Press Column Saturday 29 July 2000

The story of Cormac Murphy O’Connor and the Fr Michael Hill child molesting priest would have given Pilate pause. It’s not disputed that he made a mistake. As Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, he learnt that one of his priests had been accused of molesting children: instead of informing the police or any other authority, he sent him off to the church’s private clinic for sexual offenders. As I understand it, this includes everyone who has offended against any of the rules laid down for the priesthood, so that priests who have made their girlfriends pregnant are included. Then, despite expert reports suggesting that the man might reoffend, he gave him another job, this time at Gatwick Airport; when he was finally arrested for offences committed there, the earlier ones came to light, too, and it is for those that he is currently serving a five-year sentence.

The Guardian almost called for his resignation: "He now has a difficult decision to make as to whether the honourable step would be to resign rather than risk a lame-duck archiepiscopacy. Certainly it will be very hard for him now to project himself as a figure of moral authority.

"The Archbishop’s credibility is bound to be damaged by the suspicion that he may have been heavily influenced by his desire to protect the honour and reputation of his church and the authority of its priests, and because of that, was ready to risk the suffering of children. If that is the case, it is indefensible."

This is very mild compared to some of the stuff the Guardian publishes on its comment pages. But it still represents a major dent in the strategy of presenting the Archbishop of Westminster as an ex officio moral leader for the nation. There are two possible excuses for his mistake. The first, made openly by the church, is that in those days, no one knew better. They thought, as he thought, that a paedophile could be cured. Admittedly, there was some evidence to suggest that Fr Hill had not been cured even by the understanding of the time. The Guardian , in its news story, quoted a report from the therapy centre which says "There is still a risk that Fr Hill will act out again … especially when he is reported to have said that he believes the children enjoyed their experience with him … a high risk pertains in this case."

An even more damning letter from a priest was quoted by the Times: "There is a need to protect his pastoral contacts, the good name of the priesthood, and not least himself from the worst consequences of his behaviour (eg) police involvement." So even if Dr Murphy O’Connor didn’t know any better, he had the papers in front of him that could have taught him.

The second excuse, made by implication in Paul Vallely’s generally sympathetic treatment in the Independent on Sunday, is that the Archbishop of Westminster behaved very well by the standards set by the Archbishops of Birmingham and Glasgow at the time. They simply moved offending priests from parish to parish for years. Placing Fr Hill in Gatwick airport at least suggests that Dr Murphy O’Connor was trying to avoid giving him regular contact with children; and I think it shows conclusively that he had more objectives in mind than simply averting scandal and police involvement. It was unfortunate that the airport is apparently a magnet for disturbed children and those who prey on them, rather like Victoria station. On the other hand, it is difficult to think of any job to which a priest could be usefully deployed that did not involve contact with children if he was looking out for them.

The whole thing was given a peculiar flavour of urgency by the horrors of the Sarah Payne case and the discovery of her body just before this scandal broke. Yet in an odd way this may have helped to swing broadsheet opinion behind the Archbishop and divert tabloid rage away from him. There’s a distinct undertow of revulsion from the saturation coverage of the Payne case in much of the broadsheet commentary; and not just because it’s the only angle left unused. It sounds a dreadful thing to say, but it is impossible to sympathise with the Payne parents because what they have endured is beyond sympathy and indeed beyond imagination. It is part of their suffering that it cannot be shared. A nation doesn’t mourn and there is something off-putting and voyeuristic in pretending that it does.

The News of the World’s decision to publish the photographs and whereabouts of convicted paedophiles only hardened this quiet revulsion. David Austin had a fine pocket cartoon on the front of the Guardian showing a news vendor calling out "Lynch a nonce and win a video." A.N. Wilson, in the Evening Standard, took a longer way round: "According to the News of the World, there are more than 100,000 "sex offenders" in Britain today who are of a danger to children. And yet, as we know, each year between four and 10 children, on average, are killed by strangers.

"No one can imagine the horror, grief, rage and misery of those unlucky few who have lost a child in this way. If it happened to a child of mine, the thing which would be worst would be its arbitrary pointlessness. Why us? Why our child? One minute scampering in the field, the next whisked into the back of a van for literally unthinkable reasons.

"[But] this is not to say that the 100,000 men and women had up for "sex offences" have ever in their lives felt tempted to murder, or even to harm children. The statistic will include art teachers who have had affairs with 15-year-old girls, priests who have "put their hand" into the sleeping bags of choirboys, as well as those who have, in fact, been to prison for petty larceny but been mistakenly identified by the News of the Screws as potential child murderers.

"So, the answer to my question is - no. Archbishop Cormac Murphy O'Connor should certainly not resign because - however upsetting the behaviour of some priest in his former diocese - there is a current rage of panic about child molesters."

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