Before you read: this is not a happy one.
Thirty – more – years ago, I was a volunteer for an organisation working with street children. It was one of a few that operated in the area, and not the one with the highest profile. Its genesis, I discovered, was a result of a spat between two volunteer leaders. This meant that, at best, there was a scratchy relationship between the organisations which was sometimes counter productive.
Not long after I became involved, my organisation faced a crisis. Of leadership and of funding and we were approached by a national children’s organisation with a view to a merger. This was in the interests of both: ours because it offered potential fnancial stability and for them, because of apartheid, itpresented a way of “legitimately” incorporating black children into their circle of care. At the time, all race groups had to be cared for in separate institutions, but that’s not what I want to talk about. I digress, as usual.
Back to the point: because of the fragmented nature of care for street children, and in my role as chair of “my” organisation, I initiated a co-ordinating committee. That, as happens when one works in a field, is when one meets fellow volunteer leaders. One such was a Gauloise-smoking, whisky-swilling, Irish Jesuit. Like many of his ilk, he was charming, gregarious, funny, ariculate and highly intelligent.
Then, one day, I heard from the Sister of Nazareth who was a member of our board, and who arranged that some of us meet Mother Theresa, that he’d been sent back to Ireland.
Just like that.
No one knew why. Nobody was telling.
Then, last night, we were watching the news which is followed, on a Tuesday evening, by a current affairs show, Checkpoint. Last night’s show was about male rape. I had seen the promos which showed interviews with a man who had clearly been a street child – made good, happily – but who had been abused while in a shelter, by a catholic priest.
Although there had been a priest on our board of management, and who was a mentor to me, he never ineracted with the children in our project – a situation that was carefully managed. He had headed a boys’ institution and had been accused of impropriety. Accusations that turned out to be unfounded, we were lead to believe. To make sure that the rumours were not perpetuated, this was the course of action the then Bishop had determined. Neither that priest nor the bishop are with us any more. The Bishop died of old age; priest, murdered by parishioners known to him, and whom he had helped in the past, of money that he would have given them.
That was a necessary digression. It illustrates the depth of involvement of the Catholic church in the street children movement in the 80s. Many will know that there are caring orders, like the Sisters of Nazareth and the Dominicans, who provide care and education. These are the orders associated with our organisation. The Bishop was a Dominican.
So I watched the programme last night, quite confident that the priest mentioned was unlikely to have been my mentor; I had been wracking my brain as to when this might have taken place and whom it might have been. I have not had anything to do with the movement for more than 25 years, so it could have been anyone.
My horror, sadness and confusion remains. The priest mentioned in the programme, is the Jesuit. What is worse is that the email of apology, is an admission.
The full programme is in this video.
As you gather, I don’t quite know how to process all of this. In light of what has emerged about abuse in the Catholic church – all over the world – and knowing the vulnerability of street children, have no doubt that it is true. It does raise questions about my mentor and the way that situation was handled. He couldn’t have been shipped off to Ireland because he was South African. Born and bred.
If I have this swirling confusion, a knot in my stomach and am shaking as I write, I cannot imagine what the vicitims of such abuse and their families must go through.
A last thought: while I cannot condone how the Catholic church and many other powerful institutions have covered up this type of behaviour, I do have great respect for those individuals who have carried out their vocations with love and integrity. They and their work is besmirched by those like the Jesuit and his seniors who buried it, which makes them complicit.
Now I know why Bill McCurtain was sent back to Ireland. I am so sorry.