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
Show Hide image

Leader: Mourning in Manchester

Yet another attack shows we are going to have to get to used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state.

Children are murdered and maimed by a suicide bomber as they are leaving a pop concert in Manchester. As a consequence, the government raises the terror threat to “critical”, which implies that another attack is imminent, and the army is sent out on to the streets of our cities in an attempt to reassure and encourage all good citizens to carry on as normal. The general election campaign is suspended. Islamic State gleefully denounces the murdered and wounded as “crusaders” and “polytheists”.

Meanwhile, the usual questions are asked, as they are after each new Islamist terrorist atrocity. Why do they hate us so much? Have they no conscience or pity or sense of fellow feeling? We hear, too, the same platitudes: there is more that unites us than divides us, and so on. And so we wait for the next attack on innocent civilians, the next assault on the free and open society, the next demonstration that Islamism is the world’s most malignant and dangerous ideology.

The truth of the matter is that the Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was born and educated in Britain. He was 22 when he chose to end his own life. He had grown up among us: indeed, like the London bombers of 7 July 2005, you could call him, however reluctantly, one of us. The son of Libyan refugees, he supported Manchester United, studied business management at Salford University and worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. Yet he hated this country and its people so viscerally that he was prepared to blow himself up in an attempt to murder and wound as many of his fellow citizens as possible.

The Manchester massacre was an act of nihilism by a wicked man. It was also sadly inevitable. “The bomb was,” writes the Mancunian cultural commentator Stuart Maconie on page 26, “as far as we can guess, an attack on the fans of a young American woman and entertainer, on the frivolousness and foolishness and fun of young girlhood, on lipstick and dressing up and dancing, on ‘boyfs’ and ‘bezzies’ and all the other freedoms that so enrage the fanatics and contradict their idiot dogmas. Hatred of women is a smouldering core of their wider, deeper loathing for us. But to single out children feels like a new low of wickedness.”

We understand the geopolitical context for the atrocity. IS is under assault and in retreat in its former strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa. Instead of urging recruits to migrate to the “caliphate”, IS has been urging its sympathisers and operatives in Europe to carry out attacks in their countries of residence. As our contributing writer and terrorism expert, Shiraz Maher, explains on page 22, these attacks are considered to be acts of revenge by the foot soldiers and fellow-travellers of the caliphate. There have been Western interventions in Muslim lands and so, in their view, all civilians in Western countries are legitimate targets for retaliatory violence.

An ever-present threat of terrorism is the new reality of our lives in Europe. If these zealots can murder children at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, there is no action that they would not consider unconscionable. And in this country there are many thousands – perhaps even tens of thousands – who are in thrall to Islamist ideology. “Terror makes the new future possible,” the American Don DeLillo wrote in his novel Mao II, long before the al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001. The main work of terrorists “involves mid-air explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.”

Immediately after the Paris attacks in November 2015, John Gray reminded us in these pages of how “peaceful coexistence is not the default condition of modern humankind”. We are going to have to get used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state. “The progressive narrative in which freedom is advancing throughout the world has left liberal societies unaware of their fragility,” John Gray wrote. Liberals may not like it, but a strong state is the precondition of any civilised social order. Certain cherished freedoms may have to be compromised. This is the new tragic narrative.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496