Iam sometimes asked why I don’t write “a hard-hitting article” about sexual abuse among the clergy — particularly in the light of the John Jay report in the United States which claims there have been more than 10,000 allegations (get that: allegations) of sexual abuse by priests since 1950. When this was reported by the BBC, not only was it assumed that allegations were the same as convictions: but Radio 4’s The World Tonight suggested that the number of 15,000 cases was probably a case of under-reporting.
The truthful answer that I give about not having written an article on this subject is that I do not know enough about it. One of the few lessons that I have learned, with the passage of time, is a classic piece of advice given to young writers: write about what you know. When I was young myself, I confess, I quite often wrote about what I didn’t know. I had opinions on all kinds of matters of which I hadn’t the slightest experience or knowledge. Not any more. I now try to write about something on which I have some knowledge: or a subject in which I am in a position to research. And I really do not know anything about alleged sexual abuse by priests. I feel I have no authority over the material. Moreover, much of what the reports contain baffles me.
On a range of social issues from alcoholism to divorce to euthanasia — I can draw on my own experience, or on the common stream of experience of those around me. We all know people who have alcohol or addiction problems, who have been through several divorces, who have contemplated, if not actually committed, euthanasia. But I have no direct experience myself, nor has anyone I know personally, of ever encountering priestly sexual abuse.
When this subject first reared its terrible head, I asked my brothers, my cousins, my older male relatives, and indeed any group of Irishmen — almost all of whom had been educated by priests, many of whom had served as altar boys — if they had any experience of priestly abuse. (Four-fifths of sexual abuse is reported to involve young boys.) The answers were always the same: never heard of it, never encountered it, never heard any other chaps speaking about it. Smacking, yes. Indeed, beating like blazes, sometimes. Lurid tales about Christian Brothers’prodi gality with the strap or the cane, yes. But sexual abuse, no.
Once, a man came up to me in the street, having recognised me from some broadcast, and told me that he had been sexually abused by priests, and his life had been a misery. He seemed a very sad and nervous young man. I did not disbelieve him, since I am aware that terrible things do go on in the world. But, as I say, his experience was not replicated by any witness I have personal knowledge of, in my own milieu.
I am not, as opponents have charged, “in denial” about facts. There are notorious cases where men of the cloth have admitted the terrible charge. I am simply speaking as I find.
The American report, in fact, mystifies me. If the BBC claims that 15,000 cases (as they reported not 10,667 children accusing 4,392 priests, as the print media has had it) represents “under-reporting”, I would not know whether to rebut or accept that claim. Is it possible that many more children were molested than have come forward? Or, in a country which is swarming with lawyers, where a woman won compensation of $2 million dollars from Starbucks for spilling hot coffee over herself (obliging all coffee-shops to print a warning: “Hot coffee is HOT, so please take care”) is it not just as likely that claims are inflated? I do not know. For the record, the John Jay report lays the blame on American bishops, for having turned blind eyes, and allowing mayhem in the seminaries in which young men develop the notion that they can do as they please. The American Church called the findings “shameful”. I accept the report, but I still cannot say that I find any real resonance of its findings in my own life or the common experience of those around me.
PS The Bishops’Conference of England and Wales PS The Bishops’Conference of England and Wales has produced a document which recommends higher taxation “for the common good”. Alas, I saw, in Ireland in the 1980s, grave injustice wrought by higher taxation, from which the real rich can always escape. I saw my late brother, a father of four, financially crippled by cruelly punitive taxation. Small wonder those who could cheat, did. The bishops might consider returning to basics and having no policy whatsoever about taxation: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.”