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Tuesday, 30 October 2012

American lawyers take on Catholic church at Mike Harding's former school

Last year I wrote about Mike Harding's involvement in a campaign for an apology from the Catholic church in the diocese of Salford for the physical and sexual abuse that took place at his grammar school, St Bede's, when he was there.

Mike did the interview partly out of frustration with a more traditional news outlet, the Manchester Evening News (MEN), which had been telling him that they would publish something on the subject for many weeks but which, for reasons best known to itself, had failed to do so. There were several people who'd attended the school at the newspaper. Who knows what was going on...

For some reason or other recent events at the BBC involving Jimmy Savile and Newsnight reminded me of it.

Fortunately, once this blog post was published it was picked up by a variety of other media and the MEN's position, such as it was, was over-run.

Soon afterwards I was contacted by an American law firm specialising in abuse cases against the Catholic church and was able to put it in touch with Paul Malpas, a businessman and blogger from Ireland who'd been writing about St Bede's for some time. As a result of his blog he has a network of St Bede's old boys all over the world who'd also suffered at the hands of Monsignor Thomas Duggan (above, centre) and others at the school during the 50s and 60s, and who had got in touch when he started to write about what had happened to him.

And that was all, for a while. The wheels of justice, it's sometimes said, turn slowly.

Then last week, a combination of the abrupt announcement of Mike Harding's departure from BBC Radio 2's folk show after 15 years and the maelstrom of events that has engulfed the corporation about Jimmy Savile, made me think it may be time to find out what's going on in Salford?

"We have 15 claimants with actions against the diocese," said Jef McAllister, a lawyer with AO Advocates.

"We've written the pre-action letters notifying the church that we have a case and a very extensive one. The case is proceeding and the other side is writing back: we're hoping it will either come to a resolution or go to court. There's no suggestion that Salford is dragging its feet so far, although the institutional Catholic church doesn't rise to these cases very quickly, or with a great deal of compassion.

"Through Jeff Anderson this firm has a gigantic amount of experience doing similar work in the US. He wanted to expand internationally and you could say that we're his bulkhead in England. In addition to the Salford case we have five other possibles at the moment, including some inquiries this week that were probably prompted by the Jimmy Savile case. The Catholic church is involved in some of them.

"In Salford, we're getting the case together, getting the evidence straight. It wasn't just Duggan - other people at the school were involved. What quite often seems to happen in this country is that law firms will get started and get to grips with the details as they go along. But as we're the new kids on the block we wanted to show the full dimensions of the system that Duggan ran there.

"The abuse wasn't just an occasional thing for him: Duggan was systematic in the abuse of his power. He had what you might call 'feeders' who passed potential victims his way and he was vicious in kicking boys out of the school who might report him."

Is the BBC likely to face a similar case over Jimmy Savile who - like Duggan - is dead?

"It's inevitable. Essentially Jimmy Savile was having sex on BBC premises with children and there were people around who knew about it. There is an obvious institutional responsibility and it's not dissimilar to that of the Catholic church in Salford. I've heard lawyers on the radio say that they intend to sue the BBC and I think the BBC will react quite differently to the church when it happens."

Isn't this all going to rebound rather expensively on the licence-fee payer?

"In the first instance it would be an insurance company that pays. But it's not just the BBC that's involved. There's also Stoke Mandeville and that home for disturbed girls. The BBC has had the most publicity but Savile was ranging all over the land, able to convince everyone that he was an eccentric, nice guy. There was a  similar case recently in the US involving the Pennsylvania State University football team coach, Joe Paterno, and his deputy, Jerry Sandusky, who was just sentenced to jail.

"The positive outcome of all this, though, is that people now feel they'll be believed, people who've kept the shame and secrecy to themselves for years. The only thing that solves these problems in the long run is sunlight - being open about abuse - and the continued awareness of parents and kids, as well as people who might pass by in a corridor and wonder what's going on..."

The thing that's haunted me particularly about all of this appalling stuff with Savile is that there were children in care homes and elsewhere whose stories will never come out because their lives were blighted to such an extent that an existence that was already emotionally precarious came to a premature end. He deliberately chose children without proper adult supervision - substance abuse and suicide are often the result of a terrible childhood.

"Yes. In the Salford case that there were boys who committed suicide and some who are alcoholics - who never recovered emotionally. But a much wider point is that Duggan's victims were grammar school boys in a time and a place where, even if you were from a working class Catholic family, if you could get a place at St Bede's it was a passport to a different kind of a life. To university.

"When Duggan's victims decided to take themselves out of St Bede's - or Duggan kicked them out - no one would think of saying anything against the school or him. They would drop out and become construction workers. The results have been life long."

McAllister says that he doesn't have a precise idea how long it will take to achieve some kind of resolution for the old boys of St Bede's. "But within a year would be my estimate."

Meanwhile, here's a poem by Mike Harding on the subject, reprinted here with his permission.

Dead Man in Langho, Lancashire

There's no one dancing on your grave today, unless
This summer breeze fretting about your plot
Is counterfeit, shapeshifter, and is not
The wind but the troubled restless ghosts
Of those lost boys whose lives you stole.

They had no voice then in those howling days
In that palace of bad dreams, the college
Where your bloated, princely power held sway;
In those fear carpeted corridors, your tear-tapestried room,
Oak panelled oubliette, reeking of beeswax.
It was a Catholic Cockayne, sure, only Bosch
Could have dreamed up such a world.

You took their glass-clear souls
And dragged them silently crying -
Hypocrite priest, demonic spider, cassocked fraud -
To the torments of your own foul, stinking pit.

And at the monstrous altar's benediction,
In your princely pomp you stood, a pink-faced toad
Preened and pampered in your silver buckled shoes,
(And let us never forget
The powder for your shining dome)
In a wash of candlelight and frankincense,
And held the monstrance aloft
The servant of the Carpenter in gold
Embroidered thread and precious stones.
Far louder than the rest, you, Man of God,
Sang out in tuneless tenor from your throne
A cant of love and light, humility
And charity - turning litany into lies.

Forgiveness not my gift, I travelled here
Only to bear witness to those days;
And as I stand at your graveside,
Your name in stone telling no tales,
An old man, alone and hatless in the sun,
I see that there is no one in this place today,
Unless the summer whispers on the breeze
Are revenants, the wandering unquiet souls
Of those once beautiful lost boys:
Deacey, Larkin, Allen and the rest,
Who know no rest, are now one with the wind,
Back from the dead to dance upon your grave.

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  1. What a beautiful poem by Mike Harding, and what an excellent post by you.

  2. Hi. I'm not sure of the etiquette but I hope you don't mind me linking to this page. I found it very affecting. Tom


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