The Judas Kiss
By Brian Mark Hennessy
Perhaps to everyone, except my parents and my elder sister, I was a rather ungainly infant. I was boss-eyed for a start. That meant that I was always the ‘goalie’ in any football scrap on the grass verge at the corner of the street. The cure for that eye condition in the late 1940’s and early 50’s was to sit at a contraption and look through binocular-type lenses with moveable arms. There was the image of a cage in one lens and a lion in the other and by moving the arms you could get the lion into the cage. I remember being gently coached by my father in this process, but it had no effect whatsoever and I ended up wearing little glasses with circular lenses and wire arms upon my nose for some years. Even as an altar boy, some time later on, it would take me an age to focus on the wicks of the tall candles at the altar for High Mass in an attempt to light them and I would often get a grunt from the celebrant as he came up in the rear carrying his chalice. More than once that gruff Irishman grabbed the taper and lit the remaining candles himself. I was mortified of course, but I had one moment of glory at a confirmation ceremony when I was the crozier bearer for Archbishop John Henry King of the Portsmouth diocese. I still have a small one inch square photo of that one moment of childhood distinction somewhere.
At the age of 11 years or so, having grown up alongside my gruff, but jovial, Irish curate, Father Nugent, who was to me really the epitomy of a gentle giant, I worked alongside him during holidays on his farm at Farlington. He rented the grounds of the crumbling Farlington Mansion and had cattle there and cared for the orchard. It was within walking distance of my home. I rushed there each day to be with him as he lived out the tradition of his peasant Irish background. He was everything I wanted to be. One Sunday a Comboni Missionary, named Father Felix Centis, visited St Colman’s parish in Cosham and gave a sermon about life as a missionary in Africa. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had never been there. Nevertheless, I was enthralled and scrambled to gather up some pamphlets that he left in the Church atrium. I read them from cover to cover time and again – and in secret I wrote to him and told him I wanted to be a missionary priest. It was not an idle dream. It was a passion that gripped me in a way that was so overwhelming that I can only compare it with the emotions of a teenager in the grip of the searing emotions of a first love.
A moment later, or so it seems, I was a seminarian at Mirfield in Yorkshire. It was the very end of 1960 and I was living my dream. Concerned deeply with living a life of Saintly purity I would go to sleep with my arms outstretched above my bed covers and say Hail Marys until I fell asleep. The other boys would have fits of the giggles as they stood at the end of my bed and mocked me – until that is, the Vice Rector, Father Ceresoli, now the Emeritus Bishop of Eritrea, walked up and down the dormitory until lights out reciting the psalms in his breviary. I was living in my own Heaven full of saints and angels upon this very earth.
There were some bitter winters at Roe Head on the hill above Mirfield. I remember a snow drift one year above my head height – but come snow, hale or sunshine, we had cold compulsory showers in the morning. Due to that cold, I understand, I developed a kidney infection.
Whether it was really something to do with the extremes of the weather on an isolated Yorkshire hilltop I don’t know, but I ended up in hospital for a while and then the infirmary of the seminary. The priest in charge of the infirmary was named Domenico Valmaggia, an Italian from the mountain district of Como, North of Milan. He was gruff, but amusing, just like Father Nugent who had been my idol a few years before, but unlike Father Nugent he had an agenda which can only be described as sexual self gratification. Twice a day he would come into the infirmary when the community was taking its meals, lock the door, tell me to strip off and kneel on the edge of the bed. He would kneel before me and carry out ‘medical inspections’ to ensure that everything was ‘working properly’ following the intrusive and painful process of a renal inspection at the hospital. I did not know the word then, but his ‘inspection’ is called ‘masturbation’! Yet he was God’s representative on my earth and truly for me – it was only a ‘medical inspection’. Nevertheless, something happened to me after those events. I was subconsciously in total denial of what had taken place, but eventually became ‘screwed up’, for want of a better description, and at some time after taking my first vows in the Order, I departed from the way of life and distanced myself from the vision of my missionary boyhood dreams.
That it was actually ‘masturbation’ did not occur to me until years later when I overheard a conversation in a barber shop in London just behind St Martin in the Fields Church. The barber and customer were talking about a news report that the latter had been reading as he waited. The subject was child sexual abuse and the grooming ‘modus operandi’ of paedophiles and how they beguiled the innocent. At that moment, the Mirfield seminary infirmary came rushing into my mind like a tsunami and there and then I had a panic attack. Incredibly, it was the first moment that I realised that I had been betrayed by the one I trusted – and whom I thought had always been looking out for me and caring for me. Instead Valmaggia had betrayed me with the kiss of a Judas! The difference, however, between Judas and Valmaggia was that the Gospel Judas could not live with the betrayal of his beloved Jesus, but Valmaggia was at ease with his betrayal – and he destroyed the lives of myself and many other boys with the same betrayal of trust – the Judas kiss!
I then needed an expalantion. I contacted the Comboni Order at Sunningdale and sent a letter to Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor informing him of my distress and my need for a response. The Cardinal wrote back to me in a kindly enough manner, but explained that the Combonis were not within his jurisdiction. The Combonis did not respond at all – and so, eventually, I rang their Provincial Superior and asked him to trace the location of Father Valmaggia because I needed to speak to him and understand ‘Why’?! I felt that an understanding would put me at rest and enable me to put the distorted fragments of my life in some perspective again. The Comboni Provincial Superior at Sunningdale told me that Father Valmaggia had left the Order and was probably dead. The truth was that Valmaggia was not dead. Indeed, the Order knew precisely where he was – and, eventually, when he did die years later, they published his death in an official journal of the Order. Once more the Order that had protected him whilst he was abusing seminarians at the Mirfield seminary – had protected Valmagia again.
My accusation that they had knowledge of his abuse is not unfounded. Surprising as it may seem, they did know of his abuse at Mirfield as there are many witness accounts of reports made to the Rector (and other priests at the establishment) confirming his abuse of many boys. It is now known also that the Provincial Superior and even the Superior General of the Order were well aware of the abuse, but they did nothing until Valmaggia’s crimes were so numerous that they could no longer withhold action. The Order itself was wholly complicit – and had looked the other way. Canon Law demands that all clerics guilty of crimes against the sixth Decalogue are reported to the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It appears that no action was taken at all – and Father Valmaggia was ‘incardinated’ in a parish within his native diocese of Como in Italy – where he would have had continuous contact with yet more children. A Judas kiss was bestowed by the Hierarchy of the Comboni Missionary Order on the cheeks of so many innocents – merely to protect their vanity as a religious clerical elite – and presumably so as not to impede the flow of donations from an oblivious lay community into their large coffers.