Mother Teresa and the Paedophile

Did the "Saint of Calcutta" intervene to protect one of the most notorious paedophile priests of rec

She was one of the world's most beloved and revered religious figures, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who remains, in the public imagination, the tiny, saintly nun whose life devoted to the poor of Calcutta was a model of Christian renunciation. She had her critics, prominent among them the late Christopher Hitchens, who drew attention to her extreme Catholic traditionalism and her occasional cosying-up to dictators in search of funds for her Missionaries of Charity. But nothing stopped her elevation, a mere six years after her death in 1997, to the status of "Blessed". Her full canonisation looks to be just a matter of time.

Now, though, it looks as though she might be dragged posthumously into the ongoing scandal of priestly sex abuse. Evidence presented in the somewhat unlikely forum of SF Magazine sheds new and potentially damaging light on her close association with Father Donald McGuire, one of the most notorious clerical paedophiles of recent years. In 1994, it appears, Mother Teresa had urged McGuire's reinstatement to the ministry despite clear evidence of his abusive behaviour.

McGuire was a high-flying Jesuit, an inspirational preacher whose conservative views matched her own. His association with Mother Teresa dated from 1981, when he was introduced to her by another leading Jesuit, John Hardon, an adviser to Cardinal Ratzinger who is also said to be considered saint material. McGuire went on to become a confessor and spiritual director to Mother Teresa's religious order. Her successor Sister Nirmala described him in a letter submitted on his behalf to the court as "was one of the very few priests to whom ...[Mother Teresa] entrusted the spiritual care of the Missionaries of Charity."

Yet all the while, he was known (or at least strongly suspected) by senior figures in the Roman Catholic Church to be a serial abuser of young boys in his care. When he was finally brought to trial in 2006, evidence was presented of abuse going back over three decades - most of which had ignored or brushed aside by his superiors. Finally, in 2009 he was sentenced to 25 years in prison following a second conviction for child rape. The Society of Jesus is still fighting legal moves by his victims to obtain compensation.

In 1993, McGuire was temporarily suspended after being accused of inappropriate behaviour with a 16 year old boy and sent on a course of psychiatric treatment. This might have ended his ministry had not his powerful supporters intervened. Hardon seems to have been convinced of his innocence of the more serious allegations (though he accepted that McGuire's admitted conduct -- such as sharing pornography and showers with the boy -- had been "highly imprudent") and reassured him that his work with Mother Teresa's order could continue.

Hitherto there has been no suggestion that Mother Teresa herself knew of the suspicions about McGuire. But a letter in her name -- and very probably written by her -- has now emerged. In it, she acknowledges the "grave" nature of the child-abuse scandal and stresses "how careful we must be to guard the purity and reputation of that priesthood". The letter goes on to assert Mother Teresa's own "confidence and trust in Fr. McGuire" and states that she wishes to see "his vital ministry resume as soon as possible." And indeed his ministry -- and abuse of children -- resumed soon afterwards.

Mother Teresa's influence, of course, was considerable if not in itself decisive. Patrick Wall, a lawyer and former Benedictine monk who has represented many victims of priestly abuse, is quoted as saying that "We're talking about extremely powerful people who could have gotten Father McGuire off the streets in 1994... I'm thinking of all those kids who could have been saved."

The letter perhaps reveals little more than naivety on Mother Teresa's part: she had been persuaded by Hardon, who had himself been duped by the plausible and manipulative Fr McGuire, that he deserved a second chance. But it also demonstrates how lightly serious allegations of child abuse were still being treated by the Catholic authorities as recently as the mid 1990s, especially when the alleged abuser was prominent and theologically sound. Teresa herself, to judge by her words, seems to have been much less concerned about the need to protect children from paedophile clergy than with preserving the "purity and reputation" of the church and the priesthood. Scarcely the stuff of which saints are (or should be) made.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.