Sins of the fathers: sexual abuse at a Catholic order

Eleven men who trained for the priesthood at a Yorkshire seminary have recently settled their claims of sexual abuse with the Catholic order that ran it. In the latest in our series on boarding-school abuse, Catherine Deveney hears of their decades-long struggle for justice and the damage done

The Observer, UK/October 18, 2014   

By Catherine Deveney

The face looming towards the rent boy in the London station was familiar. A face from his past: Father John Pinkman. No punter would have guessed that the rent boy had once wanted to be a priest, too. He had spent several years at Mirfield Junior Seminary in Yorkshire which was run by the Verona Fathers, an Italian missionary order. Pinkman had abused him there, was part of the degradation that led to this place, this life. The priest disappeared into the crowd, then reappeared, highlighted by light glinting off his spectacles. The rent boy caught his eye. Pinkman looked hesitant, embarrassed, then boarded a train without speaking. The last, silent goodbye.

The “boy”, who only spent a short time in prostitution, is now in his 60s. He has never had a relationship that’s lasted longer than a few months. Never achieved in life. Never felt good about himself. “I fail because I deserve to fail,” he says. His confusion now is not that different from his 17-year-old self: a boy who had sex with men, then vomited with disgust. “Guilt and fear become part of you, something you can’t shake off. I can’t tell you what a mess I was. I was terrified of growing up, terrified of men. I was all over the place. I was like an empty shell, not knowing what direction to go in.”

He wasn’t the only one to claim abuse at Mirfield. He has never taken a case against the Verona Fathers, but in the past few months, 11 British men have settled out of court with the Order, also known as the Comboni Missionaries. At least two more cases are pending and many corroborating statements have been given to lawyers by victims who want to expose what happened, but cannot face the stress of court proceedings. Confirming the 11 settlements, the Order’s spokeswoman, a solicitor with the Catholic Church Insurance Association, stressed, “the claims were made purely on a commercial basis with no admission of liability.”

The group of 11 is powerful: unified, disciplined and determined to speak the truth. “It would be nice to change the system for the good,” says one. The weight of testimony given to the Observer – witness statements, psychologists’ reports, timelines, contemporaneous diary extracts, spoken accounts – is stark and overwhelming. The witnesses were once would-be priests – the church’s own. Little wonder that one Verona Father told an ex-pupil: “If the abuse that happened at Mirfield is ever revealed, it will destroy the Verona Fathers in the United Kingdom.”

Mark Murray. Ben Morgan. Brian Hennessy. Frank Warner. Sean Dooley. Gerry McLaughlin. John Spencer. Victor West. Tony Smith. Jim Kirby. Kevin Scullin… A roll call of young boys. A roll call of shattered dreams. They are scattered around the world now – Scotland, England, Ireland, Wales, Australia, the Philippines, but all 11 attended Mirfield in the 1960s and 70s. Mark loved animals and was mesmerised when Father Fulvi, one of the Order’s missionaries, recruited him to his school using pictures of African wildlife. Ben “knew how much respect priests were afforded and wanted to be part of that lifestyle”. Brian was attracted by what he thought was goodness. “I was motivated spiritually. I felt an all-embracing desire in my bones in the same way that one is emotionally gripped and succumbs to a ‘first love’.” None became priests, though one became a brother before leaving the order. Most don’t attend church or even consider themselves Catholics any more. “I’m totally anti-religion,” says John.

At least five abusers are named in documents, but the majority of the group were abused by Father John Pinkman, Mirfield’s junior housemaster, who died of a heart attack in South Africa in 1984, aged 48; or by Father Domenico Valmaggia, the seminary’s infirmarian, who died in Italy in 2011. Had the group not settled out of court, their cases risked being time-barred. They accepted meagre compensation – some as little as £7,000 – because this was about principle and not pennies. “The guys weren’t after money,” says Matthew Blake, a lawyer for 10 of the claimants. “They wanted recognition that it happened. They wanted people to know it had been denied and that when they reported what was happening, it was turned into a matter of ‘prayer and forgiveness’.”

