Order has no intention of breaking that silence – no matter how much the Victims clamour for truth, reconciliation and apologies. “Truth Commissions” never take place during a conflict – only long after the dust has settled.

The Group known as the Mirfield 12 encourage Victims to come forward – not to destroy the Order of the Comboni Missionaries – but for the Victims own good – to shed the demons of the past and get their lives back – and live again without the sense of wretchedness that they confront daily. Thus whilst more and more Victims do come to the fore to experience that self-healing process of acknowledging the truth of the abuse that they themselves suffered, so the Comboni Missionary Order will consider themselves to be in legal conflict. So – unaccountable, expedient silence – the denial of truth – will continue to reign supreme in their cloisters – and a “truth Commission” – earnestly sought by some, will remain a distant hope. But – to quote one of the top ten misquoted bible sayings (that doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible at all) they do say that the “Lord works in mysterious ways”. Let us hope that He does – or as an exception – decides to!

3 responses to “THE COMBONI MISSIONARIES AND THEIR SILENCE — “The Unaccountability of Silence” by Brian Hennessy

  1. I can only reiterate what Brian has written.

    I too like Brian find it hard to understand how some, or all, of the Mirfield priests have chosen to sell their souls to silence and to their insurance companies and lawyers.

    The Verona Fathers replied to me through their lawyers and through their insurance companies. In that way, they, the CM’s can remain silent – and then go and confess in confession their silence about the truth.

  2. The big “if”word
    IF some in the order grew a pair and stop referring to the fact that there is even the slightest possibility that these events did not happen things might be allowed to reach their obvious conclusion sooner rather than later
    While I’m at it ,what kind of organisation insures against the possibility of accusations of abuse ??
    It is just like a criminal taking insurance out against being caught!!!
    Rather cynical but something to think on
    All the best Degs

  3. Superb posts from Brian on the silence of the Comboni Missionaries & Mark on the shortcomings of the Vatican Abuse Commission. Sad it may be that the Comboni legal teams & insurance companies act only on commercial considerations (money). In this day & age that may not shock us. What should shock & disgust decent people is that these ‘men of God’ can so readily discard basic human feelings for the innocent childhoods destroyed. The ownership of the crimes, cover-ups, deceits & lies rests with the Combonis & the Vatican. As Churchill said “The Truth is incontrovertible, malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end; there it is”

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