“No mercy”

Sunday National, 15th August 2021.

“‘Jesus Lord. I cry for mercy. Let me not implore in vain.’ At Fort Augustus, we implored in vain because there was no mercy.” During the 1960s, Sean O’Donovan was a pupil at the boarding schools run by the Benedictine monks at Fort Augustus Abbey and Carlekemp Priory in North Berwick. “No mercy” barely does justice to what happened at these two institutions, revealed in unsparing detail this week in the fifth report from the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry.

Lady Smith found that children were abused at both institutions, physically, sexually, spiritually, emotionally. The monks presided over a culture of violence and of bullying. “The whole culture of the school was not to encourage a boy to open up and develop,” one former pupil remembered, but “to crush the spirit and to rebuild it maybe in some other image that is not of the boy’s own nature.” The monks of Fort Augustus Abbey crushed many boys’ spirits.

Chapter 4 of the Rule of Saint Benedict charges its monks to “live by God’s commandments every day” and to “treasure chastity.” The monks of Fort Augustus Abbey did not do so. Lady Smith concluded “that instruction was blatantly ignored” observing that “the sexual abuse by monks was a desecration of their vows.” The rot ran right through both institutions. “Monks in positions of responsibility”, she found “were not only aware of it, but participated in it.” They acted with impunity.

They knew. And the confessional became a shield for abusers. Father Vincent Pirie Watson “just smirked” when one boy told him he was being sexually abused by another priest. When another boy spoke about the abuse he was experiencing, his father confessor told him he “didn’t want to know and asked him to leave.” In some cases, the abuse even took place during the so-called “sacrament of penance.” Victims were blamed, and shamed, and silenced.

As survivor Hugh Russell told the inquiry, “this repeating cycle of abuse, confession, absolution, back to abuse is unforgiving and inexcusable.” I am not a religious person, and I wasn’t raised in the Catholic tradition. I can only image what it feels like to know the sacraments of your church were systematically defiled in this way. It is easy to understand why these experiences, as one survivor expressed it, “killed me spiritually.”

It is no exaggeration to say some of the monks’ practices are reminiscent of police tactics used in despotic regimes. Father Thomas McLaughlin would have kids huckled out of their beds in the dead of the night. He forced them to go down on their knees in a corridor before they were invited, one by one, into his room to receive a “double six” – six blows from the tawse on either hand. These punishments were often arbitrary, inflicted because these sadists had the power and impunity to do so, inflicted because these men apparently enjoyed inflicting pain.

As many as twelve boys would kneel in the dark, listening the crack of leather on limb, waiting for their turn to suffer. Sometimes they waited in these stress positions for up to two hours. I can’t get this desolate image of twelve tired, trembling bodies out of my head. Reading these findings, it is often one of the smaller, unexpected details which breaks you. Testifying about his experience of “kneeling out” as this practice was known, one survivor told the inquiry that I “very rarely wear a dressing gown and slippers these days because they bring back a memory of—dressing gown and slippers were the order of dress for receiving punishment.”

Such is the evil of institutions like Fort Augustus and Carlekemp Priority, that they even pervert objects of everyday human comfort into triggers for anguished recall, the consequences of cruelty, realised on such a small and desperately human scale. For other survivors, the scars are more literal. Some of the Fort Augustus boys still bear physical marks from the “punishments” administered to them by these men of God.

The secret police tactics weren’t limited to punishments. The monks wouldn’t even let the children correspond freely with their parents, reviewing letters home, censoring uncomfortable truths or cries for help. “Your mother wouldn’t want to know that,” one is reported to have said, putting a line through one child’s letter. Another child discovered a letter they’d sent home speaking about their desperate unhappiness had been redacted by one of the brothers, with annotated excuses that because of the “appalling spelling we have decided to omit this.”

For some children, there was the double alienation of not being believed. Hugh Russell powerfully articulated the heart-breaking predicament he found himself in. “Between the ages of 8 and 12 I was mentally, physically and sexually abused by priests. I could find no escape, locked as I was into the closed system of the Catholic faith. I certainly could not tell my mother, she being a faithful Catholic. I am sure that my father suspected something was seriously amiss but I had no vocabulary, lexicon or frame of reference in which to express my situation.”

Others tried to disclose the abuse, and were told they were making it up, little liars. For a man consecrated to the monastic life to do these things was unthinkable. It was easier for some parents to disbelieve their own child – to overlook the evidence of their own eyes, the weals, and scrapes and bruises – than confront the idea that under their cassocks, these men of God were utterly corrupt.

Hugh Gilbert – currently the Catholic Bishop of Aberdeen – told the inquiry that “it is a most bitter, shaming and distressing thing that in this former Abbey School a small number of baptised, consecrated and ordained Christian men physically or sexually abused those in their charge.”

It is difficult not to read a mental reservation into the use of the word “small” here, because the global picture tells us that the experiences of the boys at Fort Augustus Abbey were abhorrent but not an aberration. How can it be than an institution notionally consecrated to charity, chastity and goodness becomes a cold home for cruelty, sexuality and violence? Why do we find the same story being told – in Scotland, in Ireland, in England, across the world – again, and again, and again? Did these institutions attract disordered men, or did the monastic vows contribute to their disordered behaviour? Did they ever believe in the vows they swore, or were they always empty sacks of piety, sadists and predators, wolves in lambs’ clothing?

Across the globe, societies find themselves asking these questions, as they comb through the history of the supposedly caring institutions they sanctioned, in which generations of children were subject to violence and sexual violence – from their teachers, from ministers of religion, from one another.

Like its predecessors, this report tells a harrowing story. Like its predecessors, its findings deserve to be widely understood, however disturbing or challenging we find them. We all owe it to the boys who survived these institutions – and to the boys who did not – to listen to what they have to say. In giving evidence to the Inquiry, some survivors were relating their experiences for the first time. It is difficult to overstate their courage in doing so.

Listen to “Maxwell.” A Fort Augustus boy during the 1960s, he said this about the inquiry’s work: “I believe the truth about what happened must be exposed. Exposure like this can also help to change our world towards a better place. I wish to help towards providing an opportunity for future generations to learn about the nasty practices of the past and to show that such acts of evil are capable of being committed by apparently pious men in positions of trust, right under our noses.”

For all this and more, they deserve our attention. I still don’t think they are receiving it from most of the Scottish media. Their need to be heard matters more than our reluctance to listen.

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