Mark Murray, the youngest of the group, says he had a different abuser: Father Romano Nardo. Two other witnesses have given corroborating statements against Nardo, who is still alive and living in the Order’s Mother House in Verona. Murray reported his abuse to West Yorkshire Police in 1999 and again in 2012. The Verona Fathers say they would have “strongly encouraged” Nardo to co-operate “had medical professionals not deemed him unfit to undergo questioning or travel to the UK”. For many survivors – whether abused in care homes, boarding schools or church institutions – it sometimes feels as though different parts of the establishment collude to block justice. Abuse? Get over it. Move on…

“We have conducted a thorough investigation,” says Detective Inspector Michael Brown of West Yorkshire Police, who is dealing with the case. “All legal avenues have been pursued to enforce [Nardo’s] return to the UK, but his ill health means we are unable to go through the formal procedures to extradite him.” The case, he insists, remains open and he would be keen to speak to anyone who can provide further evidence.

Mark says he was 14 when he first encountered Nardo. He realised instantly that Mirfield was not a route to exotic wildlife, but to intense loneliness. The men describe it as a cold, unloving environment, devoid of the nurturing that would have been appropriate for their ages. Mark sought refuge in Nardo, a young, eccentric, charismatic priest who was visiting Mirfield before going to the missions. Lonely, vulnerable boys flocked round Nardo. He told them about Jesus, about the demon of sexuality, about flagellation. His entourage was called “the God Squad”. “He did the usual grooming things,” explains Mark, “making you feel special…”

Nardo encouraged Mark to sleep in his bed, even putting a towel over the keyhole so nobody could see. Mark idealised Nardo who showed him a cross on his chest that he had carved with a sharp instrument. The wound was red, angry and crusted. “It was a sado-masochistic thing. He said pain brought you closer to God. He scratched out the cross on my chest with his finger nail. I wanted mine to be as red and as sore as his.”

Nardo’s advances become increasingly sexual. He began kissing Mark and told him about “the breath of life”. Mark was told to lie on top of him, putting his mouth over Nardo’s so that they breathed into each other. Nardo also washed him, starting with his feet in the way Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, but then encouraging him to remove his clothes so he could “purify” his entire body. Before long, it progressed to Mark washing Nardo. “He would make me stand at a mirror in front of a sink. I would be washing him and he would tell me to close my eyes – and that’s when he would be ejaculating into the sink.”

Perhaps the cruellest thing about abuse is that it takes a child’s limited conscience and programmes it with future turmoil when their understanding matures. By the time the man looks back on the boy, a whole network of guilt has been formed. Mark, who is married with two children, has battled post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicidal ideation. “I have had years to deal with this and the hardest part is that in a childish way, I thought I was in love with him. I was so infatuated and vulnerable that I would have done anything for him.”

When a priest spotted Mark leaving Nardo’s bedroom, Nardo was moved immediately to the missions. Initially, Mark was devastated. A couple of years later, finally understanding what had really happened, he was racked with fear. “I was terrified I, too, would become an abuser. I would wake each morning and think, is this the day that I will harm a child?” The best thing to do, he decided, was join the Order. If his worst nightmare came true, he would be protected – just as Nardo had been.

He spent two years as a Verona Fathers Brother in Uganda, but couldn’t stay. “I was attracted to women. I wanted a relationship.” He left in 1981, married, and began studying counselling. In the early years, his wife had several miscarriages. “I was devastated and yet there was a strange tinge of relief that was hard to understand. I thought, thank God I won’t start abusing.” It was only when he listened to a lecturer specialising in clerical sex abuse that he had the courage to ask a question. Was it true the abused inevitably became abusers? No, said the specialist.

