European Union

We need to defeat the wolves. Interview with Peter Saunders

Interview with Peter Saunders, the chief of The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Great Britain) and a suspended member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable People that was created by Pope Francis.

Agata Diduszko-Zyglewska: You are a survivor of sexual abuse in childhood. Could you tell me what was your story?

Peter Saunders: Yes, I am from London. I was born in a place called Wimbledon in south-west London. I was the youngest of five children born into a good Catholic family, as we were called. The first time I was sexually assaulted it was at my Catholic primary school as a very small child by a head teacher. Many years later when I disclosed the abuse I found out that he had abused many children, but we hadn’t known about each other. Going back nearly 50 years, I remember how the head teacher suddenly disappeared from school. I found out, many years later, that some children had been able to tell to their parents what was happening. So the parents went to the bishop and that man… was sent to another school. A regular, normal pattern for Catholic institutions. Also very early in my life, at 7-8 years of age, I was sexually abused by a member of my family, which lasted until I was 14 years of age. When I went to my secondary school I was also sexually assaulted by two Jesuit priests. One of whom was a head teacher, who was a layman, and the other was a retired priest who lived on the school premises.

Peter Saunders is a founder of NAPAC, the National Association for People Abused in Childhood. NAPAC is now the UK’s leading charity supporting people who suffered any form of abuse in childhood. Photo by Tutelaminorum.

Concerning the head teacher’s involvement in the abuse in both schools, I suppose there must have been many more children harmed over the years.

Yes, when I got a lot of publicity three years ago, after meeting the Pope and after being appointed to the pontifical commission. People who I had not seen for a long time and some people I had never met, from my schools, emailed me to say that they had been abused by some of the same priests. Moreover, it turns out that one of my brothers who had been to the school six years before me had been abused by the retired priest too.

Didn’t any adult from your family know about it?

Nobody knew nobody said anything. I remained silent for the next 22-23 years.

Why didn’t you try to tell this to your parents?

In common with many survivors, I internalized what was happening. I tried to forget it because it was too awful to remember. I always thought of myself as being full of shame. I felt dirty, felt stupid. It was reinforced by the fact that these were teachers and a family member who abused me. And I remained a victim until I spoke out and something triggered. Then in common with other survivors, I discovered that I was not one in a million but one of the millions abused by a family member – as is the most common case, then come others who have access to children: priests, teachers etc.

So the parents went to the bishop and that man… was sent to another school.

So what was the turning point? Why did you decide to speak out?

I became close to these events when my father was dying. He was always an object of fear, reverence. He was a very strict man. When we were children we were all hit. But he was also a loving man. He thought he was doing the right thing. We went together to church. I was afraid of him and I was never able to speak to him about what was happening to me. So when he was dying it was too late to tell him ‘Dad, by the way…’ But as he was dying I kind of pledged to him that I was going to “sort our family out”. Because we were a very dysfunctional family in all sorts of ways. So my dad died. My children were around the same age that I was when I was first abused. Seeing them I really realized what had happened to me. I hadn’t  ever given it a lot of thought before. Looking at my children – how small they were – I realized that It wasn’t something wrong with me and it wasn’t my fault. I remember thinking: if somebody did that to my children what was done to me I would… you know what I’m saying? I would be in prison now for murder if someone did that to my child. And yet it happened to me. Nobody knew, nobody did anything about it, nobody was ever brought to justice. At that time it was still a taboo. Even to this day it is – the number of people at your conference* indicates how society doesn’t want to deal with this situation. They would rather do something else, talk about something else, than deal with rape and abuse of our little ones. So 22 years ago, I set up a charity to help other survivors.  It’s called NAPAC. Stands for National Association for People Abused in Childhood.

What is the range of your activities?

We’ve helped in 22 years, well, over 100,000 people. We have a free phone helpline. We run support groups. We speak to the media. We campaign for the rights of survivors. We speak out wherever we have the opportunity. Because by speaking out we are helping our children to be a little bit safer. Because abusers do not want this discussion. Abusers do not want publicity and certainly do not want people like me talking about what happened to them.

Silence works for them…

Absolutely, so for 22 years, I have never stopped talking about it and the effect it had on my life. And the effect that I know it has on millions of lives.

You may find it strange but I prayed.

But what was your first step? You didn’t know any other survivors and you had no support.

