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.