Grace Dieu Manor Prep School

Grace Dieu Manor Prep School, Thringstone

Ex-pupils in legal bid ‘after years of abuse’

A group of former Leicestershire school pupils who claim they were abused by Catholic priests are launching legal action for compensation.

The 11 men say they were physically, sexually and emotionally abused when they attended the independent Grace Dieu Manor prep school, near Thringstone, in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

  1. Father Kit Cunningham

    Father Kit Cunningham

They are taking action along with 11 other men who say they were similarly abused when they attended St Michael’s prep school in Soni, Tanzania, where many expatriates were educated.

The 22 men have started legal action against the Rosminian Order for the “sadistic and sustained abuse” they suffered during their time as boarding pupils, including regular beatings and sexual abuse.

One priest, Father Kit Cunningham, who taught at St Michael’s, has since died.

Exposed as a paedophile who abused numerous schoolboys in his care, he apologised and resigned his MBE in shame shortly before his death.

The men’s claims span a period of 21 years, from 1952 to 1973.

Francis Lionnet, 63, attended Grace Dieu Manor from the age of eight and is among the claimants to have spearheaded legal action.

Speaking to the Mercury from Montreal, Canada, where he now lives, he said: “I was beaten regularly as part of a sadistic and sexually violent ritual.

“We were subjected to inspections of everything from your underpants to your comb and the beatings took place in front of other children.

“I remember one boy was shot with an air rifle. It was a living hell where some boys were made to pull down their trousers and were fondled as part of the abuse. I’ve spoken to fellow pupils about what they suffered and been brought to tears by what we had to endure.

“We didn’t tell anyone at the time because we were put there by our parents and these people were supposed to be looking after us, but it’s tainted our whole lives.”

He is pursuing legal action after getting in touch with a fellow pupil via a social networking site.

The pair spoke about their time at Grace Dieu, and decided to seek justice.

They then contacted other pupils, and solicitors.

Mr Lionnet added that Grace Dieu Manor was now a “terrific place” and far removed from the horrors he endured.

Solicitor Billhar Uppal said in a statement: “The Rosminian Order is denying that the claimants are entitled to financial compensation and have communicated that they will strenuously defend the claims.

“The claims continue and will involve the issue of formal court proceedings over the coming weeks.”

Grace Dieu Manor’s principal, Charles Foulds, said: “We have to acknowledge that these events took place over 50 years ago, and have no relevance to the school of today.

“But everyone here is very distressed that any child suffered in this place over half a century ago. It is a source of the greatest sadness.”

The case will be highlighted in a BBC1 programme, called Breaking the Silence, at 10.35pm tonight.

Father David Myers is in charge of the UK Province of Rosminians and was approached to be part of the programme, but refused.

Speaking to the Mercury he said he was aware of legal proceedings but was unable to comment until he had seen the programme.

On its website, Grace Dieu Manor says it is a Roman Catholic foundation within the Rosminian Order.

Leicester Mercury 09/03/13

The men abused by Rosminians deserve compensation

I hope the order learns a lesson from Canada, where a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is working to bring healing to victims

By Francis Phillips on Wednesday, 22 June 2011

One of the men abused at Grace Dieu Manor preparatory school, Leicestershire (BBC/Blakeway Productions)

As I had anticipated, watching “Abused: Breaking the Silence” last night on BBC One made for difficult viewing. Observing a middle-aged man break down in tears, and others among his peers describe their damaged lives – the word “depression” cropped up over and over again – as they detailed their childhood experiences at the hands of priests in the Rosminian order at a prep school in Tanzania was a painful experience.

St Michael’s, Soni, where the late Fr Kit Cunningham, as well as three other priests, was deeply implicated in the abuse, was a place of violence and terror, “an environment of fear” in which small boys were “terrified into silence”. Given the revelations about other orders and other priests in recent years this is all too easy to imagine. One of the most telling episodes in the programme was when one of the victims confronted his tormentor, Fr Bernard Collins, at the care home where the now very elderly priest is living in retirement, and secretly filmed his response when challenged about abuse. He clearly knew exactly what the victim was talking about, as he had earlier written a letter of repentance – but he still denied the truth of what had happened and made queasy-sounding excuses. He simply could not face up to the implications of his past perverted behaviour.

The response of the Rosminian order itself is also deeply ambivalent. Fr David Myers, the Provincial, met a group of the victims at St Etheldreda’s church in London – the parish where Fr Cunningham had been held in wide esteem for many years – in November 2010; he listened sympathetically to their shocking stories and promised he would take action on their behalf. In fact he did get the priests involved, including Fr Cunningham, to write to their former victims, expressing their remorse and asking for forgiveness. But given the air of deliberate secrecy surrounding this whole episode, it is not surprising that the former pupils found the letters inadequate and perfunctory, “not from the heart” as one explained and bringing more pain rather than the “closure” they had hoped for.

One of the men, John Poppleton (he described Fr Kit as “a monster” who had warned him to be silent about the sexual abuse he suffered), told the TV viewers: “I would like to know a lot more about why he did what he did.” Relations between the victims and the order have now broken down completely. The order accepts what happened but denies all liability; some of the group are now seeking compensation. This would not bring emotional healing but it would be a tangible, legal admission, understood by the world, of the terrible wrong done to past pupils.

