Martin Hannan: Abuse is never about the past

This column was going to be about the plans for the Royal Mile until my phone started buzzing yesterday morning with the extraordinary rumours that Cardinal Keith O’Brien was about to stand down.

By late morning the rumours were fact, and I found myself contemplating a situation that I thought would never happen – that Edinburgh’s cardinal would be accused of inappropriate behaviour towards four men about three decades ago, and that he would have his archbishopric terminated because of the allegations.

Of course, the exact nature of the claims against Cardinal O’Brien remain unclear and it should be stressed that he denies them.

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I’ll write about the Royal Mile next week, but this cataclysmic event for the Catholic Church and this city cannot be ignored, and I hope my tuppenceworth might at least make some people think about what has gone on, and about the cover-up 
perpetrated by the church.

I’ve written about the issue of
historical clerical abuse many times in the past 20-or-so years, because I was at St Vincent’s College, Langbank, Blairs College, Aberdeen and the Scots College in Rome in the 1970s.

It was at that time that a young Blairs boy, known now as Michael X, was subjected to utterly distressing sexual abuse by Fr Desmond Lynagh, who was my form master at the junior seminary near Aberdeen.

My spiritual director then was Father, later Bishop, Roddy Wright, who went on to father a child by a parishioner and was exposed for doing so after he became a bishop. At the very least, you have to question why the church put such men in charge of the education and formation of its priests.

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I should say immediately that were many brilliant priests in charge of us at Langbank, Blairs and Rome. Two of them had a huge influence on my life – I believe I have made my living as a writer because one of them had faith in my work, and the other gave me the courage to face up to my failing faith so that I left Rome.
When the story of Lynagh’s crimes broke in an STV documentary in the early 1990s, I said then that I had absolutely no idea what had happened to Michael and I was as shocked as anyone by the revelations. But within hours, I had gathered evidence of abuse of friends and colleagues at Blairs, and of course my own experience suddenly seemed more sinister.

I gave my own evidence of inappropriate behaviour towards me by the late Fr Francis Kennedy. I was not abused by him and, frankly, his behaviour – under the influence of copious alcohol – was little more than laughable. Indeed, I laughed it off, and forgot it, not least because six weeks later, Fr Kennedy dropped dead from a cerebral haemorrhage on the altar of Blairs church.

Yesterday, and again today, I have been calling for a public inquiry into the Scottish Catholic Church’s culture of abuse over decades. I have no doubt that serious abuse took place and that it was covered up by senior clergy.

With the benefit of a little longer time to think things over, I now realise that the whole problem of child abuse riddles our Scottish society. It is not just the Catholic Church which has such problems, as there have been instances of clerical abuse in other faiths.

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Nor is it just sexual abuse that has taken place. Sexual, physical and 
psychological abuse has afflicted everything from young people’s homes to football clubs, while there have been abusive cultures – mindsets that tolerated abuse – inside many
organisations. We know the BBC, for instance, did nothing about the child abuse perpetrated by Jimmy Savile. I can absolutely assure you from my own knowledge of victims of clerical abuse that while it may have happened to them years and even decades ago, they are suffering the consequences now and will go on doing so for the rest of their lives.

It is difficult to understate the kind of psychological trauma suffered by victims. Yes, many people suffer various forms of abuse at the hands of their spouses, or parents, or relatives, and not every family is perfect. But when you suffer abuse by your priest or coach or anyone supposed to be caring for you, the trauma is worsened by the realisation that you cannot escape it.

That is what makes child abuse so abhorrent, so inexcusable. Not just the actual fact of the abuse but the circumstances in which a child or young person often finds himself or herself – dominated by the abuser and unable to complain to anyone about it.

That is also why the Scottish Government must overrule our judges who constantly refuse to even consider historical abuse cases because these things happened so long ago.

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As a society, we owe it to the abused to hear their stories. The Government must legislate to have a full public inquiry into the prevalence of child abuse in Scotland, and pass a law that tells our judges that there is no statute of limitations on abuse cases.

Only by enabling light to be shone on crimes committed in the darkness of yesteryear will we see an end to them in future.

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