“Something thumped me in the chest very hard. In the heart. I was gasping for breath. It was a big turning point and I realised I had to tell someone.” Despite the relief, the legacy of abuse remained. He loved his wife, but sex was tainted by disturbing flashbacks of Nardo that left him feeling ashamed. He sometimes withdrew emotionally and physically, disappearing without explanation, and he was twice admitted to psychiatric units.

He first contacted the Verona Fathers in 1997. They withdrew Nardo from the missions, promising he would never again be allowed near children – but he remained a priest. Most importantly to Mark, they never apologised, which eventually made him turn to the courts. In 2012, when he spotted an online picture of Nardo saying Mass publicly, and even delivering a sermon, he felt this showed the extent of the Order’s contempt and cover up. It triggered a breakdown and his prolonged absence from work resulted in him losing his job as a project worker with Barnardo’s.

“I just broke down. I went away to kill myself and my wife didn’t know where I was. I had a bottle of whisky and a load of pills. But I didn’t do it. I have children. I couldn’t.” What he did was set up a blog,, to encourage other testimonies. Gradually, a group formed.

Last month, Mark received a settlement of £30,000. It hasn’t helped. “It makes it worse, the 30 pieces of silver. You feel empty. It’s ‘Now, go away and shut up.’ They are not interested in truth and justice. People want the truth to come out and money doesn’t bring the truth. It doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t make up for anything.” People say he won’t get an apology, but he’s determined. “I will get one, even if it means going to Italy to talk to the Order.”

And what of the others on the roll call? Brian, abused by Valmaggia, married but suffered confusion over his sexual orientation. He is now living with a male partner. Compensation: £10,000. John, abused by Pinkman, retired early with stress. “It caused me a lot of psychological damage. I suppressed all my feelings and found it very difficult to trust or have relationships.” Compensation: £7,000. Sean, abused by Pinkman, married three times. “It affected me deeply and I have never really spoken about it to anyone until recently.” And Frank, abused by Pinkman but also Valmaggia when he went to the infirmary with a cut knee and was ordered to remove his clothes, says simply: “It ruined my life.”

Then there’s Jim, a successful, gregarious businessman who dreamed constantly about his abuse by both men and became an alcoholic, now recovering. And Tony, who turned to drugs after Pinkman abused him and has difficulty controlling his anger. Then Kevin, abused by Valmaggia, who describes Mirfield as a “devil’s playground”. And Gerry, who told his lawyer that the £8,000 for his abuse by Pinkman was so small that he would have been better concentrating on his business. “You’d have been better working in McDonald’s,” retorted his lawyer.

What price a life? Very little. The amounts paid are “disgustingly small,” says Kathleen Hallisey of AO Advocates who act for Mark. “Despite the publicity surrounding Pope Francis’s commission on abuse, our experience is that they are denying in every case and people need to know that. People think it’s great that the Vatican is finally recognising this issue, but that’s not trickling down to litigation. They are still fighting every case.”

Betrayal is more acute when wrapped in pious rhetoric. Pinkman used to lurk round the showers, pulling back the curtains to stare at the boys’ bodies. He called them to his room for “facts of life” chats that involved fondling their genitals. Valmaggia used the infirmary for his prey, keeping them for days on end and subjecting them to twice daily genital “examinations”. But their priestly garb confused the boys.

When Pinkman told his victims to take off their trousers, most obeyed. “As I would have obeyed any of the other instructions I was given daily,” says one. “I had no idea what he was doing, but had been taught for so long that due to his priesthood, it couldn’t have been bad or wrong.” Pinkman insisted that he “clean” his victim’s genitals and the priest still haunts his victim. “Even from his grave he exerts some power over me. I think I would be sick if I saw him and would want to punch his lights out. I am still afraid of him.”

For Brian, it is Valmaggia’s intense blue eyes he remembers. “He would kneel on the floor in front of me and masturbate me while having a broken form of conversation with me,” he told me by email. The breach of trust has haunted his life. “Had I not served Father Valmaggia as an altar boy? Had I not watched in wonderment as he raised the Host above his head whilst he chanted, ‘Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus’! Had I not longed to participate in that great priesthood?”

