by Ruaridh Nicoll
Sunday May 13, 2007
There is a photograph of Father Gerry Nugent leaving the high court in Edinburgh that appears to show the epitome of the corrupted priest. It was taken after he had given evidence in the Angelika Kluk murder trial. Last week, he returned to court to be sentenced for contempt, having prevaricated while giving evidence during the original trial.
Now the former shepherd of St Patrick's in Glasgow's Anderston has only God to comfort him. On the instructions of Archbishop Mario Conti, he resigned as parish priest. When he claimed in court that he was employed by the archdiocese of Glasgow, he was corrected by the defence QC who told him that its chancellor, Monsignor Peter Smith, had said that priests are self-employed. The church put out a statement after the verdict: 'He has been retired.'
This turning away by the church is simple to understand. Nugent admitted having sex with Kluk, the Polish student who was killed in September and whose body was found in an annexe under the confessional. In court, he said this had happened three or four times and that he 'felt shame': 'I was disgusted at myself.' Since then, he has admitted to sleeping with prostitutes. The trial ended in the conviction of Peter Tobin, a 60-year-old handyman. Usually, such events reflect the banal awfulness of society, but this one reached for the other end of life in all its weird horror.
Anderston is home to Glasgow's red light district. It is also Glasgow's financial district. There is, one imagines, plenty of legitimate work here for a parish priest. St Patrick's is one of the few 18th-century buildings in the area. The M8 passes through the neighbourhood like a poison. Banned by his vows from marrying, Fr Nugent lived alone in apparent penury. He received £1,800 a year from the archdiocese. To survive on that, he relied on his parishioners' support, in their paying for services, in one-off gifts or in any other manner he could raise funds.
That comment by Smith is worth recalling. Nugent was self-employed. His job was to care for people in a tough area, to advise them on the misery of their own lives. Thanks to his vow of celibacy, he was meant to rely on the ecstasy of Christ for his support. He was employed in a lonely role, working an area full of prostitutes and businessmen. In this, he is hardly unique. It's difficult not to stand in awe at the commitment of those who are prepared to become parish priests in the Catholic church, the ones who can stay true to Jesus's teaching for such a pittance.
It is different if you become a power in the church. Then you can end up in Rome, working in exquisite surroundings. Not only that, but if you are a member of the Jesuits, you'll be surrounded by intellectuals with whom you can while away your days bathed in divine light. In Glasgow, Fr Nugent drank and called on prostitutes. Who can comprehend the sensation of falling that he must have experienced, the scale of his crisis?
Immediately after he stepped down from the witness box, I asked a spokesman for the archdiocese where Nugent was and he said he didn't know. In the statement Archbishop Conti finally released, he said: 'The church continues to have a duty of pastoral care for Father Nugent', before adding: 'However, it is for him to decide how he wishes to spend his retirement.'
Pastoral care? Smith might have been classifying a tax situation when he said the priest was 'self-employed', but his words rang horribly in my ear. It sounded as if the church was denying Fr Nugent. Conti's order that Nugent resign is understandable, but it makes me imagine the acerbic archbishop washing his hands.
The church might fairly ask what else it could do. Well, it could have looked after him better in the first place. How can a church that preaches communion allow a man to struggle in such a way? Nugent is an alcoholic who was sleeping with his parishioners (yes, that too) and with prostitutes, while drunk, in a big church at the heart of Scotland's biggest city.
Why didn't it know? Perhaps it was because he was self-employed on £1,800 a year. Now that manner of life is revealed, it's astonishing there are not more stories like this. In these secular times, the church is stretched. So it is not poverty that is to blame for this story, but the flaw in the Catholic priesthood, the demands of celibacy.
Clerics help the poor, tend to the emotionally, physically and mentally injured, look after the sick and the lonely. It is work others eschew. It is insane that the Catholic church refuses to allow its carers the comfort of someone who loves them, someone who will answer back with strength, someone human, after this work.
I know of a priest who lives with his housekeeper. He is a good man. Everybody in his parish knows about his situation. Nobody says anything. It's fine. It's a strange partnership, but the community understands that it is preferable to the cold, cruel, irresponsible relationship parish priests seem to have with a church that all but forces them into hypocrisy.