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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Want to know how you really behave as a doctor? Watch yourself on video

There is nothing quite like watching oneself at work to spur development – and videos can help us understand patients, too.

One of the most useful tools I have as a GP trainer is my video camera. Periodically, and always with patients’ permission, I place it in the corner of my registrar’s room. We then look through their consultations together during a tutorial.

There is nothing quite like watching oneself at work to spur development. One of my trainees – a lovely guy called Nick – was appalled to find that he wheeled his chair closer and closer to the patient as he narrowed down the diagnosis with a series of questions. It was entirely unconscious, but somewhat intimidating, and he never repeated it once he’d seen the recording. Whether it’s spending half the consultation staring at the computer screen, or slipping into baffling technospeak, or parroting “OK” after every comment a patient makes, we all have unhelpful mannerisms of which we are blithely unaware.

Videos are a great way of understanding how patients communicate, too. Another registrar, Anthony, had spent several years as a rheumatologist before switching to general practice, so when consulted by Yvette he felt on familiar ground. She began by saying she thought she had carpal tunnel syndrome. Anthony confirmed the diagnosis with some clinical tests, then went on to establish the impact it was having on Yvette’s life. Her sleep was disturbed every night, and she was no longer able to pick up and carry her young children. Her desperation for a swift cure came across loud and clear.

The consultation then ran into difficulty. There are three things that can help CTS: wrist splints, steroid injections and surgery to release the nerve. Splints are usually the preferred first option because they carry no risk of complications, and are inexpensive to the NHS. We watched as Anthony tried to explain this. Yvette kept raising objections, and even though Anthony did his best to address her concerns, it was clear she remained unconvinced.

The problem for Anthony, as for many doctors, is that much medical training still reflects an era when patients relied heavily on professionals for health information. Today, most will have consulted with Dr Google before presenting to their GP. Sometimes this will have stoked unfounded fears – pretty much any symptom just might be an indication of cancer – and our task then is to put things in proper context. But frequently, as with Yvette, patients have not only worked out what is wrong, they also have firm ideas what to do about it.

We played the video through again, and I highlighted the numerous subtle cues that Yvette had offered. Like many patients, she was reticent about stating outright what she wanted, but the information was there in what she did and didn’t say, and in how she responded to Anthony’s suggestions. By the time we’d finished analysing their exchanges, Anthony could see that Yvette had already decided against splints as being too cumbersome and taking too long to work. For her, a steroid injection was the quickest and surest way to obtain relief.

Competing considerations must be weighed in any “shared” decision between a doctor and patient. Autonomy – the ability for a patient to determine their own care – is of prime importance, but it isn’t unrestricted. The balance between doing good and doing harm, of which doctors sometimes have a far clearer appreciation, has to be factored in. Then there are questions of equity and fairness: within a finite NHS budget, doctors have a duty to prioritise the most cost-effective treatments. For the NHS and for Yvette, going straight for surgery wouldn’t have been right – nor did she want it – but a steroid injection is both low-cost and low-risk, and Anthony could see he’d missed the chance to maximise her autonomy.

The lessons he learned from the video had a powerful impact on him, and from that day on he became much more adept at achieving truly shared decisions with his patients.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide