The Undisclosed Nightmare of Abuse In Catholic Religious Institutes
By Brian Mark Hennessy of the Comboni CSA Survivor Group
1. When I was 12 years old a visiting preacher attended my school, gathered all the boys in an assembly, ranted on about the 6th Commandment and told us that we would all be burned in Hell for our ‘impurity’. I was stunned in fear. A group of us gathered later and asked what the 6th was all about. One of us said it was ‘adultery’. I drew the short straw on the Friday to confess first and when I said, in my innocence, that I had committed ‘adultery’, the priest roared at the top of his voice, ‘You must be mad’! In fear I jumped out of the confessional box and came face to face with the full school assembly looking at me in alarm. When I entered the Comboni Missionary seminary at Mirfield in Yorkshire, UK, just a year later, I went to sleep each night with my arms outstretched above the bed clothes saying the Rosary in fear that I might die in the night and go to Hell. Apart from the Catechism and prayers that I had learned by rote, that was the sum of my knowledge of Catholicism at the time.
2. Following an illness at the seminary which required a spell in hospital I was confined for two weeks by a priest, acting as Infirmarian, to a room adjacent to his. He visited me twice a day for two weeks, locked the door, told me to strip off and kneel on the edge of the bed. He kneeled in front of me to carry out ‘inspections’ to see if everything was ‘working properly’ after the invasive hospital endoscopic inspection. I now know that what he was doing is called ‘masturbation’. I was too embarrassed to watch at the time and looked straight ahead and I was unsuspecting – until one day something made me look down. I flinched in shock when I saw the sweat on his bald head, his red temples pumping blood and his eyes staring right into my eyes pleading for my complicity. The priest saw my reaction and immediately left, telling me to return to the dormitory.
3. In the last two decades, a group of some 24 ex-seminarians have claimed that they were victims of clerical abuse when they were minors at the hands of Comboni clerics at the Mirfield Seminary by members of the Comboni Missionary Order (also known as the Verona Fathers). It is accepted that the total number of alleged incidents of abuse will never be known for certain, but, by extrapolation from the statements made by both Victims and Witnesses, the number of those incidents of the sexual abuse of minors, each incident a “crime” in its own right, has been established to be in the region of 1,000 incidents in the period from the late 1950s to the early 1980s. No Inquiries to which the Victims were invited to give evidence was ever heard. No reports were made to the Local Constabulary regarding evidence of crimes against minors and nor were Welfare Authorities advised. It appears also that no action was taken in compliance with Canon Law which required the compulsory reporting to the Vatican of all offences against the 6th Commandment committed by clerics of the Catholic Church.
4. The Comboni Missionary Order was aware that abuse was taking place at the time of the abuse. Information from over 40 statements by Victims and Witnesses reveals that reports were made to priests of the Order on 26 occasions by Victims. The majority reaction by those priests to whom the abuse was reported was negative, ranging from stony silence to expulsion. Ultimately, due to extreme and consistent pressure from students and parents, one priest was “incardinated” to a parish in the Diocese of Como in Italy. Another was sent to Uganda where he was placed in charge of the Catholic Boy Scout Movement and a third was also transferred to Africa where he founded a school which became named after him. In their new appointments, each of them was allowed unmonitored and unfettered access to more minors.
5. In recent years, following civil legal actions, a string of statements were made to the Press by the UK Provincial of the Comboni Missionary Order, expressing great sadness and regret at the allegations ‘if’ they had happened. They suggested that given the passage of time of almost half a century, the truth of what happened will never be known and that there was no evidence of a culture of abuse at the Mirfield seminary. They stressed that the allegations alleged had taken place ‘an incredibly long time ago – and two of the priests who were accused are now deceased – and they simply don’t know what happened at Mirfield and don’t feel that it can be established now’. I, for one, do know that it happened – because it happened to me. Whilst responses are not the same for all those who have been abused by one that was implicitly trusted, there are always persistent, destructive effects that cast mental restraints upon their life and all interactions. These may not necessarily be self- acknowledged and may be harmfully suppressed. In others they flow demonstrably for all to see.
6. Despite attempts by some Combonis to deny the criminality of depraved Mirfield clerics, there were two priests of the Order alive (at the time allegations were raised) who were at Mirfield in that period of time and who did have knowledge of the abuse and have said so. The Comboni Order, nevertheless, has always ignored such unhelpful facts to their denials and has never admitted guilt for any of the offences that they know were reported and did occur. If they looked for the evidence, then they would find it, for their own Rules require that the Order must retain ‘in perpetuity’ all records of incidents of reported sexual abuse in their Secret Archives at both their Provincial Headquarters and their Curia in Rome. They neglected to do a search when I first raised issues about abuse with them and even suggested to me that the cleric concerned was old and was most probably already dead. Actually, he was still alive – and when he did die some years later, his passing was notified in one of their official documents for all to see. The Uk Provincial at the time had fended me off, but had he checked with the Rome Curia of the Order, where he had once himself worked, he would have known the full facts and his then current location.
7. Requests for dialogue and letters from Victims can remain unanswered. One was told by the current UK Provincial that if he rang him again he would be reported to the Police for harassment. Another priest of the Order contacted by a Survivor said that he could not talk to the Survivor ‘because his dinner was on the table and was going cold’. Yet another cleric of the Order, a past Superior General with an appointment at the Vatican, said to a Survivor who rang him, ‘I will listen to you, but I will not answer’! That same Survivor – who travelled to Italy to meet the priest (who had nightly abused him as 14 year old for a period of months) and who forgave that priest in an amicable meeting – was subsequently charged by the Combonis in the Criminal Court of Verona with trespassing, stalking and interfering in the life of the priest (who had abused him was he was a 14 year old child). The charge was thrown out by the Judge as being without any evidence at all – yet the Combonis appealed – and that Appeal was also quashed.
