| 8.4°C Dublin

Mary Kenny: Devastation and disbelief when abuse case hits close to home

We have all read accounts of offences by paedophile priests and asked ourselves 'how could it happen?' and 'how could they get away with it?' But believe me, the whole story takes on a different perspective when the scandal occurs close to home, and you know the alleged perpetuator.

Father Kit Cunningham, who died last December in Dublin, was one of my oldest friends. He was an adorable man; great fun; a little too fond of the vino, perhaps; and, on occasions, a benign flirt with the ladies -- he had that unmistakeable glint in his eye of a man who likes women.

He was a terrific pastor of London's oldest continuous Catholic church, St Etheldreda's in Ely Place, near Fleet Street, and, perhaps in consequence to its proximity to newspaper life, became unofficial chaplain to the print media. I can hardly think of anyone who didn't like Kit.

Above all, Kit was kind. If St Etheldreda's was a hub for historians -- Henry VIII gave the last supper there for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and Kit still had the menu -- as rector, Kit never overlooked the down-and-outs who often came to the door for help. He set up a special cafeteria to feed the needy.

He was also on ecumenically good terms with the local rabbi, who ministered to a congregation in Hatton Garden, and they'd share transport when doing chaplain duties together at Wormwood Scrubs prison.

And now this merry, kindly, gregarious and intelligent priest, a member of the Rosminian Order, is accused of having sexually abused boys in Tanzania in the 1970s.

An account of this abuse, accompanied by a statement signed by Kit before he died, will be broadcast by BBC 1 tomorrow night called 'Abused: Breaking the Silence'.

I have not seen the documentary so I will not judge it in advance. But according to written accounts, Kit is described as a "predatory paedophile" who abused young boys. One former victim has said that Kit was "a monster"; another has said that he has been "twisted forever" by the experience. The abuse allegedly took place at St Michael's school, in Soni, Tanzania.

One victim, John Poppleton, now 53, claims he was told to lower his pyjamas so that Cunningham could fondle him. "He then pulled his pyjamas down, laid on his bed and made me (perform a sex act)." According to Mr Poppleton, who now lives in America, this happened several times.

Another victim, Rory Johnston, now 63, alleges that "pain, fear, assault, punctuated by caresses" is his experience of Kit. In 2009, the victims got together via the internet and sent their testimony to Fr David Myers, the provincial of the Rosminian Order in Britain. Kit, by now in retirement and in declining health, apparently acknowledged his guilt and asked the victims for forgiveness.

Kit had been awarded an MBE for his services to the community, and was persuaded by a friend in Dublin -- he had retired to Ireland by then -- to return it as a gesture of penitence. Not all his friends agreed that this gesture was wise: there is a difference between moral penitence and legal liability, which the return of the MBE implies.

Not surprisingly, the Rosminian Order is now being sued for compensation, and for "covering up" the assaults.

We wonder why clerical abuse was "covered up", as well as how it could have occurred. Now I know the answer. Because, at first, you just cannot believe it. It seems so utterly uncharacteristic of the guy you knew. Kit had, for the last 30 years of his life, a woman companion, Jenny Floyd, who died in 2006. Whether the relationship was sexual or not, it was certainly loving. Jenny told me how much she loved Kit, and how she would do anything for him. I regretted they couldn't marry.

Then, he was always so kind to all our children: to Jenny's children, he was like a genuine father. My sons and my niece had enormous respect and affection for Kit -- and they knew him from childhood.

You just cannot put together the man you have known and the "monster". Kit's friends are dazed and apprehensive about the programme -- and are also asking themselves: how could this possible be true?

But in putting such questions, are we simply going into denial? Is this how the "cover-up" works? Maybe so. Yet when a paedophile charge comes close to your own life, that is how you do react. You can't believe it. You are devastated by the disclosure.

Irish Independent