This humiliation can never be erased

Tens of thousands of victims have now come forward to confirm that they were abused by Catholic priests. Apologies have been made by the pontiff, and millions of dollars have been paid out by the Vatican in compensation.

For those who were abused, however, the secrecy under which the Catholic Church has operated for so many years has had a lasting impact that compensation and apologies do little to alleviate.

Peter Saunders, now chief executive of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, a charity that supports childhood victims, recalls his own reaction as a boy to the abuse he received at the hands of priests.

"Kids always think they're the only one it's happening to - and we grow up believing that," he says. "It's such a revelation to know that millions of others have suffered similar things."

As a boy, Saunders was sexually abused by, among others, the head teacher of his Catholic primary school and two Catholic priests at his secondary school.

"When you went to the head teacher's study to be punished, he would take your pants down. Of course, you never said a word. When he suddenly disappeared from the school, it didn't mean very much. But then he turned up as head teacher of another school just down the road, in the same diocese, even.

"My secondary school headmaster would summon you to his study, and then lie you on this couch before undoing your trousers and putting his hand inside. I can remember him sweating, and he would then control himself and say, 'Don't do it again,' and you'd get up, just thankful you hadn't had a proper spanking."

He wasn't the only one in his family to suffer during his schooldays. Many years later, he discovered that his older brother had been abused by the same priest at the school.

"My brother was about to go to prison for drink and drug offences," Saunders explains. "He was very drunk, and told me "little brother, I was one of Father's little favourites". As soon as he told me that, I knew he had been abused."

His brother later died from the long-term effects of his alcoholism. Saunders makes a direct link between what happened to them as children and the course his brother's life took:

"As far as I am concerned that priest murdered him. He murdered his soul, his being. My brother never really made the link, but years later when our father was dying, he conceded that the two things went together."

Saunders has since clashed with Catholic officialdom in his efforts to secure funding for his charity. Two archbishops of Westminster personally promised him resources, he says, but went back on their word. He believes both were "warned off" by canon lawyers.

He initially approached Cardinal Basil Hume by letter, and to his surprise received a quick response and invitation to a private meeting with him at Archbishop's House to discuss ways of funding his charity.

"I had about an hour and a half talking with him. I have to say, I was completely taken in by him and genuinely thought he would help me, because he said he would do what ever it took. We parted on very good terms, I remember particularly that he was just dressed in a old jumper, none of his regalia, and that I came away thinking he was genuine."

Saunders heard nothing more from Cardinal Hume until he was contacted by a canon lawyer.

"I was telephoned by one of his underlings, a certain Monsignor who was a canon lawyer. He basically went into a humiliating denial, saying he had never heard of these 'historical cases of abuse'."

Eventually, Saunders wrote to Cardinal Hume again to inquire about the promised funding. "Finally I got a letter from him," he says. "But it essentially said 'it was good to meet you, but I am advised there are other ways of dealing with this and other people to speak to, so goodbye.'"

Several years later, Peter contacted Cardinal Hume's successor as Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, still with the aim of securing funding for his charity.

"He was a completely different kettle of fish. Completely businesslike, didn't want to know about the survivors or anything - just wanted to know how he could get rid of me. When I was talking about my background he was wincing and just didn't want to hear it.

"He said 'we didn't understand these things in those days'. At the end of the conversation he said 'we want to go down the compensation route', despite the fact that I had not even mentioned compensation, only the need for resources for the charity. Finally, he said he could give me a small donation from his personal account, but he didn't have much funding, and I received a cheque for about £1,000 a fortnight later. And then nothing. The message was 'go away, we don't want to know'."

Despite these setbacks, the charity is now flourishing with the support of the Lottery. Yet he feels that the humiliation he suffered at the hands of priests can never be erased.

"It's funny how these things come back," he says. "You put them out of your head for years - and then I look back and I'm right there, fighting the bastard off as he tries to get his hands down my trousers."

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Pope on Trial