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.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.