Walking with the wounded – abuse and the Comboni Order

The Tablet [Market Harborough, England]

July 8, 2021

By Danny Sullivan

More than 50 years after they were abused by predatory priests at a school run by the Verona Fathers, a brave and resolute group of survivors have finally received a full apology from the Church. Yet their painful story is far from over

In October 2014, The Observer ran a two-page story by the Scottish journalist and writer Catherine Deveney about the experiences of a group of survivors of sexual abuse by priests when at Mirfield Junior Seminary in West Yorkshire in the 1960s and 1970s. St Peter Claver College was in the care of the Verona Fathers (now known as the Comboni Missionaries).

At that time, Pope Francis’ direction to ­bishops and the leaders of religious orders was to meet survivors and victims of abuse directly, listen to their stories, apologise unreservedly and offer them support. I found the statement by the provincial of the order quoted in Deveney’s article wanting; as the then chair of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission, I wrote a letter outlining my views, which The Observer published.

This led to an introduction to a remarkable group of men and their families. I have walked with them ever since, getting to know each of them in their own way and becoming friends with them. Over seven years, this has been a profoundly moving and humbling journey. I have heard their stories, learnt about their suffering and heard how their innocence was violated and taken away from them in a criminal and abusive manner. To this day, their pleas to the leadership of the order to meet with them and listen to them individually and apologise directly to them have been rejected.

I was, therefore, moved when I heard and read the full and heartfelt apology given to the group by Marcus Stock, the Bishop of Leeds, on 25 June. The abuse had taken place in his diocese, and Bishop Stock had invited the survivors to meet him personally, with Cardinal Vincent Nichols and the Archbishop of Malta, Charles Scicluna, an adviser on abuse to Pope Francis, present via Zoom. Also in attendance were the daughters of one of the group, Frank, who poignantly had died before he could experience this moment of healing. These survivors and their families are people of profound dignity, integrity and courage.

Bishop Stock’s apology was significant for a number of reasons. First, he said he was speaking to the group as a brother and a man and someone who personally knew and understood the impact of abuse on a family. His apology was from the heart and filled with compassion. One survivor present, Bede Mullen, said the meeting had been a transformational experience. “The sense of healing that was generated was palpable.”

Second, Bishop Stock explicitly called to account the leadership of the Comboni Order for not reaching out to the survivors in a clear and direct way. Bishop Stock called this consistent refusal to meet the survivors personally and compassionately “continuous abuse”, something that survivors and victims name as secondary abuse. In 2014, 11 victims of abuse at Mirfield were paid compensation by the Comboni Order, ranging from £7,000 to £30,000 per person, but the lawyers representing the order said it was not an admission of guilt.

In a statement to BBC Leeds after Bishop Stock’s apology to the survivors, the Comboni Order said: “We subscribe to the comprehensive national safeguarding policies and procedures of the Catholic Church in the UK.” A central tenet of these guidelines is to meet directly with survivors and victims and listen to their stories with deep compassion and to act accordingly. Yet the leadership of the Comboni Order will still not meet survivors of the abuse suffered at Mirfield.

One of the survivors, Brian Hennessy, is a scholarly person with a deep grasp and understanding of canon law. He produced a dossier capturing the abuse that members of the group suffered. It also outlines their unsuccessful attempts to engage the leadership of the Comboni Order or senior members of the Church in their search for justice. It shows how canon law in relation to their abuse was not properly followed. It points out how the assertive words of Benedict XVI and Pope Francis on how victims and survivors of abuse should be treated were repeatedly ignored. Hennessy sent this dossier to every bishop and every leader of religious congregations in the UK. A few acknowledged they had received it; not one took up their cause – with the exception of Cardinal Nichols, who took it personally to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The response from the CDF? After five years – silence.

Another member of the group, Mark Murray, like every victim of abuse, has sought resolution to his pain and hurt. Unknown to him, the case of his abuser went to the CDF. Murray was not informed of the process at any stage: only silence and a total absence of openness and transparency. In an attempt to find resolution, he went to Verona some years ago and sought out the priest who had abused him as a 14-year-old schoolboy. The priest acknowledged his abuse and Murray forgave him. The response of the Italian leadership of the order was to take Murray to court, charged with trespassing and stalking the priest. The judge threw out the case. The Italian leadership of the order appealed. The appeal was thrown out.

When Murray returned to his parish in North Wales, his parish priest called a parish meeting. It was unanimously agreed that the parish would no longer support Mission Sunday as there was no guarantee that some of the money collected would not go to the Comboni Order. The parish supports missionary activity in other ways and has held fast, despite the local bishop trying to reverse its decision. Here lies a challenge to every priest and every parish. Should the work of the Comboni Order be financially supported by the Catholics of England and Wales while its leaders still decline even to meet directly with survivors and to hear their stories and to apologise to them for the abuse they suffered?

The experience of a third member of the group, Chris Speight, shows that some survivors are still not being listened to. Speight approached the Diocese of Arundel & Brighton about his abuse three years ago and again last year: at that time, the leaders of the Combonis had chosen to align safeguarding issues related to the order with the safeguarding commission of the Diocese of Arundel & Brighton.

After the highly critical Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) report on the Catholic Church in 2020, the bishops of England and Wales declared that the pastoral care of victims and survivors of abuse would now be their priority. One could not describe the response to Speight’s concerns as pastoral: the Bishop of Arundel & Brighton, Richard Moth, at times did not respond to his communications. As Speight says, silence is not a neutral act. While Bishop Moth did eventually meet Speight (through Zoom), he has since exercised silence again, perhaps because Speight asked for an apology after a diocesan safeguarding coordinator had referred to the Comboni group as “disruptive and aggressive”. No apology has been forthcoming. Speight has been able to show from a subject access request made under data protection regulations that the bishop and the diocese have liaised more positively and paid more attention to the leaders of the Comboni Order and the diocesan lawyers than they have to him.

As the Church in England and Wales begins to implement new safeguarding structures, the chair of the new Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency, Nazir Afzal, faces his first real test. I understand he is to meet the group, and I am sure he will endorse Bishop Stock’s public apology to the members of the Comboni Survivors’ Group and express his sympathy for what the group has had to live through for many years. This would send a clear message to all victims and survivors of abuse. But what action will the new safeguarding oversight body take in the face of leaders of a religious order who obstinately fail to follow the clear direction from Pope Francis and national guidelines and protocols, that victims and survivors are to be responded to with understanding and compassion and met with directly, listened to and given an unreserved apology?

For example, if the leadership of an international religious order like the Combonis is found not to have complied with the proper pastoral response due to survivors of abuse required by either the former safeguarding procedures or the new standards adopted by the bishops of England and Wales, then surely the permission for the order to reside in any diocese of the country should be removed. To take such radical action would show zero ­tolerance of non-compliance of guidelines and be a witness to full solidarity with all ­victims and survivors of abuse.

Let the last word be from Mark Murray, who after hearing Bishop Stock’s apology reflected: “A heartfelt apology does not have a full stop after it. A heartfelt apology does not have an ‘if’ or a ‘but’ accompanying it. A heartfelt apology is the start of a meaningful and honest dialogue that wants to ‘get in’ the heart and mind, and ‘experience’ and ‘walk with’ those who have been hurt and are still in pain. Bishop Marcus has started that ­process.”

Danny Sullivan served as chair of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission, the independent body responsible for setting the strategic direction of the Church’s safeguarding policies for children and vulnerable adults, between 2012 and 2015.