This morning two comments on social media caught my eye. They were both about the resignation of Father Francis Davidson who, until his resignation on August 14, was monastic superior at St Benet's Hall Oxford, but was formerly a headmaster at the Fort Augustus Abbey School in Scotland. The recent BBC documentary Sins of Our Fathers aired allegations of multiple cases of physical and sexual assaults, including rape, by monks over at least a 30 year period from former students of the Benedictine Fort Augustus Abbey School and its feeder school, Carlekemp Prep School. Davidson has resigned because it is alleged he knew of the accusations of abuse but ignored them or covered them up. Both comments ran along the lines of “Oh no, not more Catholic abuse, not more abuse cover-ups by the Catholic Church”.
Although it is important that every case of alleged sexual abuse and every case of alleged concealment by the Catholic Church should be brought into the light of day the comments alerted me to an inherent danger in this process. I was reminded of an attitude many have observed in the past surrounding the reporting of natural and other disasters – the phenomenon known as “compassion fatigue”. In the case of natural disasters and the inevitable appeals for aid which accompany them, compassion fatigue often manifests as a kind of reactionary boredom expressed as “Oh no, here we go again” - a kind of burnout reaction.
Compassion fatigue has also been called ‘secondary victimization', ‘secondary traumatic stress', 'vicarious traumatization' and 'secondary survivor syndrome'. Among academics and mental health professionals the technical term Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder (STSD) is preferred. Sufferers can exhibit several symptoms including, decreased enjoyment of life, a sense of hopelessness, constant stress and anxiety, sleeplessness or nightmares, and a pervasive negative attitude ranging from irritability to deep and crippling depression. These detrimental effects can reach into a person's personal and professional life resulting in an inability to focus, increasing feelings of incompetence and self-doubt and a consequent disruption of relationships and decrease in productivity.
None of this is in any way meant to diminish the primary stress disorder suffered by victims of sexual or other abuse during childhood. Nothing can diminish that ongoing suffering, even among survivors who appear to be coping. What it does bring home though is that the tentacles of trauma from the pandemic of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church reach out and ensnare new victims every day to the extent that we are on the verge of a national, indeed, an international malaise. The ripples of secondary trauma which are now beginning to manifest take this issue far beyond the doors of the Catholic Church. It is an issue which affects, or can affect every person who lives anywhere that the Catholic Church exists.
My personal reaction is one of fury that this is allowed to continue especially when I read of the reactions of Catholics in authority. If the allegations are true, and really, there is almost no reason to doubt them, except the traditional legal presumption of innocence then two types of crimes have been committed. The first is obviously the sexual and physical assaults which were perpetrated by priests and monks on innocent and helpless children. To read any of the accounts of the abuse suffered is a stomach turning experience. For normal, healthy people it is distressing beyond imagination to read of these vile acts being perpetrated on children. Obviously, those who are accused of perpetrating these crimes must be brought to justice without delay.
Having said that, I have argued in other places that violent criminal acts are never committed in a vacuum. They are always coloured by all sorts of social and psychological circumstances. I do not believe that those who commit crimes are evil even when the crimes they commit are unmitigatingly evil. I also believe that criminal justice which is purely punitive is barbaric. There must always be provision for both rehabilitation and restitution. My fury, therefore, is not directed toward the individual clergymen who committed these crimes.
It is when I learn that a headmaster or former headmaster has resigned because it has been discovered that he covered up these crimes that my anger rises. And it is when I hear of the hollow apologies and expressions of regret from bishops and abbots that my anger turns to fury.
When he was interviewed for Sins of Our Fathers Richard Yeo, the Abbot President of the English Benedictine Congregation started by saying that he was "very sorry about any abuse that may have been committed at Fort Augustus". Any reasonable person can detect the hollowness of this non-apology. It neatly avoids admitting that any abuse was committed, yet again throwing doubt on the veracity of those who have lived with the pain and injury of the abuse for decades. Such a statement dressed up as an apology is of no value whatsoever and is deeply insulting to those victims who had the courage to tell their stories.
When he was asked about abusive monks who were relocated to Australia without the police or the church in Australia being warned that they were receiving monks who had abused children, thus leaving them free to abuse again – which they did – Yeo said “that is unacceptable, I'm not defending that."
Yeo was then given a long list of monks: four who had committed physical abuse, three who had committed sexual abuse, and two headmasters who had covered it all up. Yeo was asked what he was going to do about this. His answer was "I want to wait until I get evidence." One has to wonder just how much evidence he needs. Since he had not troubled to even look at the available school records from Fort Augustus which are apparently lodged in Edinburgh, one must also wonder how serious he is about obtaining the evidence.
Following the televising of Sins of Our Fathers the Catholic Bishop of Aberdeen, Hugh Gilbert said, when addressing parishioners at Fort Augustus recently,
“It is a most bitter, shaming and distressing thing that in this former abbey school a small number of baptised, consecrated and ordained Christian men physically and sexually abused those in their care.” He went on to say "I know that Abbot Richard Yeo has offered an apology to those who have suffered such abuse and I join him in that....We are anxious that there be a thorough police investigation into all this. And, that all that can be done should be done for the victims. All of us must surely pray for those who have suffered."
The Bishop's pronouncements also have a very hollow ring to them – quite apart from joining Richard Yeo in his excuse for an apology it is very clear that Catholic authorities knew very well that physical and sexual abuse was occurring at Fort Augustus and Carlekemp. Why else would several abusive monks have been shipped off to Australia?
When Bishop Gilbert talks of “a small number of baptised, consecrated and ordained Christian men” physically and sexually abusing those in their care he is seeking to minimize the enormity of the crimes committed by implying that it was just a few deficient individuals who were to blame for the suffering of the victims. This is not so. The suffering has been prolonged and exacerbated not by the original perpetrators but by the Catholic hierarchy. The covering up of the individual offences, the ignoring, disbelieving or punishing of those who complained of abuse, the moving of offenders around the country and around the world without any warning to those who might protect potential future victims and the failure to report these serious crimes to the police are, in some ways, much worse crimes. They are worse because they were committed not by sick men unable to contain their violent and deviant sexual impulses, but by men who consciously, coldly and callously sacrificed the needs of children in the financial and reputational interests of an institution.
When the evidence Richard Yeo and Hugh Gilbert say they so ardently desire exposes those who have been participants in the cover-up of serious crimes I hope that resignations and handwringing will not be the way they avoid punishment for their crimes. I hope the law will deal with them in the same way that it deals with all those accused of crimes even if the responsibility for this criminal conspiracy to pervert the course of justice can be traced to the very highest levels.