Last night’s TV: Abused: Breaking the Silence
Chris Harvey reviews BBC One's harrowing documentary about sexual abuse at the hands of Rosminian Fathers.
The BBC One documentary Abused: Breaking the Silence told the extraordinary story of how the internet helped expose a culture of violence and abuse at two Catholic prep schools in England and Africa that went back at least 50 years.
Olenka Frenkiel’s film described how former pupils who had logged on to share memories of two schools run by the Rosminian order – the Grace Dieu school in Leicestershire and St Michael’s school in Soni, in what is now Tanzania – found themselves sharing stories of abuse that, as boys, they believed had been suffered alone. The men were now in their fifties and sixties. Each had been terrified into silence as a child.
Account followed account. Rory Johnston, a former pupil of the school in Soni, alleged serious and repetitive sexual abuse at the hands of a Fr Collins. “There was no way I could get out of it,” he said. “There was no one to tell. You couldn’t trust the priests, so who else are you going to trust?”
The conversations between the victims also revealed something else. Father Collins had been removed from the Grace Dieu school after Donald MacFaul, now a barrister in Newcastle, had complained about him. The Order, however, had simply relocated the priest to Soni, where pupils said they became similarly terrified of him.
In Soni, it became clear, there was more than one abuser. Some had later gone on to high notice. Fr Kit Cunningham, who became the rector of St Ethelreda’s in London’s Holborn, would receive an MBE. “He sexually molested me,” said one former pupil. “Then made it clear if I ever said anything I would be in trouble.” Events were remembered minutely and many described the depression and “permanent sense of fear and dread” left behind. When Cunningham died at the end of last year he received several laudatory obituaries.
In September 2009, the former pupils had compiled a dossier of abuse and confronted the Order. It was taken seriously. The men began to receive letters from their former teachers, now elderly, confessing to sexual abuse and sadism and expressing contrition. One received a letter from Fr Cunningham asking for forgiveness. (Cunningham also returned his MBE.) The current head of the Order invited the victims to meet their abusers.
Rory Johnston went to see Fr Collins in Surrey. Their meeting was secretly filmed. Johnston told him that the events were indelibly marked in his memory. “Oh no Rory,” said Collins, suggesting that his former charge must have been experiencing hallucinations. “I was not the sort of person that would do that.” The power of the documentary was in showing how these previously young, vulnerable people now had a collective voice that could not be so easily dismissed.