You may find it strange but I prayed. I was sitting in my car in a parking lot. And I said: ‘I don’t know what is going on God, but if this is going to be my little contribution than tell me what to do. I didn’t hear voices but I felt that I needed to reach out to people. And for 22 years that is what I’ve been doing and this is still a little charity. We have 10 paid workers and about 30 volunteers. But every day we help many people. Each time when we speak out to the media people always get in touch and say ‘thank you’.

Probably because – as here in Poland – one of the biggest problems is the feeling of being alone with this burden. And you can break it by making it public. So how did it happen that you became a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable People?

For many years I have fallen aside of the church in the UK. Because I’ve always spoken out about it. I always said I was abused by priests and I even sometimes said “this is where it happened’ and ‘I know I am one of many’. Our charity and I were invited to be a part of the UK commission to try to improve child safety within the Catholic church in the UK. So I was invited to that body and I did that for 2 or 3 years – together with some priests, a couple of nuns and some laypeople. And it has produced guidelines and protocols which on paper looked good. 

‘Would you go and meet the Pope?’ Well, you don’t say ‘No’ to something like that.

Like how to educate children to make them safer?

Yes, and how to report it. It is mandatory for people working within the Catholic church to report abuse to the authorities. Having protocols and policies is one thing but the people don’t use them. There is still a reluctance on the part of many priests and bishops to follow the rules. Then in the winter of 2013/14, I was asked to write an article for a Catholic newspaper which I did. And they printed the whole article where I said as far as I was concerned Jesus would be weeping over the things that are done to children – in his name. And they printed it. Then some weeks later I got a call from that commission in England to say ‘Would you go and meet the Pope?’. Well, you don’t say ‘No’ to something like that.

The canonization of Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II by Pope Francis and the Catholic Church. Photo by Aleteia Image Department, Flickr.

You said: yes.

And in July 2014 I flew to Rome at their expense. I was picked up at Rome airport by a Vatican driver and driven into the Vatican City and there I was in a place called St. Martha’s house which is where the Pope lives. That evening I went to dinner and met the people who were already on this commission. I was sat opposite a guy called Cardinal O’Malley, there was Marie Collins a woman from Ireland, there was a woman called Sheila Hollins who’s a Baroness in the House of Lords in London. And a French woman who I had met, a German Jesuit and some other people. And then in comes the Pope and I was introduced. I shook his hand and I said ‘Argentina is playing against Switzerland in the World Cup tonight’ and he had a laugh. He seemed incredibly normal. The next morning it was a mass in his chapel. I stood in the front row there. Then 2 hours later I sat and had a chat with him. At the end of that, I thought that I was dealing with a man who was serious about the change. A few weeks later I was asked to help with one of the working groups of the Commission. And then in December, I got a call from Boston from Sean O’Malley, saying ‘Peter, the Holy Father has asked me if you would join his Commission’. So I think “Yes, this man is serious”. And so within a matter of weeks, I was in Rome sitting around this table with all these other Commission members and I really thought that something serious was going to change. Three years later I’m extremely disappointed that there has been just a little bit of movement. There has been a couple of bricks knocked down from the wall but the wall needs to come down. And I don’t see that happening until the people of the Church do something.

You were suspended because you were criticising the lack of achievements of the Commission.
I was. I asked Cardinal O’Malley what had changed in two years as the Commission was working for a year before I joined. All he could say was that the two bishops in America have been sacked. I said ‘ No they haven’t. They had been moved, they hadn’t been sacked’. They had been removed from their job but they are still bishops. One of whom was a criminal. It was Bishop Finn who was convicted in Kansas. I said to the Pope the day after I arrived that time ‘You need to come to your Commission’. And he said ‘Yes’ – but nothing happened. Then I did some interviews with the press. My doubts were printed – it was in ‘Times’ and the Commission all agreed they could not work with me.

They had been moved, they hadn’t been sacked.

Probably you were meant to be more “understanding” – meaning silent – about the activities of the Commission as its member.

Probably there was the thought that I was going to be a good quiet, Catholic obedient boy. They didn’t do their homework on me. Because otherwise, they would know that I always speak out. I always have done that so I always will. Their attempt to get me on board sadly in retrospect was more a PR exercise than anything else. I’m not criticising the people on the Commission because individually I think that they are there to do the job and they’ve got the right heart to do it. But this is the wrong group of people. Some of the things that were said by some of those people in the couple of years made me think ‘They don’t understand’.

What should be changed? What is the main problem of the Commission?

