An Appeal

In the last couple of years I have attended Old Boys’ reunions and I am pleased to say that there is still an irreverent cheeky playfulness at work amongst many of these middle aged men. As the drinks flow and humorous stories are exchanged of our wild and often unsupervised free time, the conversations turn to a more dark side. Sadly, it is clear to me that relationships between some of the boys and Priests were neither cold nor distant but something altogether much darker and more troubling.

Over the years, whenever I have spoken of my time in the Verona Fathers I have spoken only of my fond memories, of the camaraderie and the freedom given to us to explore and play.

I use this blog today not only as a cathartic exercise for me, but also as an appeal to you as an Old Boy, the only people capable of understanding my long term attachment to Mirfield, and the subsequent  revelations that have exposed the extent of the betrayal.

If you have a story you wish to share, if there was a part of your life which is still in pain like mine and that of others please feel free to contact me.

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Betrayal

I am not interested in retribution, apologies or compensation for myself. My concern is with the question of betrayal by others and the harm that betrayal has done to us.

Firstly, Romano was, at best, eccentric.  He behaved in very different ways to his two contemporaries, Father Eugene Murtagh and Father Frank McCullagh.  There was hardly any comparison with the behaviour of more senior Clerics, such as Cerea, Stenico or Wade  – his extreme religious views, his intimacy with young boys, his erratic behaviour.

For example, he would often punch boys in the middle of the chest with the heel of his clenched fist.  I, and others, believe that his bizarre actions must have been observed and well known by others in positions of authority in the House of Verona, yet he was charged with the pastoral care of vulnerable young men.

Secondly, I find it hard to believe that Romano was a one off.   I was at Mirfield for a very short time yet I quickly found myself exposed to a lack of due care. Therefore, turning a blind eye to uncomfortable situations was perhaps endemic.

Thirdly, I feel a deep sense of betrayal to my father, whose chest swelled with pride when Romano brought me home for a brief visit. For many years after my Father would relate this story with pride, that the Italian Priest thought so much of his son that he brought him home for an unscheduled, unannounced visit.

And finally the deep sense of betrayal to those young seminarians, my friends and brothers who may also have suffered a lack of care and support that was rightly due to them.

A “Caring” Adult

More than forty years have passed since that evening and from time to time it comes back to me. It is quite possible that I have managed to suppress the full impact of that night; it is also highly probable that for many years it affected my sexual desires and actions. The memory of holding the naked torso of an adult male can creep up on me when I least expect it.  For example, when I have recognised the vulnerability of my own children, wondering how a ‘caring’ adult can take advantage of an innocent child.   Sometimes it comes to me during or after a sexual encounter.  I have never raised this issue in counselling, nor have I contacted the Verona Fathers to discuss the trauma this issue has caused me.  I have instead chosen to block it from my mind and tried not to think of it.

Only Father Romano Nardo will know what actually happened that night.

All that remains is the memory that I never went back to his room or the God Squad and I lost my respect for him.

Help and Guidance

I took my direction from Father Romano with true dedication and allowed the vision of my family to hurt me in the name of devotion to God.  Eventually, no matter how close I felt to God the images of my mother and sister, in particular, were too much to bear.  In
the middle of the night I left the dormitory and made my way to Romano’s room to seek his help and guidance.

It was the first time I had seen him without his glasses; he woke from his sleep and was happy to invite me in. In floods of tears I apologised for not being able to deal with the pain. Romano held me and comforted me, he assured me that the Devil was powerful and we could face him together. Romano then removed his top and took me to his bed where we remain entwined for what felt like hours.

Peabod’s God Squad

Other young boys, like myself, were taken under his wing and looked to him for pastoral guidance.  This culminated in a small extracurricular group meeting regularly in the Chapel to pray and read psalms together. Romano would sit in the middle of the pew and on either side of him sat two or three boys.  In turns we were given psalms to read.  I struggled to read the complicated ancient text, but Romano was happy to ask others to pick up for me.  It was in this group that I first heard the term “flagellation”.

The humorous cynicism which pervades the culture of a Junior Seminary quickly led to Romano gaining the nickname Peabod after the cartoon character Mr Peabody and Romano’s followers being nominated as “Peabod’s God Squad”.  Only now am I able to smile when I hear this term.

Father Romano Nardo

It was not until the arrival of a rather unusual Italian Priest at our West Yorkshire Seminary did I begin to feel a certain closeness.  Father Romano Nardo was unusual, not only as a Priest, but also as a person. This eccentric young man made an instant impression on me despite his odd appearance; he wore thick glasses, big glasses, actually, very big, thick glasses.

Romano was the first Priest of the Comboni order to offer an explanation for my unbearable homesickness. Pain, he told me was a route to God.  By accepting our pain, learning to live with suffering, we move ever closer to God.  As a rational adult I’m capable of offering counter arguments.  But in vulnerable adolescence the notion that pleasure is sinful and pain and suffering is spiritually uplifting resonated with me and I embraced his theological reasoning.

The Boys United

It is football which brings back the most powerful memories. For many years I lost my interest in football.  More recently I have been attending games at Celtic Park.  I am not certain whether it is the hooped jerseys, the awful weather, the sheer tribal atmosphere or even the combination of all three which causes me to remember how much St Peter Clavers’ School Teams were viewed as outsiders and disliked by the other local teams:  and how our isolated position generated a unity, pride and determination for the Verona Boys to win.

If the Mirfield Boys and their often rebellious zeal were a comfort to me, then the Mirfield Priests who were often cold, distant and aloof were a poor substitute for the loss of my parents. Whilst, in general, I looked up to and admired almost all of the Comboni Fathers – after all they had not only been through the seminary process but had also served in the missions and witnessed unimaginable poverty and suffering – forming supportive relationships with my religious guardians proved difficult for me. A tall Irish Brother with Prince Charles ears once yelled at me for crying and yelled again the next day when he discovered I had wet the bed.  It was Father Cerea’s repetitive question, “Are you stupid, boy? Are you stupid boy?” that was the catalyst for my final departure from Mirfield.

I vividly recall how I enjoyed our irreverent jibe song when we all sang “Steni and Ched, two Fathers of Verona” to the tune of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’.  No serious harm was intended or implied in the words.  To sing it was not only fun, it was also an affirmation that we were the boys “united” and they, the Priests, were not part of our unique club.  They were our stern and distant superiors, but for the duration of the song at least we did not care.