THE DESPAIR WROUGHT BY THE DECISION OF THE IICSA CHAIR – by Brian Mark Hennessy
Late this afternoon I received news that I had long both expected and dreaded. It was that the Chair, Professor Alexis Jay of the United Kingdom Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, had announced that the Survivors of sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic Priests of the Comboni Missionary Order (formerly known as the Verona Fathers) had been denied their application for that Order to be declared a Case Study. I was “gutted”. I put on my coat and I went for a walk by the River Frome and along the bridleways of the Dorchester wetlands. I was the only soul venturing out in the greyness. It was pouring with rain, but I hardly noticed how drenched I was for I was so deep in thought. The sudden awareness that the weather was most inclement for such a countryside expedition did not deter me from stepping further forward in the direction that I had initially embarked upon.
For a while, I thought back on the days when I first knew that I was not alone in having been abused. I had looked up my old school on the internet – a Catholic Seminary named St Peter Claver College at Mirfield in Yorkshire – to see if it still existed. It was an idle moment in which I was filling out a few “about” facts on Facebook. What I discovered was a chat-site for old boys and in it there were contributions by past seminarians that once I had known. I was taken aback by the ongoing discussion – which was which boy had been sexually abused by which priest. “My God!”, I thought, “I was not the only one!”
I made the briefest contribution to the online conversation which was something akin to thinking that I had always thought that I was the only one who had been abused. I soon learned, however, that a group of ex-seminarians from Mirfield had joined forces to take concerted joint action for the abuse that they had suffered. I was reluctant initially to join them. However, on reading further into the story, I learned that many of the seminarians who had been abused had reported the abuse at the time of the abuse. I also discovered that the Order’s resultant reaction was simply to move the priests on to third world mission countries where those errant priests would be able to continue to abuse untold numbers of children without fear of recriminations. I was suddenly convinced that I had a moral duty – for the sake of those children – to join the group.
A few years before these incidences, I had already contacted the Provincial Superior of the United Kingdom Province of the Order to discover if the priest, Father Domenico Valmaggia, who had sexually abused me twice a day for two weeks in the Seminary Infirmary, was still alive. To some it might seem strange, but the reason why I wanted to know was so that I could meet him. It may seem extraordinary, but I wanted to hear from this priest why he had selected me for abuse. I wanted to hear from his own lips if he now regretted seeking me out for his sexual gratification. I wanted to know if he was sorry for having given in to his former base urges. I needed to understand. For some reason, I also needed to forgive him. In my heart, I knew that a sincere apology from him and my forgiveness of him would have provided me with a sense of “closure” – a feeling of “peace of mind” – a form of “reconciliation”.
The Provincial, whom I had known when he was a newly ordained priest, responded that Father Valmaggia was probably dead by that time as he would have been very old. Nevertheless, I requested that he undertook a check of the records pertaining to both the living and the deceased members of the Order. He said that he would do so. On contacting the Provincial again, he informed me that Father Valmaggia was not recorded anywhere in the records of the Order. I, therefore, assumed that Valmaggia was indeed dead. Unbeknown to me at the time, however, the Provincial had a secret archive in which records of members of the Order who had been accused of sexual abuse were retained. Indeed, if the documents had not been retained in that archive as the Order’s own Rules required, there was yet another secret archive held by the Vicar General of the Order in Rome which contained the same information. The Provincial of the Order would have known this – for he had worked in the Order’s Rome Curia for a number of years beforehand. At that moment and in my ignorance of the internal processes of the Order, however, I began to accept the fact that Father Valmaggia had, indeed, passed away. Yet I was wrong in that assumption.
Had the Provincial been concerned enough and proactive enough in response to my enquiries, he would have discovered that Father Valmaggia was indeed still living when I first contacted him. He would also have become aware that Father Valmaggia had been “incardinated” (transferred) to the Diocese of Como in Northern Italy in 1976. There, in the parish of Bedero Valcuvia, he would have had unfettered access to children, presumably. Father Valmaggia retired in 2006 and died in 2011 – and his death was recorded in an official publication of the Comboni Missionary Order. My search, some years earlier, for solace and peace of mind was denied me – perhaps by the lack of concern of the Provincial – but, quite possibly, intentionally. The fact is that either by negligence or design, the Comboni Missionary Order failed me grievously and denied me the closure to the torments and self-doubts in my mind.
There is good reason to believe that the failure to determine or to impart to me that Father Valmaggia was still alive at that time when I made my enquiry and the failure to divulge that he was located in the Como Parish of Bedero Valcuvia could have been more than a simple lack of concern. A recent incident was fraught with outright hostility when Mark Murray, another sexually abused seminarian from Mirfield, made a visit to the Order’s Mother House at Verona to seek understanding and a reconciliation with Father Romano Nardo who had repeatedly and callously abused when he was a most vulnerable child. He was met with outright hostility when he was discovered to be on the premises and was virtually thrown out to the accompanying jeer that he and the other ex-seminarians who claimed to have been abused by members of the Comboni Missionary Order were all “money-grabbers”. Indeed, they went further than that with their retribution – and in the Criminal Court of Verona alleged against Mark Murray charges of trespass, stalking and interfering in the private life of Father Romano Nardo – the very priest who had abused him as a child. To their shame the Judge of the Criminal Court threw out the charges as having no substance. The Comboni Order was not deterred however and appealed – but that appeal was also thrown out by the Judge as being based on the same falsehoods that had been previously presented as evidence to the Criminal Court.
