The Nelson Mail
May 19 2004

Shadow of suspicion is cast wide
by Karl du Fresne

I took a closer than usual interest in the case of disgraced former Catholic priest Alan Woodcock, who pleaded guilty this week to charges of sexual abuse dating back to the 1970s.

The reason is that I am a former pupil of St Patrick's College, Silverstream, the Marist boys' school where much of Woodcock's known offending took place.

I spent two very contented years at Silverstream, having been sent there by my parents in the hope that my lacklustre performance during three years at a state co-educational college might be improved by a dose of boarding school rigour.

It was a turning point in my life. Though Silverstream had a justified reputation as a school that was almost fanatical about rugby (you virtually had to be paraplegic to avoid playing), it also valued and nurtured academic and artistic skills. The late Michael King - no macho rugby hero - was one of the school's many distinguished ex-pupils.

In my time at Silverstream there was never the faintest whiff of improper behaviour by priests toward pupils. On the contrary, most of the priests were model teachers, 100 percent committed to their vocation.

One of the saddest aspects of the sexual abuse scandals uncovered in the Catholic Church in recent years, in fact, is that they cast a shadow of suspicion over hundreds of priests who have led exemplary lives and must be sickened by every new case of abuse.

If St Pat's had a fatal flaw, it was that it could be cruel and unsympathetic to loners and outsiders. Any boy suspected of homosexual inclinations, for instance, was likely to be subjected to merciless taunting.

In such an environment, it's easy to see how someone like Woodcock could identify potential victims. Lonely and vulnerable juveniles naturally attract the attention of paedophiles.

Not only are they are likely to be grateful for any friendly interest shown in them, but they are less inclined to seek help when things turn nasty.

To complain to someone else would deprive them of the one source of apparent kindness in their lives. To dob in the abuser would also risk even greater alienation from their fellow pupils, especially in an environment fiercely intolerant of homosexuality.

I should emphasise here that I don't know whether any of Woodcock's victims conformed to this pattern. I'm merely suggesting that these conditions make institutions such as boarding schools fruitful hunting grounds for the paedophile. Perhaps it's this that attracted Woodcock to the priesthood in the first place.

In the broader sense, churches in general make an ideal environment for sexual abusers because it provides ample opportunities to manoeuvre themselves into positions of power and influence over emotionally vulnerable people.

Being semi-closed institutions with little accountability to the community at large, churches also offer abusers a degree of shelter under which to carry on their depredations.

I also have a suspicion that the fondness of some churches for elaborate ritual and ceremony, and for dressing up in ornate ecclesiastical costumes, tends to attract some people for all the wrong reasons.

These characteristics are not confined to the Catholic Church, or to homosexual abusers. Plenty of heterosexual Protestant clergymen have been exposed for taking advantage of women who have turned to them for advice or comfort.

And the hanky-panky in the choir loft at Dunedin's Anglican cathedral a few years ago suggests the old jokes about choirboys (as with scoutmasters) are not without some justification.

Of course, one of the factors that sets the Catholic Church apart is the celibacy rule governing its clergy. Advocates of reform suggest it is both unnatural and unhealthy, merely serving to reinforce the church's appeal to men who have never progressed beyond a fascination with boys.

Another factor peculiar to Catholicism, and which becomes screamingly obvious at times like this, is that it's a cloistered institution singularly ill-equipped to cope with external scrutiny. While it is adept at exercising internal control, the church has yet to come to grips with the age of accountability.

In its half-hearted efforts to deal with the shame and scandal in its midst, the church has fallen wretchedly short. It has been repeatedly caught in denial, shifting serial abusers from place to place in the vain hope that they will somehow miraculously cure themselves, and in the process giving them further opportunities to offend.

Its response when Woodcock's offending came to light was at best hopelessly naive, at worst disgracefully negligent. His superiors lamely instructed that he was to keep his bedroom door open when seeing boys, "unless the visit is of a confessional nature or a similarly private matter". To an incorrigible abuser like Woodcock, that's green for go.

At one point, when complaints of abuse began to mount, Woodcock's superiors reportedly advised him to get a passport. At a time when it should have been calling in the police, the school seemed to be suggesting Woodcock should be preparing for a quick getaway.

Often, as in the Woodcock case, the church gives the impression that it is more concerned with protecting itself than with exposing and expelling the vile predators in its ranks, acknowledging the huge harm they have done under the shelter of the church's mantle and dealing honourably with the traumatised victims.

Even when the church seeks help in its clumsy efforts to minimise the damage, it screws up. In the case of Woodcock, the church apparently sought the advice of staunch Catholic layman and former St Pat's pupil Peter Trapski, a former chief District Court judge and member of the Waitangi Tribunal. But it seems Mr Trapski's own judgment may have been sadly clouded by feelings of loyalty to church and school.

His main concern, judging by what has been reported, seems to have been to minimise the harm to the school. A more detached adviser might have been less inclined to pussyfoot around.

What happened during the era of Woodcock's predations at Silverstream and elsewhere in the 1980s is a tragedy that reverberates far beyond the immediate victims. It has shamed a respected school and disgraced a church which, for all its faults, has often been a powerful force for good in the world.

The scandal must also have profoundly shaken the faith of Catholicism's many loyal and honourable followers. But why do I get the unsettling feeling that the church is still not squarely facing up to the issues?