Clerical Predators: The Church Challenged by “According to Matthew”

27 December 2018 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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My wife and I watched the much delayed, long awaited movie According to Matthew at the Majestic. We were surprised that the house was full given the specialized nature of the movie. It turns out however that the movie has much entertainment value in addition to the historical interest that churchmen might have.   

It is also a disturbing movie about a “real life” Anglo-Catholic priest – i.e., one who upholds the Catholic side of the faith of the Anglican Church, by accepting everything from the Roman Catholic Church except principally the doctrines of Papal Infallibility and the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. This priest, Matthew Peiris (MP), in the 1970s had a love affair with a young married woman Dalrene Ingram, and subsequently killed her husband and then his wife by overdosing them over a period using diabetes drugs.   

It was rather chilling to know that a priest could act as MP did. My own family and my wife’s had different views of MP. He as an Anglo-Catholic was a good friend of my father’s. As such I have met him twice, and he was held in high esteem. So the disappointment was great, and the sense of let-down even greater. My wife’s side felt vindicated because when my father-in-law was warded at Colombo’s cardiac unit and my mother-in-law ran to MP at St. Paul’s Kynsey Road nearby for prayers, she was asked to come back with Rs. 10 for prayers to be offered.   

The film itself is not historically accurate or complete. The MP I remember had grey hair unlike in the movie. It is not brought out that in his better days he converted and baptised Somarama Thera (another murdering priest) by the name of Peter into the Anglican Church, just two days before he was hanged for assassinating SWRD Bandarananaike. MP’s lover Dalrene Ingram, at the end of the movie, is sentenced to death, with no mention of her conviction being overturned on appeal. Nor is it mentioned that MP was pardoned and released in the 1990s. Educated in England, his intellectual side, including leadership of the Anglo-Catholic wing of the [Anglican] Church of Ceylon, is not brought out except for those who can discern the meaning of his black cassock and pectoral cross.  

Perhaps that is why Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith has disavowed the film, saying people will not know the difference between the Anglican MP and his own Roman Catholic (RC) clergy. The point made by the movie’s devout Anglican Director Chandran Rutnam (son of historian James Rutnam who has brought to us J.R. Jayawardene’s and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s true ancestries) is precisely to expose sexual abuses by clergy of all denominations and religions. Rutnam, MP’s parishioner, adds in an interview that MP used to abuse girls who went to him for confession.   

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith cannot take the high horse saying his RC clergy are better. We are all aware of struggles facing the worldwide RC Church as child abuse is being exposed, including the shocking story of a priest who ejaculated in a young boy’s mouth and gave him mouthwash as documented by the RC Church herself in America. 

The Cardinal surely is aware that in a careful assessment by the Boston Globe, eight percent of RC clergy are identified as child abusers. I have a friend, Paul, who went to a Catholic Seminary in India where he saw priests and nuns misbehaving. When he complained he was told that such is yathaartham (how reality is). Paul dropped out of seminary and is now a journalist.  

Abusers of women and children, whatever their religion, will see clerical office as giving them easy access to victims. Victims are afraid to complain against iconic figures. Even if they do, they fear being disbelieved. A crassly abusive priest was once heard to boast, “Have you ever heard of a priest raping women? No, it is because women come to us.” That is the power of priestly office.  

An oxymoron is that these priests are good even as they are bad. Like MP on the Catholic side of the Anglican Church, I know others who exude charisma from the Protestant side of the Church. With their charisma, their sermons carry convincing messages that attract a following. This makes women open to seduction. A so-called evangelistic Anglican priest has won as many converts to Christianity as the number of occasions he has been disciplined and confined by the Bishop of that time to the cathedral precincts on Bullers Road in punishment for violating women. I have heard Christians excusing him saying “but he has done good work winning souls.”  

Matthew Peiris was well educated, but an evil cynic. Today’s cynical predator priest is of a different genre – much less sophisticated but as much evil. These are days when we rue the fact that clergy standards have dropped. While Chandran Rutnam has done a good job of cautioning us not to trust clergy just because they are clergy, the crasser priests today are using the movie to argue that priestly standards were always poor. Perhaps so; but I assess that standards are poorer today because we increasingly feel the need to protect the culprits to protect the reputation of the Church.   