Following my failure to get traction in the case of Father Valmaggia, I engaged my energies, along with the Comboni Survivors Group that I had joined, to seeking broad recognition of the past abuse by priests of the Comboni Missionary Order. We were met with a wall of silence – which, in a deafeningly loud way – was tantamount to outrageous, outright denial. In statements to the United Kingdom national press the Comboni Missionary Order suggested time and again that the alleged abuse took place so long ago that that the “truth” could not now be determined. In doing so they were suggesting that I and the others who were abused were either incapable of recalling the truth or were lying. For my part – I know that the abuse was a fact – because it happened to me! For years the Comboni Order have not responded in any way to allegations of the abuse. This is not just in stark contrast with the stance of the Vatican and the United Kingdom Hierarchy on the matter, but also a negation of their very own Code of Conduct on the procedures to be followed when sexual abuse is reported to them.
Their denials, of course, do not wash away the actual true facts of the sexual abuse that haunt my mind. The image of the priest looking piercingly into my eyes as he masturbated me – imploring me with those eyes to submit complicitly to his desires – remains clearly fixed in my store of mental images. Other ex-seminarians from Mirfield have similar recollections of images that have blighted their lives and haunt them still today. One, in the intimate moments with his partner fifty years later is still blighted by recollected images of a priest’s naked torso bearing over him as he was repeatedly raped as a child. Another has nightmares still of the image of a crucifix carved by a sharp instrument into the torso of the priest revealing himself naked before him.
On behalf of and assisted by the Comboni Survivor Group, I was not idle in the pursuit of some form of justice. I researched relentlessly for information. I corresponded unceasingly with other seminarians and carefully collated information on the abuse inflicted upon them. Reaching beyond the core group itself, I collated information of alleged instances of abuse from ex-seminarians who were so damaged that they felt unable to reveal themselves both then and even today. Some of them, with whom I have made contact through a third party are only known to me as “Boy X”, “Y” or “Z”. To my astonishment, I came across ex-seminarians who were still so traumatized after fifty years lapse of time that they were unable to even begin to think about coming to terms with the facts of the abuse that they had suffered. Ultimately, following careful collation of their stories, I deduced that the minimum number of individual acts of sexual abuse at the Comboni Missionary Order’s seminaries in the United Kingdom from the late 1950’s to the early 1980’s, each incident a crime in its own right, was in excess of 1000 incidents. That figure frightened me – as I believed that my calculation would be widely ridiculed. I went over and over the figures again and again. The fact remained that a number of those seminarians reported that abuse occurred incessantly night after night in term times (except, I should add for absolute correctness, on weekends – when a number of priests were obliged to visit parish churches to make appeals for money for the “missions”). Some boys were even abused by one priest in the same room and at the same time as others were being abused. Some recall that as they left an abusing priest’s room, another unsuspecting seminarian victim had been summoned – and was waiting outside the room.
Eventually, I published my report, lengthily entitled,
“The Comboni Missionary Order of Verona, Italy, and their Response to Child Sexual Abuse – A Text Book For Institutions On How Not To Manage Allegations Of Child Sexual Abuse – And Why The Comboni Missionary Order Will Deny Allegations Of 1000 Crimes Committed Against Boy Seminarians In Their Care at Mirfield, Yorkshire, England”.
I sent a copy of the Report to every Bishop in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. I sent copies to every Comboni Missionary Priest throughout the world (over 1000 of them) – including to every member of their hierarchy. I sent a copy to every Bishops’ Conference throughout the world. I sent a copy to every Cardinal in the Roman Curia. Cardinal Nichols of Westminster, took a copy by hand to the Vatican and handed it to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
I had one response only to those efforts. It was from an old Italian priest, who gave me his name, but asked to remain anonymous. He said to me that he did not understand English very well, but that he had sat down and read the report – and it took three hours for him to do so – and when he had finished – he said that he “felt ashamed”.
The United Kingdom Independent Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) was the last hope left to myself and the other sexually abused seminarians to make the Comboni Missionary Order account for their silent indifference to our need for “closure”. We had always hoped that through that process the miracle of the Comboni Order’s acquiescence to the “truth” would bring forth the future opportunity for dialogue, reconciliation and peace.
As I continued to walk in the rain this evening, I sought to brace myself for the new and sudden realisation that the long quest for the prize of “truth” is over. I will have to live the remaining years of my life with one certain fact. That is, that in practical terms, the failure to bring the Comboni Missionary Order to account by the last bastion of truth and justice available to me, the United Kingdom’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse under the direction of the Chair, Professor Alexis Jay, is as much the enemy of the truth, reconciliation and atonement that I and my colleagues have long strived for as the entrenched obfuscation and prevarication of the Comboni Missionary Order of Verona itself.
Brian Mark Hennessy
28th July 2017.