Book review: Betrayed: The English Catholic Church and the Sex Abuse Crisis
“His book is exhaustively researched, beautifully written, passionate yet objective & a major contribution to the literature on this heart-breaking subject” Charles Foster
Author: Richard Scorer
Publisher: Biteback Publishing
In 1956 Christopher Carrie, then 11 years old, was called to see Father John Tolkien, a Roman Catholic priest and son of the famous author, at the English Martyrs Presbytery in Birmingham. Tolkien gave Carrie a long talk about the “facts of life”, and then said that he needed to examine him. He ordered Carrie to strip naked, and then gave him a “special blessing”, which involved pouring holy water on Carrie’s penis and massaging it. Carrie was ordered to return the next week. The ceremony then involved rubbing Carrie’s penis between Tolkien’s praying hands. Don’t tell anyone about this, Carrie was told. If you do, Jesus will be offended, and you might lose your soul. Carrie was terrified.
The abuse wrecked Carrie’s life. He was full of self-disgust, suffered a mental breakdown, and his marriage fell apart. In 1993, having established that Tolkien was still a serving priest, he decided to tell the Catholic authorities. He met with the then Archbishop of Birmingham, Couve de Murville, and told his story. The Archbishop assured Carrie that Tolkien was going to “cease the active practice of his ministry”. But nothing happened.
For Tolkien himself there was, at least in the temporal jurisdiction of England and Wales, no judgment at all. In 2002 the CPS, despite having decided that the case passed the evidential test, decided, in view of Tolkien’s state of health, that prosecution would not be in the public interest. The archdiocese settled the civil claim.
Depressingly familiar case
The case is depressing, and depressingly familiar. It has many of the characteristic elements of clerical sex abuse: a vulnerable victim; spiritual blackmail; abuse cloaked in theological mumbo-jumbo; an arrogant yet accurate assumption of immunity; dismissal or active cover-up by the Catholic authorities, and ultimate forensic frustration.
Ever since Gilbert Gauthe, a priest in Louisiana, was exposed in 1983 as a paedophile, there has been a concerted and increasingly international attempt to get the Catholic church to confront the problem. For a long time that attempt was more or less unsuccessful. A big part of the difficulty is theological: the hands of a priest are the hands of God. If those hands masturbate an altar boy, you can’t just cut them off. And for the altar boy or his family to suggest that you should is seen as a sort of blasphemy. The priesthood is a consecrated caste, before whom the gates of hell, let alone the secular authorities, cannot prevail. The church is God’s city, and her rulers and statutes are more enlightened than those of the benighted heathen.
The epidemic of clerical sex abuse in the US has threatened to send some dioceses into bankruptcy. Yet there is a perception that the UK has been at least relatively immune. The perception is wrong. Richard Scorer’s splendid book sets the record straight. What happened in the US happened here: victims were contemptuously disbelieved; repeatedly offending priests were moved to different parishes to find invigoratingly new cohorts of boys to abuse; the police were rarely summoned by the bishops; priests were given the chance to vanish before the law closed in; civil claims were fought tooth and nail, with all possible procedural points being taken; settlements were and are made grudgingly, with draconian confidentiality clauses.
There have been some encouraging moves. Archbishop Murphy O’Connor (albeit under intense pressure from the media and from victims) convened the Nolan Commission, whose 2001 report proposed a fairly comprehensive scheme for child protection within the church. The report was adopted. At its heart was the paramountcy principle, well known to family lawyers: the welfare of the child must trump all other considerations. And it identified an important corollary—that there could be no excuse for not notifying the statutory authorities immediately of allegations of abuse.
The Church’s resolutions, based on Nolan, look good. And yet, as Baroness Cumberlege concluded in her 2007 review, the task of implementing the Nolan proposals was woefully incomplete. That failure risked “a serious reversal of some of the important gains made to date”.
There is still a long way to go. We need, among other things, an enforceable obligation to disclose information relating to child protection, and an assumption that priests found guilty of abuse will be laicised.
Scorer is one of the leading litigators of clerical abuse claims. His book is exhaustively researched, beautifully written, passionate yet objective, and a major contribution to the literature on this heart-breaking subject.
Christopher Carrie campaigns for Mandatory Reporting of the sexual abuse of a child.