Frank believes the two men knew of each other’s activities. He once fled Valmaggia’s advances, leaving his shoes behind. Soon after, he was getting changed after football when Pinkman said: “And don’t leave your shoes this time.” “I knew then that they communicated.”

The effects of abuse last a lifetime. There are many handicaps, but perhaps one of the most disabling is the inability to form meaningful relationships. Most of the group have experienced serious emotional and sexual difficulties. “I have never felt comfortable with the sexual act,” says one. “It’s associated with guilt.” “I feel as though I have let my wife down,” says another. “ I know she was sad and sensed quite early my lack of sexual desire.”

Had the Verona Fathers acted on disclosures throughout the 1960s, many cases could have been prevented. In 1964, Joe approached Father Fulvi to tell him of his abuse by Pinkman. “There was no care about the individuals abused, only loyalty to the organisation and vows of silence.” In 1965, Frank raised his concerns with three Verona Fathers. “I was informed each time that it was unbecoming and sinful to question the intention or action of any Verona Father.” In 1966, Tony says he informed the seminary’s rector. In 1967, Jim told Father Fulvi who said he would deal with it, but he must remember that Father Pinkman may have been to confession… in which case it was forgiveness, no questions asked.

In 1967, Ben discovered that Father Bresciani, head of the Order in the UK, was to visit Mirfield. He and another boy went individually to tell their stories of abuse. Both received the same treatment. “I went into the room and introduced myself to the Provincial who was sitting behind a big desk, just staring at me,” recalls Ben. “He said nothing, not a word. I told him what had happened, in the most accurate language I could muster, and still he sat in silence. I was confused, but also very nervous. When I finished my speech, I said goodbye and thank you.” Nothing was done. Individuals who complained were often expelled shortly after.

Both Valmaggia and Pinkman were removed in the late-60s when boys united to give testimony. Francis Barnes, then school captain, organised a group to confront the rector, Father Fraser, about Pinkman in 1968. “I became aware of how wide his web had spread,” says Francis. Fraser broke down in tears. “I think he realised he had to do something.”

Francis never entered the priesthood. “The abuse was widespread, the whole culture. I knew celibacy wasn’t right, that it was producing people who would veer in that direction. Even at that time, I knew something was rotten in the state of Denmark.” He only discovered the Mirfield website recently and was deeply affected. “Back then, I thought, thank Christ it’s over with. It won’t happen again. To find out those bastards allowed it to continue.”

Abuse doesn’t end when the abuser stops. The former rent boy only discovered Pinkman was dead recently. It was obvious, yet shocking. He is articulate, sensitive. It was the verbal abuse that crushed his spirit, he says. At least Pinkman was sometimes kind; it was part of the grooming process . He has seen many psychiatrists, but has never discussed Mirfield. “I wouldn’t cope with going there.”

In a statement to the Observer, the Order, using its latest figures, said: “Considering the numbers of boys who were educated at St Peter’s, the Verona Fathers absolutely do not accept that claims from 12 individuals demonstrate a culture of abuse at the seminary. There are priests who are currently members of the Verona Fathers who were at St Peter’s in the 1960s and 1970s and who never witnessed or heard of any abuse.”

The statement concludes with the current head of the Order in the UK, Father Martin Devenish, saying: “We know that anyone subjected to abusive behaviour will experience suffering and we are dismayed to think such suffering may have been caused to youngsters who attended our junior seminary. If that is the case, we are deeply sorry to anyone who has been hurt in this way and our thoughts and prayers are with them.”

For the rent boy, prayers are too late. He’s had a lifetime of self-loathing. “I have never moved on,” he says. “You just get stuck there emotionally.” His voice breaks and he weeps quietly. “I just want to go back and make things right,” he says. “But I can’t. It’s all gone.”

Some names have been changed.

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