Father Kit: neither a monster nor a saint

It’s a shock to the system when you discover that an old family friend was once a ‘paedophile priest’.

Patrick West
Columnist

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It is very easy to criticise Roman Catholic priests these days. Yes, we know, they are all paedophiles and alcoholics, as was ‘proved’ by the character Father Jack in the 1990s Channel 4 comedy Father Ted. Or they are simpletons like Father Dougal, or crooks like Father Ted himself. But even as an atheist and recovering Catholic, I find the most recent episode of anti-popery a bit galling.

Over the past two weeks, there have been news stories about the late priest, Father Kit Cunningham, and revelations of how he molested children when he was seconded in Tanzania for 10 years in the late 1960s. He was a subject of a BBC programme last week Abused: Breaking the Silence in which his victims recalled their traumatic experiences at his hands.

He was variously described in the programme as an ‘ogre’ and a ‘monster’ and a ‘self-congratulatory smirk’, which came as a surprise to many of us in the culturally Catholic community.

I knew Father Kit from when I was a young boy until the last time I saw him in the summer of 2007. When I visited him at Saint Etheldreda’s in Holborn, central London, he was nothing but kindness and benevolence. I ran down the aisle at Saint Etheldreda’s in 1980 when I was six years old shouting and screaming and he took it with graciousness. When I was briefly homeless in 2007, he let me stay there, as he did with many people and priests from around the world.

He was a bit fond of the old drink, and he did have an eye for the ladies, and he did believe in anti-Catholic conspiracy theories in the British media, but I never once suspected he had an eye for the kids – unlike the organ master at my old school, who certainly did, and got sent to prison as a consequence.

The strange thing is that most people want to turn the life of Father Kit into a morality tale. Most obituaries of him in December last year praised him as a pillar of the community who helped the homeless, and worked together with the local rabbi. The latest reports cast him as some kind of demon, the caricature of a predatory paedophile priest.

What his admirers and detractors don’t understand is that life is not a morality play. Life is about ambivalence. It’s complicated. I do believe that Father Kit was a child molester. The evidence is damning. But I also believe he worked at Saint Etheldreda’s later in his life to atone for his past sins. That probably sounds like psychobabble, but there must be some correlation between his earlier misdemeanours in Africa and the way he was such a caring person when I knew him.

Anti-Catholicism is not very clever. Hell, we Catholics do it the best ourselves. But it’s dishonest to think that Catholics have a monopoly on kiddy-fiddling. East German orphanages had a higher level of child molesting than any Catholic institution, and that was meant to be a secular and socialist state. It is ironic how some of the New Atheists seem to be consumed with such self-certitude when arguing against the certainties of a Christian church.

The Catholic Church is neither a good nor a bad thing. It is both and neither. And Father Kit Cunningham was both.

Patrick West is a freelance writer based in the UK and Ireland. Read his blog here.

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