The film itself is not historically accurate or complete. It is not brought out that in his better days he converted and baptised Somarama Thera (another murdering priest) by the name of Peter into the Anglican Church, just two days before he was hanged for assassinating SWRD Bandarananaike

As an Anglican I am aware of a priest who asked a carpenter for a Rs. 600 rupee receipt after repairs for Rs. 300, of priests who committed adultery, of priests accused of murder, etc. – all in the last 20 years. These were all covered up. 

“For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged” (ironically from St. Matthew’s Gospel) and “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone,” are both used to make us not talk about the misdoings of priests. One such priest, who is possibly in line to be Bishop, when confronted by a woman about his abuse of a lady who came to him for marriage counselling, called his accuser a disgrace to the Church, presumably for going against these two lines from the Bible.  

It is long accepted theology of the Church that these lines are to guide our own behaviour and not an excuse for wrongdoing. When priests violate the laws of the church, they surely have forgiveness if repentant, but cannot be sustained as priests. 

This, today’s church finds difficult to digest, because too many priests are involved transgressions. The credibility of the priesthood is at stake when those needing God’s forgiveness, pronounce that forgiveness to us.  

Few qualified men of faith are offering themselves to the Church. The Anglican Church has therefore accepted those who failed their OLs for the priesthood, and then credential led them through her dubious Training Institute and Seminary. With this dire shortage, if predatory priests are put out, there will be few left to serve. So enervating of the Church is this policy of retention of predators that MP was not defrocked, and he continued celebrating Holy Mass on death row and offering God’s forgiveness as Christ’s Vicar.   

When I defied my then Bishop and raised the issue of reports of some men being trained as priests at our seminary at Pilimatalawa, allegedly sexually harassing Methodist Church women also being trained there, I was threatened with excommunication for tarnishing the reputation of the Church through falsehood. My Bishop demanded proof, and I barely escaped excommunication only when I gave him the proof just as he got ready to act. It turned out that he knew all along of these incidents and had suspended the wrongdoers as Chairman of the College.

Yet the Bishop was defending the reputation of the Church and its ministers and Bishops to-be. In doing so, he risked the traditional reputation of the Church in defending the powerless victims of abuse. 

The Archdeacon of Colombo, a very senior cleric, apologetically told me (after I discovered the names of the abusers and the abused) that he knew these things happened and knew that the Bishop also knew, but he could not speak up at the Standing Committee to contradict his Bishop. I then realized that the corruption of power is what sustains clerical abuse. The Holy Father in Rome is learning this truth the hard way.  

This Christmas season, Advent, saw senior clerics continue to fall for sexual misconduct. Pope Francis has removed Australia’s most senior Roman Catholic, Cardinal George Pell, from his inner circle after he faced prosecution in Australia for “historical sexual offences.” The Anglican Communion’s head is the Archbishop of Canterbury. His representative to the Holy See (namely Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi, former Anglican primate of Burundi) had to resign following accusations of sexual misconduct.  

These tactics of silencing criticism allow rogue clergy to rise up the church hierarchy to Canon, Archdeacon etc. as has happened in my Church with few lay members knowing their past except those of us integrated into Church governance. Parishes that do not know and to which marauding predator-priests are transferred, are set up to be victims of these repeat offenders – exactly as happened to the RC Church. Avoiding discussion of clerical abuse and ecclesiastical cover-up is to set the rest of us up to be victims.  

So long as there is no room for faith in the Church any more, we are doomed to suffer numerous more Matthew Peirises. NGOs do better.  

The author is a fifth generation Anglican and has served as an elected member of the Church of Ceylon’s Constituent Assembly, and has been and is an elected member of the Standing Committee of the Colombo Diocese of the Church of Ceylon, its chief governing body. He has also served as a licensed Lay-Eucharistic Minister here and in the US where he was also a Vestryman and Diocesan Councillor.

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