A SAD FALL
The trial of Patrick Tobin for the murder of Angelika Kluk, whose body was found in the church of St Patrick in Glasgow ended with his conviction and a sentence of 21 years in prison. The trial ended too the priestly career of Fr Gerard Nugent, parish priest of St Patrick’s, whose hitherto hidden life was exposed in public. Sordid, vice-ridden, scandalous and lived through a haze of alcohol, Fr Nugent’s career has come to a close. Till the death of Ms Kluk, Fr Nugent was the face of caring in Catholic Glasgow. He held open house for the poor, homeless, exiled and marginalized. To all appearances he was a charismatic personality, recognised even by local authority for trying to put into practice the stated social concerns of the Church. Today he is a broken man, in the words of his beloved Henri Nouwen, a wounded healer.
Perhaps the part of his cross most difficult to bear has been how quickly his archdiocese has distanced itself from him. On 5 May it issued a stinging statement after Tobin’s conviction, (www.rcag.org.uk) questioning his prudence in operating his open door policy and stated that his weakness and lack of judgement had been exposed. Archbishop Mario Conti dismissed Fr Nugent as a priest of the archdiocese and indicated he would not recommend him for service elsewhere. Fr Nugent in other words may no longer exercise his priesthood anywhere in the world. At age 63 his career is over, although the archdiocese has a duty of care towards him with regard to his alcoholism for which presumably he will receive counselling and medical care.
On 8 May, after Fr Nugent received a sentence of 100 hours community service for giving evasive answers in the trial of Tobin, the archdiocese issued another statement because new lurid details of Fr Nugent’s activities had appeared in the media. The archdiocese indicated that neither the archbishop or any archdiocesan official had prior knowledge of any such details. In the course of it all, the archdiocese indicated that it would still care for him. Causa finita est. Fr Nugent has been left to be blown this way and that by the winds of public media obloquy, and not just secular media. A representative of the Catholic press has weighed in to suggest that he request to be laicised and that he has betrayed so many people.
Even in the matter of community service, Fr Nugent has been cut loose to drift. The staff of the charity shop to which he was directed to serve at least a part of his 100 hours service refused to allow him to do so, citing the fact that children enter its premises.
As the reverberations die down, Fr Nugent will gradually become a non-person, merely a bad memory. That may be so, but the memory lingers on and many of the questions it raises remain not just unanswered but unasked, leaving a sense of uneasiness that the situations that unfolded at the trial of Tobin were allowed to happen.
As this whole sordid episode unravelled, slowly a story from a work of fiction came back to me. Many years ago I read “The Nun’s Story” by Katherine Hulme. In it we can read of Fr Vermuhlen, who lived far out of reach of civilisation in the Congo, working in a leper colony, who came downriver every two years to be tested for signs of the disease. Many years before, he had been a missionary priest who went native, taking a Bantu woman as his wife with whom he had three children. Then he disappeared. On his return he asked to be assigned to the leper colony and to serve the lepers as penance for his sins, a request which was granted. The point of the story? Eventually he caught leprosy, the final act of penance he could make, the final sign of the forgiveness he wanted.
The story has some significance when we consider the penalties paid by Fr Nugent. He will not be recommended for service anywhere in the world, and in the public viewpoint there are few signs of forgiveness for him. Vermeuhlen at least was allowed to say Mass but only within the leper colony. However….