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Decades of abuse still haunt church

The much-trumpeted film Philomena which has just come out is yet another exposé of the church's hypocrisy, says PETER FROST

A tour de force by Dame Judi Dench and producer, screenwriter and star Steve Coogan, Philomena is yet another exposé and condemnation of the hypocrisy of the Catholic church. And there have been plenty of them.

If that puts you off, take my advice and go and see the film because out of the religious dirt and disgust comes a really gripping story with more than its share of humour and life-affirming messages.

Judi Dench brilliantly reveals the character of Philomena Lee, whose tragically true story this is, as a feisty survivor rather than a pathetic victim.

As a teenage unmarried mother in the 1950s Philomena has her child stolen from her by Irish nuns and priests who ran the evil Magdalene laundries and they were still in their cruel business until 1996. Ten thousand women suffered in their grip.

Girls were forced to give up their sons and daughters and the nuns and priests secretly sold them for adoption to rich childless Catholic couples from the US.

This was nothing less than baby-farming masquerading as moral rectitude and it made substantial sums of money for the already mega-rich Catholic church.

Peter Mullan has already told some of the story in his 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters. But such wicked and cruel hypocrisy bears telling over again.

Perhaps surprisingly Coogan is the producer and co-writer of Philomena. He plays Martin Sixsmith, BBC correspondent turned Tony Blair's media advisor, who was sacked from his job as part of the "good day to bury bad news" email scandal.

Going back to work as a freelance journalist, Sixsmith comes across the extraordinary story of Philomena and agrees to help track down her lost son and write her tale.

In the process he discovers her long-lost baby grew up to become a legal advisor to the Republican Party in the US and was also gay. He died prematurely of Aids, ironically, partly as a result of president Reagan's cutting spending on HIV research.

Most cruelly his own return to Ireland to search for his mother had been sabotaged by lies from the Magdalene nuns and priests.

That is the real horror of the film - how the dishonest nuns, priests, and church establishment bullied, lied and conspired to stop any of the mothers ever tracing their children or children their mothers.

Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised by the disgusting behaviour of the cesspit that was the Catholic church on both sides of the Atlantic. Take paedophile priests for example.

Between 1950 and 2002 in the US there were over 10,000 allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests.

That is 4 percent, one in every 25 Catholic priests in the US.

The church did what it could to hush up these cases. Priests were quietly moved to other churches, often simply to abuse other children.

Some were paid as much as $20,000 to leave the priesthood, their reputation unsullied.

Meanwhile, back in Ireland, Catholic sexual abuse was no less rife. Starting in the 1990s criminal cases and Irish government inquiries uncovered the fact that priests had abused hundreds of children over decades.

The government revealed that from the 1940s to the 1990s tens of thousands of children had suffered sexual and physical abuse at the hands of priests, nuns and church staff.

In many cases the abusing clergy had been moved by senior clergy to other parishes. Prosecuting clergy was extremely difficult or embarrassing given the very close relationship between the Irish state and the Catholic church.

The state had entrusted most education to the church and organisations like the Magdalene laundries were supported and protected by government.

Enterprising priests even managed abuse on both sides of the Atlantic. Father Brendan Smyth sexually abused and indecently assaulted over 100 children in parishes in Belfast, Dublin and the US in the years between 1945 and 1989.

The church colluded in protecting Smyth and when at long last a warrant was issued for his arrest he was sheltered in a Catholic abbey for another three years.

More recently in Scotland disgraced cardinal Keith O'Brien - the most senior Catholic in that country - blocked an independent inquiry into cases of historic sexual abuse a year before resigning over his own inappropriate sexual conduct. He quit after it was revealed he preached about the abomination of homosexuality at Sunday mass, while practising it enthusiastically the rest of the week.

O'Brien is at present being "punished" with a long holiday in one of the luxury locations where the church hides away its disgraced clergy.

Archbishop of Milwaukee Rembert Weakland was another prime example of totally unacceptable behaviour by senior Catholic clergy.

In 1984, Weakland threatened teachers in a Catholic school who were reporting sexual abuse by local priests by stating "any libellous material found in your letter will be scrutinised carefully by our lawyers."

He also shredded reports about sexual abuse by clergy and admitted allowing abusers to continue as priests without warning parishioners or alerting the police.

Weakland kept his job and only stepped down in 2002 at the mandatory retirement age of 75. This celebration was overshadowed by the news that he had paid $450,000 of diocesan funds to a former male lover to avoid legal action.

On both side of the Atlantic thousands of supposedly celibate priests had sexual relationships with women young and old. A frequent joke was "every child in the village called him father, only half were telling the truth." Nuns too couldn't always resist the temptations of the flesh. In most cases, senior church officials turned a blind eye.

With hypocrites like this at the head of the church perhaps it is is no surprise that the cruel, vindictive and bullying nuns who ran many Catholic institutions like the Magdalene laundries could get away with the lies and heartless behaviour so well illustrated in the film Philomena.


My companion at the screening was herself taught by nuns back in the 1950s. She certainly recommends the film but interestingly she laughed, gasped, and shivered at slightly different points to me.

She remembered only too well the evil nature of the nuns and the power they wielded in those feared Catholic institutions half a century ago.

Her anger at the way the church arrogantly abused its power and authority, as well as its young believers, still leaves a bitter taste today.

It took Philomena Lee half a century to see her story reach the light of day. Many more grubby scandals are still buried in the dark and the church's self-righteous lackeys are yet to put their house in order.

Perhaps they should remember what it says in St John's Gospel, chapter 8 verse 32: "... know the truth, for truth will set you free."


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