Hazel McHaffie

autobiography

Autobiography of abuse

It’s not often I review an autobiography on this blog but I’ve just finished reading one which forms part of my research for novel number 11 (working title Killing me Gently).

Since Altar Boy was published in 2003 the world has moved on, we know so much more now about child abuse, cover-ups, and human psychology. Who hasn’t heard of Jimmy Savile’s crimes now? Or the widespread abuse of children at the hands of priests, foster parents, sportsmen, politicians, celebrities? Indeed major inquiries are currently ongoing into these issues and regularly crop up in the news; police forces are stretched beyond capacity dealing with cases of sexual abuse alone. But I found it useful to nudge a little closer to the mind and heart of a child at the centre of such activities, a child subjected to the unwelcome attentions of a trusted or revered adult.

Altar Boy tells the story of Andrew Madden, an Irish lad whose burning ambition is to become a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. As an altar boy he has behind-the-scenes access to the life of a religious, and he’s thrilled when his favourite priest, Father Ivan Payne, takes a particular interest in him, singling him out for special responsibilities and privileges. But, when Andrew is 11/12 years old (his uncertainty), that support turns into sexual abuse, molestations occurring weekly and continuing over a period of three years.

For those who have never suffered in this way, it’s hard to understand why Andrew tolerated the situation for so long. Why didn’t he simply stay out of harm’s way? How could he continue to idolise his abuser? Why didn’t he tell someone? His explanation is at once disturbing and sad:

Unless you have been abused it may seem odd that I could not stop Father Payne for three years, but I just couldn’t. True, he was never violent and never threatened me but control comes in many forms. I was an altar boy and in my little world the Church was everything. Priests were the most important, respected and powerful people I knew. I was also sexually naive and totally innocent. All I could understand, especially in the early stages, was that what was going on was wrong and that despite myself I was in the middle of it. It took until I was almost doing my Inter before I could eventually get away.
And for most of those three years I spent a lot of time telling myself that nothing was really going on. Even on those Saturday afternoons I just concentrated on the television. I was so determined to keep the abuse from myself that there was no way I would have been capable of telling anyone else.
Being a paedophile, Father Payne would have known that. He would have known that my silence was not based on consent but on fear and shame. He would have known that I couldn’t tell anyone what he was doing. I wasn’t a child he’d abducted from the playground; I was part of his world. He gave me lifts in his car. He visited my home and had tea with my mother. He had me serving him on the altar as he said Mass for my family and neighbours. He knew he was safe. That is the nature of the child abuser.

The impact of what had happened goes on and on long after Father Payne has moved elsewhere. Andrew’s long-cherished dream to join the priesthood is thwarted. He loses direction, his life spiralling out of control. He seeks consolation in drink and casual relationships. He loses the capacity to have loving sex or to trust partners. He’s wracked by self-doubt, insecurity and a sense of worthlessness that several times drives him close to suicide.

At a time when my whole personality, my emotional, intellectual and sexual self, was developing, he made me think that sexual activity and sexual abuse are one and the same thing. As an adult it has been very difficult to undo that.

It takes an enormous effort and many false starts to finally win through. Years later Andrew finally finds the courage to confide in others the extent of his hurt and betrayal, to name his abuser, to challenge the Church. He becomes the first Irish victim of child abuse at the hands of a priest to go public. The texts of several significant letters written to and by various bishops and politicians are included in the appendix.

Candid, bleak, challenging, as his story is, Andrew’s own account is a triumph of hope and humanity emerging out of tragedy. This troubled and damaged young man demonstrates that victims don’t have to remain victims.

I’ve done something about it. I’ve turned it around.

Altar Boy is no literary masterpiece. Neither is it a text on the psychology of abuse. Nor even the most insightful of autobiographies. But it did remind me that adult wisdom and knowledge and hindsight can cloud our understanding of a child’s perspective. Even perhaps doubt and diminish the horror. A useful angle for my own current writing. It’s not comfortable creeping inside the skin of a character in such circumstances, but it’s what I need to do if I’m to capture the real essence of him and write with truth and authenticity.

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