(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, May 18.)
On a recent Monday morning I sat at the press desk in the Wellington District Court and watched as a former Catholic priest was sentenced to six years and seven months in prison for historical sex offences.Peter Joseph Hercock left the priesthood in the 1980s. He is 72 now, and married with a son. But in the 1970s he was a chaplain and counsellor at Sacred Heart Girls’ College in Lower Hutt.
The four women who pursued complaints against him were then pupils in their early teens. They were grappling with personal problems or came from troubled home environments – sometimes both.They went to Hercock thinking he would help them. Instead he groomed them for his sexual gratification. He raped and indecently assaulted them in his bedroom in the Catholic presbytery and at a Kapiti Coast bach used by nuns.
One victim, then aged 14, vividly recalled a “wretched” Leonard Cohen record playing in the background as she was raped. Another was given two glasses of whisky and carried to bed.Much as we have become accustomed to sordid stories of sexual abuse by priests, the women’s victim impact statements were painful to sit through.
All four told of long-lasting psychological and emotional damage. One had a breakdown, another tried to kill herself.The betrayal of trust was breathtaking. One victim said her father worked two jobs to send her to Sacred Heart. His belief in the value of a Catholic education was rewarded by the rape of his virgin daughter.
She was later expelled for drinking and drug-taking. When her mother died, she didn’t attend the funeral. She was scared she would see Hercock there.Another complainant said the girls had been taught that men couldn’t be trusted because of their lust and it was up to women not to tempt them. At the time, she blamed herself for corrupting Hercock.
As a priest, Hercock was supposedly dedicated to the care of his flock. In betraying those vulnerable girls he destroyed their faith. It’s impossible to overstate the breach of trust.One victim said that her sense of cultural identity came from being part of a small Catholic community. Having been brought up Catholic myself, I knew what she meant.
Catholics of that era, living in a predominantly Protestant society, defined themselves by their faith. To have it betrayed by a priest would have been shattering.Listening to the victim impact statements, I felt myself getting angry, but not so much with Hercock – he was finally getting his due punishment, after all – as with the Church that allowed this to happen.
Hercock entered the Catholic seminary at the age of 17 and was in his 20s when most of the offending took place. Few men at 17 have a clear idea of what they want to do for the rest of their life; fewer still have the emotional maturity to commit to a life of celibacy. Yet that’s what the Church expects them to do.It is an expectation that priests often fail to live up to. The need for human intimacy isn’t easily suppressed, and when it is, it can lead to twisted outcomes.
Some priests end up having illicit but consenting relationships with women; a few even father children. Others, like Hercock, become predators.You might call this Catholicism’s dirty little secret, except it’s not; it’s a dirty big secret. The shocking pain and guilt caused by the vow of celibacy is hidden behind a wall of silence and hypocrisy.
Before anyone accuses me of being anti-Catholic, a declaration: I’m not one of those bitter and resentful ex-Catholics. I value my Catholic upbringing; it’s a big part of who I am.Moreover, I know far too many genuinely good and holy Catholics, priests included, to dismiss the Church out of hand.
Catholicism’s problem is that it remains in the grip of calcified, twisted dogma which is stubbornly defended by a male hierarchy that has a disturbingly ambivalent attitude toward women.A good friend of mine who attended a Catholic girls’ boarding school says the nuns warned the girls about young priests. That confirms the Church knew some priests couldn’t be trusted to honour their vow of celibacy.
It almost makes the nuns complicit in what went on, yet I don’t entirely blame them. They were caught up in a warped system that required them to defer to male authority. In a sense, they were victims too.An editorial on the Hercock case in the latest issue of the Listener says the Church should have been in the dock with him. That’s not an overstatement.
Despite its many apologies and payments of compensation (often given grudgingly) to victims of sexual abuse, the church still refuses to confront the harm caused by the cruel and unnatural rule of celibacy.Other institutions change and move on when evidence of the damage done by their doctrines becomes too overwhelming to ignore. Why can’t the Catholic Church?