The Commission has to be truly independent of the Church. Totally independent. Funded by the Church but totally independent. And there is not a hint of independence. It is totally under the control of the Vatican. And the Vatican will decide whether or not it makes any kind of changes. There are so many people within the Vatican who are resistant to change because of all sorts of reasons. Some because they’ve got blood on their hands and some because they are devoted to protecting the institution. Most of them, sadly, have lost sight of what Jesus was all about. Which was about loving one another.

Some because they’ve got blood on their hands and some because they are devoted to protecting the institution.

I’ve been thinking about the Polish Church in this context – it seems like they really didn’t read the New Testament for a long time. What they do has nothing to do with Jesus’ teaching. This is a very general problem with the Church. It is just a powerful, political, international institution. What should happen to really create change?

If the Pope is serious he has tools to create change. Every bishop on the planet has an email. The Pope could email every Bishop personally and say ‘This is the way it has to be’. As far as now he is very good in making statements that keep diverting away from the real issue. And for me, the real issue is what we do to our most vulnerable citizens, which are our children. 

Many good Catholics would say that the Pope has the best intentions but in fact, the bishops in different countries can have their own separate policies. According to your knowledge is it true?

No, according to canon lawyers and according to people like Thomas P. Doyle, the Pope has absolute authority over his bishops. Bishops are only accountable to the Pope. So the Pope can say to the Bishops ‘You must hand over all the information about abuse and any abusive clergy in your diocese. You must hand them over to the police’. He can do that but he won’t. Why? I don’t know the answer to that.

Theoretically, the Vatican in 2001 required bishops and religious superiors to forward all credible cases of abuse to Rome for review and in 2010 the Vatican explicitly told bishops and superiors to also report credible cases to the police where local reporting laws required them to.
But still, in Poland, even the priest who serves as a coordinator for the protection of children claims that he doesn’t have access to any credible data nor any list of paedophile priests.  Can this be true?

Yes, the Church has taken some action but not enough. And I don’t think it can be true. When Pope Francis became Pope and said things like ‘A poor Church for the poor people’. He should have put his hands up and said ‘This Church is a monstrous institution that must divest itself of all its wealth and it should be run by the people who are the Church. Not by the people who drive around in big fancy cars around the Vatican and spend thousands of pounds for fancy outfits. What has that got to do with the love of Christ – it’s beyond me. It is taking me a lot of time to understand all that because I used to be a good Catholic boy.

It shouldn’t be run by the people who drive around in big fancy cars around the Vatican and spend thousands of pounds for fancy outfits.

What is the situation with the Catholics in Great Britain? In Poland, so-called “good Catholics” are unbelievably tolerant to what the hierarchy says and does. Each time you say “Come on, these guys are doing bad things, saying bad things and protecting people who are assaulting children. Why do you stay silent?” They say ‘But the Church is us and we are good people’ and they just don’t talk about it, that the bad people are ruling and they are just going there and listening to the poison silently. Isn’t it a kind of irresponsibility? This silence gives perpetrators power. Is it the same in England?

In case of many Catholics yes, but also many Catholics have turned their backs on the Church. Many Catholics even within my family just do not go near the Catholic church anymore. They remain Christian but they don’t have anything to do with the institution because of all these revelations.  At the moment in England and Wales, we have a national inquiry founded by the government looking into institutional failures. The Catholic Church is one of those institutions. The Benedictines, one of the Catholic orders has a history of abuse which is going to be scrutinized in public.   All of it will be televised. The investigators will take evidence from victims. They will hear from whistleblowers and they will have a response from the Church who will obviously hire the most expensive lawyers.  The actual hearings will last maybe two weeks. But the inquiry will last many years potentially. Because there are lots of institutions.

Pope Francis passing through a jubilant crowd in St Peters Square minutes before his Inaugural Mass. Photo by Jeffrey Bruno, Flickr.

What could be the possible results of the inquiry?

What we hope for is a change in culture. Because our culture like many other cultures has allowed abuse to be swept under the carpet. And there has to be some real serious light shed on where it happened, who let it happen and what are the numbers of victims and abusers. So people are going to be brought to justice, hopefully, and there will be recommendations that the government must impose, not recommendations that will be put on a shelf.  As it’s a statutory, legal inquiry the government will have to respond. It has got the biggest research budget and the biggest research team ever in the UK looking at these issues and collecting information from everywhere and from abroad to get an idea of what happened in other parts of the world. So they will be bringing the whole wealth of knowledge that will include statistics.

