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The Boy With the Perpetual Nervousness review – a tale of betrayal by the church

By / August 16, 2017

Graham Caveneys defiant, important memoir details how the Catholic establishment fails abuse victims

Pope Francis has taken great strides in challenging all sorts of entrenched attitudes and prejudices in the Vatican that have given the Catholic church such a bad name of late. Progress has been disappointingly slow, however, on the commission he appointed in 2014 to tackle the appalling scandal of clerical sexual abuse. In March of this year Marie Collins, the last remaining member of the panel who was a survivor of abuse, resigned after a Vatican department failed to comply with the commissions recommendation that it respond to every correspondent who writes in with allegations that they have been a victim. If the curia is resisting such simple steps, how to have faith that they will tackle the bigger underlying issues?

Reluctance to face up to the consequences of clerical abuse remains hard-wired into the structures of the church: an instinct to protect the institution at the cost of the individual who has suffered, and a brick-wall resistance to addressing the profound questions about the nature of vocation posed by such abhorrent behaviour. And so church leaders not all, granted; certainly not Pope Francis tend to speak of historical allegations whenever victims find the courage to speak up 20, 30 or even 40 years after events that are not for them in any way historical, but are a psychological and emotional trauma they will live with until their dying day.

Individuals like Graham Caveney. The Boy With the Perpetual Nervousness recounts with great courage and candour how, in the 1970s, as the clever, awkward, nerdy, only child of devoutly Catholic working-class parents in Accrington, Lancashire, he was groomed by a priest at his local grammar school in Blackburn, and then sexually abused by him.

A casual glance might suggest he has managed to put it behind him he has a successful career as a writer on music (the sounds of the 70s are one thread of this well-structured, rounded memoir) and biographer of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. But as he describes, without self-pity, Caveney dropped out of university, struggled to form adult relationships, turned to drink and drugs to blot out the trauma, and on occasion attempted suicide.

The abuse leads you to fuck up your life, he reflects bleakly but unsparingly, and a fucked-up life means that youre a less credible witness to the abuse that fucked you up in the first place. Its an ironic trick of memory and survival: abuse makes you want to forget the abuse.

John and Kath, his mum and dad, had no idea what was wrong. They watched their beloved boy, in whom they had invested so much hope that he would have more life opportunities than them, change first into a sulky, angry adolescent who refused to go to mass, and then into a messed-up wreck, beset by panic attacks.

They died in 1998 and 2002, still none the wiser. They continued to direct their flailing son back towards his old headteacher for wise counsel, never suspecting that Father Kevin ONeill had sexually abused him as a 15-year-old and set off the downward spiral.

The Caveneys had believed that the youthful, relaxed Rev Kev the Catholic equivalent of a trendy vicar was doing their boy a favour by taking him to theatres, cinemas and restaurants, broadening his mind. What they couldnt know was that on the way home, the priest they looked up to would turn his car into quiet side-road and force himself on their son. Later, when he invited young Graham to go on holiday to Greece with him and a group of others, John and Kath enlisted the help of relatives to scrape together the cost, but it was just a pretext for more abuse.

Its them that I cant forgive you for, Caveney writes, addressing his abuser in the pages of a book that must have cost him dear to complete, the way in which you made their hopes and aspirations the tools of your own needs. Its them who spent their lives worrying if it was something they had done wrong to make their boy turn out the way he did.

Given how much Catholic grammar schools from the 1950s through to the 1970s were the route by which generations of working-class Catholic boys and girls got on in life the Irish Christian Brothers in my own home town of Liverpool boasted that they took the sons of dockers and made them into doctors it is impossible to believe that the betrayal of Graham Caveney and his parents is an isolated case. How widespread it is, however, remains impossible to know because every bit of information has to be dragged out of a compulsively secretive church that recoils from thinking in terms of deep-rooted, complex patterns of abuse.

And what happened when Caveney identified his abuser in the early 1990s to Father ONeills religious order, the Marists? Id just slashed up my arms, he adds, by way of context. The priest was challenged, apparently confessed his crimes, but was referred to a US therapy centre rather than the police. In 1993, he retired with full honours as headteacher. Kath even sent her son a cutting about the celebrations from the local paper. You were always one of his favourites, she reminded him. The report told of ex-pupils lining up to sing the priests praises, little suspecting how they too had been betrayed.

ONeill died in 2011, the serious charges against him covered up to the grave. He still doesnt seem to appear on any register I can find of abusive clergy. What distresses Caveney almost as much as the churchs failure to involve the police and courts is that he now can never confront his abuser, save in this raw, defiant but important memoir. A part of him, he confesses, still thinks in his darkest moments that what happened was somehow his own fault.

What was it about me? he asks. You see, theres a bit of me that still believes Im unique, that I really was your prime number, indivisible only by myself. I dont want to think of myself as part of a pattern, just another victim.

ONeills old school, St Marys, Blackburn, today has a drama block named after him, an honour accorded despite the Marist order having been told about Caveneys allegations nearly 20 years earlier. Is it plausible that there is no one who knew of them who could have spoken up? Or did they consider that whatever good he had done at the school cancelled out sexually abusing a 15-year-old in his care? It is part of the same impossible-to-fathom and offensive attitude that now apparently stops Vatican officials answering letters from those reporting abuse, in defiance of the pope.

Quite how long it will take for that prejudice to be defeated, I dont know. But after they have read The Boy With the Perpetual Nervousness, the school governors might at least like to revisit the naming of their drama block, which rubs salt into open wounds.

Peter Stanford is a former editor of the Catholic Herald

 The Boy With the Perpetual Nervousness by Graham Caveney is published by Picador on 7 September (14.99). To order a copy for 12.74 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99

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