8. The Comboni Missionary Order has established a number of houses within Great Britain since the 1940s. They did so with the permission, as required by Canon Law, of the Bishops in whose dioceses they founded their establishments. The seminarians who attended the Mirfield Comboni Seminary were recruited from parishes within the dioceses of Great Britain. Still today, the Combonis make ‘Appeal’ collections in those parishes of those same dioceses for the upkeep of their establishments and missions. Mirfield seminarians who left the Combonis after suffering abuse returned to the same diocesan parishes whence they came and some remain parishioners today. Thus, the British Diocesan Hierarchy has a hold over the Comboni Missionary Order, despite their separate Canonical structures, and they are perfectly well entitled, under Canon Law, to seek to rescind their permission for the Combonis to continue their existence within these British shores. Despite the Bishops’ ‘magnificence’ in the hierarchical structure of the ancient Catholic edifice, they appear to tremble to do so.
9. Vatican II asked for greater co-operation between Diocesan Bishops and Religious Superiors for the ‘good of the Church’. Some Bishops and Provincial Superiors – who under Canon Law each share an equivalent status as ‘Juridical and Territorial Ordinaries’ are amenable to the desire for a degree of conducive co-operation, but others are not. Catholic Safeguarding Officials made a number of overtures on behalf of the Survivors of alleged clerical sexual abuse by Comboni Missionary clerics to change that Order’s attitude to Victims, but they were ignored as there was no compulsion to take heed.
10. In 2015, I produced a 177 page document on the details of the abuse at the Comboni Missionary Order’s Mirfield Seminary. I sent a copy to all the Bishops of the British Isles and to the Cardinal Prefects of the Vatican Congregations, but there was only one response. It was from an Irish Bishop, who asked, ‘What am I supposed to do with this?’ I had to restrain myself from telling him! I then forwarded a copy to each member of the Comboni Missionary Hierarchy internationally in the forty-five countries in which they worked and in the United Kingdom. I had no response. Ultimately, I forwarded a copy, over a period of two weeks, to every one of the Order’s 1000 priests who had a listed email address. I received three replies. Two said that it was all lies, but eventually admitted that they had not read the document. One old Italian priest did reply. He said that his English was not good, but that he had read the document from cover to cover – that it had taken him three hours – and he ‘felt ashamed’! Yet, he was not able to assist us as he did not want his name to be made known in fear of reprisals by the Order’s Hierarchy. In January 2016, Cardinal Vincent Nichols was persuaded to take a copy of that document and hand it in personally to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He confirmed to me from Rome that he had done so. Three years later there has not been a response from the Vatican.
11. In 2018, I completed an ‘Application for Papal Justice’ in the case of one Mirfield seminarian – under Canon Law 1417 : ‘By reason of the primacy of the Roman Pontiff, any member of the faithful is free to bring or introduce his or her own contentious or penal case to the Holy See for adjudication’. It was handed into the Pope’s Private Office in August 2018 by Father Hans Zollner SJ, who is Director of the Institute of Psychology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and a member of the current Synod implementation Committee. No response was received from the Private Office of the Pope. Thus, when Archbishop Scicluna, Pope Francis’ ‘front man’ on sexual abuse matters, moved from Malta to Rome at the end of 2018 to prepare the issues to be discussed at the forthcoming Synod, the matter of the continued silence of the Comboni Missionary Order was raised directly with him. He immediately arranged for the the two documents referred to above to be passed to the Disciplinary Office of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. We remain hopeful for a response before we depart this world. Approaching my 74th year that chance is increasingly more slim as the years slip by. One of our younger dear friends within our Group of Survivors of Comboni child sexual abuse died just last year without a whisper of regret by the Combonis for the abuse he suffered.
12. The Bishops, who are responsible for the 25,000 or so diocesan priests around the globe, have started to gather in Rome. We know now what exposure the Bishops can face from the communities around them. If they continue to fail in matters of safeguarding, there is an increasingly good chance that both Civil Justice and Catholic lay groups will now monitor and ensure that appropriate Civil and Canonical justice against degenerate clerics will be pursued. In time, hopefully, they face the likelihood that they will all be ‘hauled over the coals’ and brought to account – but what of recalcitrant global Orders like the Comboni Missionary Order of Verona, Italy? Who will monitor their conduct?
13. The rarely mentioned Religious Superiors and Abbots of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Institutes of Sacred Life have been called to attend the Rome Synod in February also. Between them, they control by a vow of obedience, some 750,000 clerics throughout the world (Vatican figures relating to 2015 & published 2017). Those clerics comprise 75% of all Catholic clerics (male and female) and they work in schools, missions, hospitals, orphanages, refuges and youth organizations. Unless mechanisms are established throughout the globe to scrutinise them thoroughly and subject them to invasive processes of continued monitoring by competent authorities (clerical, lay and civil) then child sexual abuse will continue to go undetected and their horrendous crimes will blight the lives of innocents for generations into the future. Therein lays the silent, hidden horror that is yet to be fully exposed. It is not an isolated problem that can be left to chance. There are some 20,000 orphanages under Catholic Religious Orders’ control in Italy and India alone. To our horror and disgust, we all within these British Isles know what can happen in Orphanages when they remain unchecked. If the Catholic Church Synod fails to establish the processes to do so then these establishments must be licensed by the civil authorities throughout the world to conduct their activities and be subjected to rigorous and repetitive processes of monitoring and inspection. Some would say, with a substantial degree of evidence behind them, that the Catholic Church can never be trusted again without such invasive, external regimes of control. The safe futures of millions of the world’s children are truly at stake in this moment in history. Their lives cannot be left to chance.