Celebrity priest was ‘monster’ child abuser

One of Britain’s best-known Catholic priests has been exposed as a predatory paedophile who abused numerous schoolboys in his care and quietly resigned his MBE appointment in shame shortly before his death.

The victims allege that the scandal of Father Kit Cunningham, who died in December aged 79, was hushed up by his order, the Rosminians. Many of them have recounted their experiences in detail, saying they grew up traumatised by his assaults and bullying.

One of those he attacked while working at a school for the children of expatriates in Tanzania has described him as a “monster”; another said his own mind had been “twisted for ever” by the experience.

The Rosminians, also known as the Institute of Charity, failed to make any public statement after the victims approached them. In January they held a service celebrating the priest’s life without mentioning what he had done.

The abuse and alleged coverup, to be detailed in a documentary on BBC1 at 10.35pm on Tuesday, cast doubt on the Catholic Church’s promises of openness and accountability after a string of scandals involving abuse by priests and concealment by the religious authorities.

For years Cunningham, based at St Etheldreda’s church in Holborn, central London, was a well-known figure in the City and the media and was frequently quoted in the press and on television. His obituaries lauded him as jovial, generous and a “technicolour eccentric”. The writer Mary Kenny called him “exceptionally kind to young people”.

However, it has now emerged that, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was one of a number of priests who routinely abused boys as young as seven at St Michael’s, a Rosminian school in Soni, Tanzania.

Former pupils in the documentary, Abused: Breaking the Silence, describe Cunningham conferring privileges on favourites, then preying on them in his room. One boy, John Poppleton, was told to lower his pyjamas so Cunningham could fondle him. “He then pulled his pyjamas down, laid on his bed and made me [perform a sex act],” says Poppleton. This happened on several occasions.

Poppleton, now 53 and living in America, attended the school from the ages of seven to 13, leaving in 1973.

“You are seven,” said another victim, Rory Johnston, 63, from London. “All you have ever known from adults is kindness and caresses. Now it’s pain, fear, assault, punctuated by caresses of a different kind. It twists your brain for ever.”

Cunningham’s jocular manner alternated with threats of beating. He knew other priests were abusing boys and covered up for them.

“To us he was a monster,” says another former pupil, Sam Simeonides, from Cyprus.

Some of Cunningham’s victims would grow up to have suicidal thoughts, succumb to alcoholism, or be unable to sustain relationships.

After 10 years in Tanzania, Cunningham moved to London. To his victims in Africa, his subsequent high profile was hard to stomach. Don McFarlane, who lives in Australia, says in the programme: “For years I had dreams of coming to see him, stepping up to take communion and punching him to the ground.”

In 2009 they started to find each other on an internet forum devoted to memories of “St Michael’s Soni prison and torture camp”.

The former pupils began to suspect that the Rosminians, who answer direct to the Vatican rather than to the church hierarchy in Britain, were aware of the abuse. One priest was sent to teach in Tanzania after parents complained about him molesting children at Grace Dieu Manor school near Coalville, Leicestershire. Another priest was sent away from Tanzania after parents complained and was moved to a school in New Zealand, where he abused again.

In Ireland the order was instructed to pay €11m (£9.7m) in compensation to former pupils two years ago.

Also in 2009, the St Michael’s victims sent their testimony to David Myers, Father Provincial of the order in Britain. At his instigation the priests involved, including Cunningham, wrote to victims acknowledging what they had done and asking forgiveness. At the same time, Cunningham returned his MBE insignia.

Last year he wrote to Poppleton: “It is with deep shame that I write to ask forgiveness … The thought of what I did has often preyed on my mind these last 40 years.”

Poppleton said: “I didn’t get this letter because he felt he needed to reconcile with the past. I got it because he was confronted with testimony.”

Olenka Frenkiel, who investigated the case for the BBC, says she approached Cunningham but he did not reply.

The Rosminians admit abuse took place but deny liability. The victims intend to sue.

773 words. First published 19 June 2011. © Times Newspapers Ltd.