The Anatomy of a Witch-Hunt the Furore over Eric Gill, Paedophile and Creator of a Revered Catholic Sculpture, Is a Product of Our Current Obsession with Sexual Abuse
Cole Moreton and Judith Collins, The Independent (London, England)
THE WOMAN fingering her rosary in prayer appeared not to know, or care, that she was in the presence of a paedophile's art. Her devotions seemed untroubled by thoughts of the insatiable Eric Gill coupling with his young daughters, his sisters or his dog.
As other believers lit candles or sat waiting for confessions to be heard, there was silence around the vast, inspirational space that is Westminster Cathedral. Few eyes lingered on the Stations of the Cross, the 14 relief panels displayed on marble pillars that are reported to be at the centre of "a bitter row" among Roman Catholics.
To read headlines like "Incest in the Cathedral" you might think some shameless orgy of unlawful sex was taking place in the nave. Yet the sculptor, Eric Gill, has been dead for nearly 60 years. It is a decade since a scholarly biography revealed his distasteful passions, at which time hardly anyone called for the Stations to be removed. So why now? The answer has to do with a change in attitudes that has identified paedophilia as the greatest of sins, almost the very last taboo in a liberated society. The likes of Sidney Cooke, the child killer recently released from prison, are seen as the devil's representative on earth, and Lucifer has even infiltrated the church: nearly 40 priests have been convicted of charges relating to sexual abuse in Northern Ireland and the Republic since 1980. Even more have been tried in Australia and North America, where the Roman Catholic church was ordered to pay damages of $73m (pounds 44m) to 11 altar boys abused by the same priest. In January the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Hume, made a public apology for "the harm done to children by priests", although he did stress that similar cases could be found "in many walks of life". Then, at the end of March, the Christian Brothers, an international Catholic teaching order, paid for advertisements in the Irish national papers apologising for the beatings and abuse that had been inflicted on some of the homeless and disadvantaged boys in their care over the years. "There has been a terrific onslaught on the church by the media," says Deborah Jones, editor of the Catholic Herald. Just a few days before the Christian Brothers made their statement, her newspaper published a letter that was to start the Eric Gill witch-hunt. This short correspondence, not even published very prominently, was from Margaret Kennedy, founder of an organisation called Christian Survivors of Sexual Abuse. Founded in 1990, the CSSA is a voluntary group, funded by donations, which runs support groups and retreats, a newsletter, Continued overleaf and training days for churches of all denominations. Ms Kennedy is a qualified nurse, social worker and counsellor who was herself abused by a priest. She had been caused "a great deal of distress" by the sight of Cardinal Hume musing before Gill's various Stations during the BBC television series Lent in the Park. To survivors like herself it was an example of gross insensitivity which spoke of the church's continuing denial of the hurt and devastation of sexual abuse. "These Stations do no honour to the Lord's house," she wrote. "Incest is inscribed into each carving. Should honour be given to a man whose hands carved sculptures and also carved into shame the small bodies of his sisters and children?" The panels should be removed, she insisted. This was no public campaign, but a letter of protest to a religious publication with a small circulation. Having lit the blue touch paper, Ms Kennedy appeared to retire: her telephone has been permanently engaged this week and she is understood to have been away. The subject was revisited in the Herald two weeks later, when it dominated the letters column. One corre- spondent, engaged on a book about Gill, attacked Ms Kennedy's letter as irrelevant and based on superficial knowledge: the word abuse may not even be justified, she suggested, because Gill's sisters were complaisant and his daughters did not seem to be aware that anything was abnormal. …