Hazel McHaffie

Roman Catholic church

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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Malta – holiday destination and ethical hotspot

Phew, I’ve just this evening returned from eleven nights on the island of Malta. Which is why my blog post is late this week. We’ve been on the return journey since the equivalent of 4.45 am so excuse lack of brio.

Anyway, I’ll give it a whirl. There I was, basking in temperatures in the twenties, letting my imagination run riot, happily scribbling a novel in my head. The amazingly history of Malta offers a richly colourful context, so I had this as my basic tapestry. Good start. My characters were soon escaping down the mysterious winding streets between these lovely honey-coloured stone walls … honey coloured stoneracing up the endless flights of steps …stepped streetscommandeering a passing horse-drawn carriage …passing carriagesdodging pursuers in the night-time shrubbery …statues at nightfleeing across the incredible turquoise Mediterranean Sea …The blue seaAnd then … ahah! In gift shops and airports and bookstores what did I find? Rows of novels all set in Malta.novels about Malta Joanna Trollope, Nicholas Monsarrat – oh, lots of different authors have jumped on this bandwagon already. And no wonder. The whole place cries out to be written about. So no mileage there. Best to just relax and have a real holiday.

But I held one trump card. A most unusual highlight just for me. I could actually set foot on the nearby island of Gozo. And there I met a lovely lady in a Maltese lace shop (pictured below) who knew the family at the centre of a huge ethical debate some eleven years ago when I was still working at the University. A case I followed very closely.

Michaelangelo and Rina Attard’s twin daughters were born conjoined, fused at the spine and abdomen. A British surgeon heard about their condition on a visit to Malta and wanted to help. A huge debate followed his intervention. The Roman Catholic church (which is the predominant religion on Gozo) strongly opposed the babies’ separation, believing such matters were best left in the hands of God. The parents were Catholics and followed this line too. But doctors and lawyers disagreed. A high profile court case ensued. The issues revolved around whether or not it was acceptable to save the life of one child at the expense of the other; and whether it was permissible to act against the parents’ wishes.

To cut a long story short, the girls were eventually separated here in Britain at the age of three months – exactly eleven years ago this November. One twin, Rosie, died in the process, but the survivor, Gracie, went back to this tiny Maltese island with its strong religious ethic, and is apparently still doing well, her neighbour told me.Lace Shop in GozoAfter all the hours spent thinking and talking and writing about this controversy back in 2000, it was a real thrill to listen to this lady in Gozo, in this very lace shop, telling me what she thought of the decision and the church’s stance. And to be just a few roads away from where the Attard family still live. A bit like standing on holy ground!

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