What we hope for is a change in culture.

Statistics seem to be incredibly difficult to be accurate about because the majority of victims just didn’t say anything.

Exactly and many of the people who call us every day have never spoken to anybody, like me. I waited until I was nearly 40 before speaking out, hopefully, times are changing. Younger people are able to speak out. But we need to get to a point where it doesn’t happen in the first place and that is a real challenge. 

Concerning the people who have called you, the majority of them are people who are reporting cases from the past or do you have many recent stories?

Among the people who call us there are teenagers and people who are 80, 90 years of age. Sometimes we get calls from people who are talking about the abuse that happened 50 or 60 years ago and the people who hurt them are long, long dead. What we achieve and what we offer is an opportunity to speak out. By speaking out people get liberated and they seem to feel better. Many of the people who call us, they may not want to join a support group, they may not want to have therapy. They just want to talk to somebody who understands and doesn’t say ‘It happened a long time ago. Get over it’. The common denominator among survivors is that we are all carrying it for the rest of our lives. It needs to be put in the bin and left but it’s easier said than done. We try to give them hope.

How does the situation in Poland look from your perspective?

I don’t know much about Poland. As countries, we are very close allies. We have a huge Polish population in the UK. Not just recently but going back many years. After the war, many Poles stayed in the UK.  It seems that Poland is still very Catholic and very dominated by the Church.

The bonds between the ruling party and the Church are stronger than ever since WWII.

Yes, and at the same time, I read in the media that there were 60  or 100 thousand neo-fascists marching on the streets of Warsaw. I found it very scary. Considering the strange links.

I understand that you refer to the fact that nationalists marching in the Independence March had a slogan ‘We want God’ and at the same time some of these people were doing ‘Sieg Heil’ gesture and having posters ‘white power’ and ‘white Europe’. There were also priests and nuns in this crowd.

Yes,  it seems like a lot of work to do. I don’t have any answers to that.

When we organized the  International Conference for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse in the Church “Break the silence” we did it as the NGOs that are supporting the survivors. As you could see we invited the priest who is a coordinator indicated by the Catholic Church to protect children. He didn’t want to give a speech, but he was present. Then when I was looking through media coverage I saw that the main coverage was the interview that they did with this priest just before the start of the conference. The voice of the organizers and survivors was almost completely absent. The priest said that the conference is constructed in a bad way because we shouldn’t talk separately about the problem of paedophile priests. Another thing the media concentrated on was an interview given by a bishop from the Episcopate Conference in Poland. He said ‘Yes, there is an international conference about child abuse by priests in Warsaw and we are really fighting with this problem’. In these relations, especially on national television that has been taken over by the ruling conservative party, it seems as if they organized it! How to fight this media approach? Do you have any experience with this? Should I interrupt and say: Hey, stop, here are the organizers representing survivors, the priest represents the institution responsible for the abusers, He shouldn’t evaluate the conference…

Well, I do a lot of media in the UK and it looks different. A lot of the media are very sympathetic to survivors. Most of the media do generally well-balanced reporting of the facts about these issues. So I consider the media in the UK to be friendly. I know that the media are not linked to the government.  Many journalists are good people and they are disgusted with the abuse and disgusted with the attitude of the Church and that includes Catholics who are disgusted. 

I remain a Christian and still believe in prayer, but it is about action and it is up to the people to take action.

What would be your advice for Polish society? What would be good for Polish people and the Polish Church?

I remain a Christian and still believe in prayer, but it is about action and it is up to the people to take action. It is up to them to knock that wall down like they did in Berlin in 1989. I’m hesitant to give advice but it would be to never give up and to keep fighting. And remember that it is about protecting our children. We can’t turn the clock back, we can’t undo what was done to me and millions of other people, but we can protect our children. There is this spotlight now that is beginning to shine. Everybody should see the movie ‘Spotlight’ and the other films that depict the reality of the abuse. There are too many people in Church that are sheep led by wolves. We need to defeat the wolves. 

Peter Saunders was one of the international guests of the International Conference for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse in the Church “Break the silence” organized by The Foundation “Have no fear”, “The Political Critique” and the Kazimierz Łyszczyński Foundation in Warsaw, Poland, on 17-19 November 2017.


Agata Diduszko-Zyglewska
Graduate of English studies at Warsaw University and the Gardzienice Academy for Theatre Practices. Journalist, cultural activist, translator, member of the Social Dialogue Committee for Culture. Member of the Political Critique Team.