From Wuthering Heights to Despair at the hands of Comboni Missionaries
In the same house where the Bronte Sisters wrote books like Jayne Eyre, Emma and Wuthering Heights, boys as young as 11 were suffering Wuthering lows at the hands of abusive priests at a seminary in the heart of Yorkshire. The boys had come from all over the UK and Ireland and had left behind family and friends, at the tender age of 11, to study for the priesthood at the seminary at Roe Head in Mirfield.
More than a century before, the Bronte sisters went to school at Roe Head and had taught there too, living on the premises. From around 1961 to 1984, the Comboni Missionaries (known then as the Verona Fathers), an Italian Order, recruited young boys from all over the country. The boys had been sold on tales of Africa, shown slides and films of life there and how they could help Africans find God.
In 1964 five young boys from Greenock and Port Glasgow, 11 and 12 year olds, left their families and friends behind to go a seminary in Yorkshire to start the process of becoming priests. Some of their parents came along and dropped them off before making teary farewells.
What the boys found there was something entirely different. Two of the priests there were active paedophiles. Indeed one of them, Father John Pinkman from Liverpool had been put in charge of the Junior Boys, i.e. the first two years, of boys aged 11 to 13. Father Pinkman used to open the shower curtains to look at the youngsters naked in the shower and offer to soap them down. He would bring boys to his room and explain the Facts of Life to them making some of them take off their clothes so that he could ‘explain’ better. He went further with others.
Another abuser, Father Domenico Valmaggia, lurked in the infirmary at the seminary. The boys went to see him if they felt ill. He used to weigh the boys every so often making the boys take off their clothes for the weighing. If someone was sick or injured, but not too badly to go to hospital, they would spend some time in the infirmary. There, Fr Valmaggia would keep them for days on end, abusing them several times a day.
Said Gerry McLaughlin, who was one of the five from Greenock, “I had only been there a matter of weeks when Fr Pinkman, who was in charge of us, told me I had to take a cold shower every morning when we rose at 6:40am. This shower was in the basement and away from the washroom and showers where the other boys were washing”.
He came down too and opened the shower curtains and started talking to me. There was something in his demeanour that was disturbing as he stood there rubbing his hands. He offered to soap me down with the sponge. I refused which was quite brave as I was 11, naked and he was in total charge of me. He came down again for the next few days and I always felt uncomfortable. He stopped after a week or two and after six weeks of freezing showers in October / November I decided to stop too.
This was not to be Gerry’s last encounter with him. In second year, Gerry was playing football when he had a groin strain. Fr Pinkman was the referee in the game between two sets of the ‘boys’. He told Gerry to go to the dormitory and go to bed.
Said Gerry “I was surprised to see him at the bottom of my bed just a few minutes later as he was the referee in the match, which would still have been going on. He wanted to examine my groin. I refused. He kept asking putting different arguments for his need to see my groin each time. I kept refusing but was fearful. The very last argument he put was “Do you not want to get better?”. I thought about that. I did want to get better. I was considering letting him examine me if that would help to make me better when he suddenly changed tack.
“Has Fr Valmaggia weighed you yet?”, he asked. I thought that was a very strange question in the circumstances but I replied that he hadn’t”.
So, Gerry was sent to the infirmary that they had on the premises which was run by Fr Valmaggia. He was to remain there for eight days. Another boy who was in there already was sent away on the 2nd day even though he protested that he didn’t feel any better.
Said Gerry “He told me that the cure for a groin strain (which I now know is rest) was for him to rub coal tar on my genitals two or three times a day. He used to lock the infirmary door before he started. Even though he told me it was a cure his manner did strike me as strange. Some of the times he seemed to be fighting himself and once he even stopped suddenly even though the job was half done and walked out of the infirmary”.
Gerry was to remain there for 8 days being abused several times a day until he was ‘cured’.
Said Gerry “It was only last year that I found out that my best friend from my time there had also been abused by Father Pinkman and that quite a few others that I knew had been abused by one or both. It was rife”.
Boys plucked up their courage and reported this to the authorities there quite a few times before Pinkman was eventually sent away to the Missions in Africa. When he died in 1984 of a massive heart attack, Comboni Missionaries even had a Mass of Celebration said in his honour in the very chapel of the seminary in Mirfield where he had perpetrated his abuse and ruined so many young lives.
Fr Valmaggia was sent away in the early Seventies after he was exposed by some of the boys there after many years of abuse. He remained in the order, Comboni Missionaries, for many years and ended up in a parish in the Como province in Italy till his death in 2011.
Neither of the men were ever reported to the police by the Comboni Missionaries.