Catholic bishop offers apology ‘from the heart’ as abuse survivors await recognition from order

Bishop Marcus Stock of Leeds, England, at his episcopal ordination, Nov. 13, 2014. Bishop Marcus Stock of Leeds, England, at his episcopal ordination, Nov. 13, 2014./ Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk.

A Catholic bishop in England has offered an apology “from the heart” to abuse survivors as they await formal acknowledgement of their suffering by a religious order.

Bishop Marcus Stock met with the Comboni Survivor Group on June 25 at Hinsley Hall in Leeds, West Yorkshire.

Members of the group were sexually abused at St. Peter Claver College, a junior seminary in Mirfield, in the Diocese of Leeds, in the 1960s and ’70s.

The junior seminary, which closed in 1984, was run by the Comboni Missionaries, formerly known as the Verona Fathers.

A statement on the Leeds diocese website said that Stock issued the apology after unsuccessfully seeking to arrange a meeting between the group and the order’s leadership.

It noted that Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster and Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta were also present at the meeting via Zoom. Scicluna is adjunct secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and a leading figure in the fight against clerical abuse.

Stock, the bishop of Leeds since 2014, told the group that he had prepared for the meeting by praying “and reflecting on how I can try to express the shame I feel both for the abuse which you suffered at a time when you were so young and trusting, and the sorrow I have for the way you have been treated within the Church since you brought this abuse to light.”

He said he recognized that his words might seem “too little, too late,” but felt compelled to offer them.

“Although I am addressing you with the title of a bishop, I am speaking to you from the heart as a man and a brother,” he said.

He continued: “I have listened to and read some of the traumatic accounts of the sexual abuse which you suffered when, as boys, you were entrusted by your families to an education and religious formation at the St. Peter Claver College in Mirfield.”

“The men you identify as having abused you were among those people you should have been able to trust most. From the accounts you have given, not only was your innocence violated but the seeds of faith growing in your childhood were scandalously harmed, and in some cases appallingly crushed.”

He added: “I know that for a long time now you have sought without success to engage in a face-to-face discussion with senior members of the Comboni Missionaries; a meeting without prejudice and not controlled by pre-conditions determined by the religious institute’s leadership.”

“I am aware too that the unreserved apology and acknowledgement of your abuse which you have been seeking has not been given.”

The 59-year-old bishop noted that while the college was run by the Verona Fathers, it was situated in his diocese.

“It was for this reason that I asked to meet with you today, so that, as a leader of this local Church, I at least can offer you my heartfelt apology for the pain and trauma which you experienced when you were students at Mirfield and for the spiritual suffering and emotional distress which continues to affect you to this day,” he said.

“I wish therefore here and now to apologize to you personally and unreservedly for the childhood sexual abuse you suffered, and I wish to apologize also to all the members of your families and your friends whose lives have been affected by the impact of that abuse.”

Bede Mullen, one of the victims, told the BBC that it was the first time that a senior Church figure had acknowledged the group’s experiences.

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“Two of our members have died before this apology. Many have suffered fractured lives largely due to their experiences as children,” he said.

The order paid a total of $166,000 in compensation to 11 men who attended the college.

The BBC reported that the Comboni Missionaries issued a statement after the bishop’s apology.

It said: “It was with great sadness and regret that we learned about the allegations of non-recent abuse relating to our former junior seminary which closed in 1984.”

“We acknowledge the harm caused by child abuse and have publicly apologized for any abuse suffered by former seminarians.”

The order said it had sought to respond with “seriousness and sensitivity to the complaints and claims made” and co-operated with the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which published a major report on the Catholic Church in England and Wales in November 2020.

The order added that it condemned any action that caused “harm or distress” to others.

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“The health, safety and wellbeing of every child remains our absolute priority, and we subscribe to the comprehensive national safeguarding policies and procedures of the Catholic Church in the U.K. to ensure this is paramount,” it said.

In his message to the group, Stock quoted from Pope Francis’ letter declining to accept the resignation of German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, in which he urged “every bishop of the Church” to take responsiblity for the abuse crisis.

Stock said: “Those, like me, who have been entrusted with a ministry of leadership in the Church can only begin to contribute to the healing of the wounds of abuse if we are ready to listen with humility and a compassionate heart to those, like you, who seek to share their experiences and their sufferings with us.”

“We must be prepared personally to sit face-to-face with you and to hear your stories. For many like you who have been abused, this response is the only way that your pain can genuinely be heard, and your dignity properly be respected. Indeed, it is the only thing that you, the Comboni Survivors Group, are now asking of us.”