When learning of this scandal I read the case of a Canadian friend. Now in his 50s, Michael O’Brien is a well-known icon artist, novelist and public speaker. As a 13-year-old he was sent to a residential Catholic boarding school, Grollier Hall, in Inuvik, the far north of the country. Filled by the children of native Canadians – O’Brien was the exception – the 60 boys in his house were subjected to a “reign of terror, sexual abuse, cruelty and psychological and physical violence” by the lay dormitory supervisor, a man named Martin Houston. What is truly appalling in O’Brien’s story is that after being convicted of abuse and serving nine years in prison, this man was accepted as a seminarian by the late Archbishop Antoine Hacault of St Boniface in Manitoba, and was later ordained a priest.

In a long article published in Catholic World Report in June 2002 under the title “Victims, Scandals, Truth, Compassion”, O’Brien discusses the whole saga and its wider implications, both for individuals and for the Church.

He comments: “An expert in child abuse once told me that most abusers cannot consciously face the objective reality of their guilt. Those who commit such acts must deny their guilt to themselves in order to live with themselves. Consequently, many of them feel no guilt whatsoever.” This would explain Fr Kit Cunningham’s later career, and Fr Collins’s blanket refusal to be honest with the man who confronted him.

O’Brien, who was physically and psychologically abused for many months (for refusing Houston’s sexual advances) has been able to forgive his tormentor. He emphasises that, “if the victim is listened to, prayed with, understood, he can be helped to let go of his hatred and learn to forgive. He can become free. However, this in no way cancels the demand for objective justice. We do not excuse war criminals merely because their crimes occurred 50 years ago…” I hope the Rosminians are listening.

In words that the order might also attend to, O’Brien comments: “None of us likes a scandal… However, the violation of one child, a violation of one human soul, is not worth a public image.” In Canada, the federal government has established a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to bring about healing for the large number of native Canadians who suffered violence and sexual abuse. This commission is hosting a meeting in Inuvik for this purpose from June 26-30. O’Brien says: “It is not a blame session… It is about survivors of gross indignities finding their voice.” He asks to be remembered in prayer on June 28 that “this will be a moment of great grace, healing in Christ and a moving forward for us all”.

Judging from the TV programme last night, the wounds of the former Rosminian pupils are still very raw and their anger is still palpable. Perhaps Fr David Myers and the Rosminian Order could learn a lesson from the example of Canada?

Catholic Herald 22/06/11

Church order apologises to victims of child abuse

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The head of a Catholic order accused of abusing children in its care has apologised publicly for the first time.

Former pupils of the independent Grace Dieu prep school, near Thringstone, said they were subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse by priests from the Rosminian Order in the 1940s and 50s.

  1. Grace Dieu school

    Grace Dieu school

Eleven former students are taking legal action.

Eleven men who said they were similarly abused at St Michael’s prep school in Soni, Tanzania – also run by the Rosminian Order – are also claiming compensation.

Father David Myers, current leader of the UK’s Rosminian brethren, has now acknowledged the abuse.

He said: “I apologise without reservation on behalf of the brethren to all those who have suffered. Such abuse was a grievous breach of trust to them and to their families.

“We are appalled by what was done to them. I and all my brethren are deeply shocked at what has happened and acknowledge our inadequate response.”

It is not clear what consequences his apology could have on legal proceedings, which are continuing.

Francis Lionnet, 63, who lives in Montreal, Canada, was a pupil at Grace Dieu from the age of eight and is among those seeking compensation.

He claimed he was beaten as a child and said he saw other boys being abused, including one who was shot with an air rifle.

“When Father Myers first heard of what had happened he flew me to England and offered what seemed like a sincere apology,” Mr Lionnet said.

“But he also told me in a letter that we didn’t have the moral right to claim compensation and that angered all of us.

“Although he acknowledges the ‘inadequate response’, it’s not clear what that covers, so we carry on as before.

“Our parents were aspirational, middle class Catholics who made big sacrifices so we could get a good start in life.

“That was far removed from what we got and we want our parents’ money back with interest.”

Another victim told the Mercury he had witnessed severe beatings at Grace Dieu during the 1940s and that he was once asked by a priest to lower his trousers in return for more sweets.

BBC1 programme Breaking the Silence featured accounts from several victims on Tuesday.

It highlighted letters of apology from individual priests and showed secret film of Father Bernard Collins, who taught at Grace Dieu in the 50s, and is among those to have admitted abusing pupils.

Nottingham solicitor Billhar Uppal, who is representing the group, said: “The acceptance of abuse is an inevitable outcome, given that each of the brethren concerned admitted their part and sought forgiveness.

“It is nevertheless welcomed by the former pupils and a step in the right direction, but the apology in itself does not go to heal the very real trauma that’s been caused.”

Grace Dieu’s present principal Charles Foulds has said the incidents “have no relevance to the school of today”.

But he said: “Everyone here is very distressed that any child suffered in this place over half a century ago.”

Leicester Mercury 23/06/11

Legal Link

BBC Documentary ‘Abused, Breaking the Silence’, 2011.

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