Press Column Saturday 30 September 2000

Perhaps the mistake the nuns made was teaching their pupils to read and write. The conviction of Sister Alphonso for maltreating orphans in Scotland gave Eve-Ann Prentice of the Times the opportunity to get some of her own back on the nuns who had run her boarding school in North Wales in the Sixties: "I remember watching the blood of one of my classmates drip into a milk jug at teatime after she was caned for reading a copy of Bunty when she should have been doing her homework.

"I remember watching two homseick five-year-olds dissolve in frightened tears when they were screamed at and yanked apart for being ‘dirty’ when they held hands at playtime.

"My heart still pounds with dread when I think of the wimple-pinched vitriolic face of Mother Dolores, even though she has been dead for several years. … she and her chief cohort, a former pupil turned nun, would steal about the convent with their rosary beads wrapped in their hands to stifle the rattle that would warn us of their approach."

But the most telling detail came last: "Mother Dolores was as adept at inflicting pain on herself as others. She suffered from phlebitis which caused excruciating pain in her leg, yet would often lift her habit and strike herself vigorously with a walking stick, ostensibly to rap out time to a song or drill French verbs into our brains."

No wonder Ms Prentice explained that "I think of convents as dark centres of attempted brain-washing, run by women who take out their sexual frustrations on innocent children with a zeal bordering on sado-masochism."

Nothing in the other papers had quite that vivid personal edge. The Scottish tabloid, the Daily Record, led on the threat that survivors would sue the Scottish Catholic church for millions: 420 former residents have claims worth £8.5m lined up and ready to go. The residents it quoted spoke in pure clichés: "Helen now prays the disgraced nun is stripped of her habit and jailed. Haunted Margaret Buckley agreed last night. Another ex-Nazareth House resident, she branded the wicked nun ‘the Devil’s Spawn’ … A bed-wetter, she was regularly beaten by sister Alphonso and says ‘she is the daughter of Lucifer, the Devil’s spawn’."

At the very least, the sisters would appear to have taught their charges little about forgiveness. The Catholic Church in Scotland does not appear to be a in a very forgiving mood either. "Privately, many in the hierarchy saw the Sister Alphonso case as a show trial. A source said: ‘The general view is that this case was motivated by a combination of political correctness by the prosecuting authorities and greed by those who see a way of making money."

Madeleine Bunting, in the Guardian, offered much the most sympathetic coverage of the case, though she won’t be thanked for it. "The over-riding memory of my convent education was a group of women who made no bones about not wanting to look after children. It always puzzled me that women who had chosen not to have children should end up looking after other people’s. The nuns at my convent were not actively cruel, simply indifferent to the dozens of young girls who were desperate for sympathy, interest and affection."

She saw the problem as a cultural one. "For poor children (be they Irish or Indian untouchables) the Catholic church offered the chance of a decent education and a secure material future. The church’s culture of suffering, asceticism and emotional deprivation was already deeply familiar to deprived children and they, in their turn, reinforced it."

But of course the idea that the Church does no better than the surrounding world is one which it has understandable institutional difficulties in accepting or selling.

What a relief to turn to the stately certainties of the Daily Express, which ran an exorcism story which conformed in every detail to the way these things should be done. There was a picture from the film; there was a pun in the headline: "Church hires an exorcist for a Devil of a battle"; and a guide to "how to spot the evil ones" — though this made no mention of whether they were wearing nun’s habits — signs included "exhibiting superhuman strength, knowledge of languages outside their training" and "an aversion to all things spiritual". Best of all was the fact that the story was both American, as they admitted "Churches across America are rushing to appoint exorcists amid fears that the devil is taking over growing numbers of people. The Roman Catholic archdiocese of Chicago has joined New York in employing a full-time Satan-buster" — and a year old, which they forgot to mention. The announcement from Chicago was actually that a diocesan exorcist had been in place for a year. Still, why spoil a story as eternal as its language? The one touch of novelty was the Chicago diocesan spokesman’s on the rerelease of the film The Exorcist : "I’m heading for Alaska. People are already calling suggesting people who might need exorcisms."

Another heart-warming story comes from the Daily Mirror and the Star as a very interesting example of successful spin. If the host of Songs of Praise is exposed as a non-believer, you would have thought this was a story about hypocrisy. Indeed, this is what the Mirror headline suggests: "Sins of praise: Diane confesses she lied about being a Christian". But the story — almost identical in both papers, even down to the byline of Matthew Hudson — is relentlessly upbeat. For the presenter was telling her story, you guessed, at an Alpha conference; and having gone to a course "to become a good fake Christian" she had come out as a "real Christian", whether good or bad, she does not say. But she’s kept the job, in any case.

Only just room for the equally inspiring news from the Daily Telegraph diary that Shmuley Boteach has found a soulmate in Michael Jackson. "Could it be that Michael moonwalked back into Eden" he asked the Jewish Telegraph. "Perhaps. This is certain. Because of Michael I have planted a few more flowers in the garden of my heart."

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