/ 26 December 2007

A story of hope from one who has survived sexual abuse

A man in a clerical habit abused me in the church hall of the Johannesburg parish of the Immaculate Conception in Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank. It happened after a children’s Christmas party — and my abuser was a Catholic cleric.

My uncle, Cardinal Owen McCann, was the archbishop of Cape Town at the time. His position as president of the South African Catholic Bishops’ Conference was not enough to deter my abuser.

This was in the early Sixties, and I must have been between four and six years old. It was not the only such incident, but it was discovered, and the Catholic Church must have some knowledge of it. I do not know the fate of my abuser, but I will tell you what happened to me.

My brothers and I were at a Christmas party for children of the members of a Catholic society, the Knights of Da Gama. The party ended and we were sitting on the steps of the entrance to the church hall waiting for my father to fetch us.

It is now hidden by a precast wall, but I’ve been to look at it and it is the same place. I was holding my party Christmas present, which my mother told me not to open until Christmas day.

There was a Santa Claus and a girl in a ballet costume, a fairy, handing out presents. We queued for them. I was fascinated, but greatly apprehensive when the fairy singled me out, touched me on the shoulder with her wand and took me to the front of the queue. I was never to find out what was inside the present.

One of my sisters fell ill that day and my father took her to the doctor, so they were delayed. My brothers and I were the last children left at the hall. My older brother remembers some of the incident and recalls a cleric hovering around us as we were waiting on the step.

He confirms it was a religious brother (similar to a monk) from the De La Salle order. All the boys in my family attended that order’s school in Victory Park.

Having had a number of soft drinks I needed to urinate and remember hopping from one leg to the other on the step. I asked someone if I could go to the toilet.

I went inside; it was daytime, but the lights were off and it was gloomy. As I crossed towards the toilet I was aware of a dark shape following me. It was a man in a black habit of the type worn by Catholic clerics. Next I remember him putting his arms around me from behind and holding my penis while I was still urinating. I could not move.

Then I remember him standing and pushing my face into his groin area. I could not breathe and gasped for air. He pushed his fingers into my mouth and forced it open, pushing his penis inside. His habit fell over my head and I was enveloped in darkness.

Next I remember him lifting me up and standing me on top of the toilet bowl facing away from him. He held me from behind and forced something into my anus. It was probably his penis — I was too young to know what sex was. He continued to manhandle me in this way.

Then something dramatic happened. I was suddenly pulled away with great force. There was a lot of shouting. My father had arrived and discovered the incident and rescued me.

But, I was to be punished for it and resented by him for the rest of his life, as if it were my fault. He never came to terms with the incident and it destroyed our relationship. A rule-bound, rather than devout, Catholic, he took the side of the church.

After being rescued, the next recollection I have is of being in the car and my father shouting at me. I became aware of my twin brother being there and asking my father if he was shouting at him.

When we got home I was thrashed with a rather terrifying Irish blackthorn stick. I believe it is the last time it was used. Then I remember being sent to bed and lying there sobbing because I was given a hiding and my present was lost. Later I became conscious of the wet, tear-sodden sheets as they grew cold, but I just lay there in the dark, as I was too afraid to move.

As one of the after-effects, bedwetting was a feature of my childhood. I was too afraid to use toilets in case there was a man in there. I took spare shorts and underwear to school because I was too afraid to ask the teachers if I could go to the toilet. I waited in terror and discomfort as my bladder filled to bursting and I could hold it in no longer.

This happened while sitting at my desk. The wooden chairs had a ridge on the seat. This would fill up first and then the piss flowed on to the floor. Sometimes it got cold before a teacher noticed or a classmate pointed me out.

There were a number of attentive visits from my archbishop uncle, but these petered out in the years to follow. Because of this I still have a measure of fondness for him. I remember kindness from some nuns.

My devoutly Catholic mother stood up to my uncle, both over what happened to me and my younger brother, who was severely beaten by a drunk teacher at De La Salle. She was shunned for it: the cardinal declined to visit her when she was terminally ill, despite being nearby in Pretoria on Bishops’ Conference business. My sister, who is older than I, witnessed a heated discussion between them some years later.

My parents met him at the bishop’s house in Johannesburg to discuss her intention to withdraw her sons from Catholic schools. She recalls my mother saying words to the effect of: ”I am sick of my children being assaulted and abused by the church.” He threatened her with excommunication.

He was elevated to the College of Cardinals by Pope Paul VI, so this was a threat from a prince of the church. She, in turn, threatened to go to the press and he backed down.

My intention in publicly telling my story is not to inspire homophobia — the American Medical Association gives the statistic that 98% of paedophiles are not homosexual. Neither is it to incite anti-Catholic hysteria (I am still a Catholic). Nor do I have anything material to gain. I do not have the resources to sue the largest and most influential institution in the world and I believe there is still a statute of limitations for such cases prior to 1996.

The final decision to send a message to other victims was made on reading Umberto Eco’s recent comment in Time magazine that for him writing is an act of love.

Relating my experience is similarly a message of love and support for all who have suffered the fate of clerical and other sexual abuse, to say that they are not alone and that they can begin to conquer the humiliation and guilt.

It is a message of love for the church also, because the stories of victims have finally forced its administrators to begin making concessions towards solving the problem, which is shared by other establishment denominations.

I want to tell them that the church is deficient in its attitude towards victims and, in this matter, certainly does not have God on its side.

In the season of goodwill who could reject a message of hope and love?