– Then I discovered the monstrous truth
My uncle Peter had always been a bit of a character, peculiar but not without charm. Then a chance encounter with one of his former pupils opened my eyes to his dark past
By David Orr
On a summer evening in the first decade of the new millennium, I had arranged to meet a friend at a gastropub in London. I walked into the large, open-plan room, a crowd already at the counter. There was no sign of my friend, so I went to the bar to get a drink while I waited.
“You next?” asked the man beside me. He had traces of silver in his hair, somewhere in his 50s. “No, after you,” I said, before we started to chat. I told him my name. I wasn’t expecting what came next.
“Not related to Peter Orr by any chance? The priest?”
“Well, yes, he was my uncle,” I told him, as an age-old sense of embarrassment began to well up inside me.
“Not a connection I’d be proud of, if I were you,” said my new acquaintance who, it turned out, had been a pupil during the 1960s at Wimbledon College, the Jesuit school in south-west London where my uncle had taught and where, I was told over the bar-room chatter, he had gained a reputation as a man with a predilection for young boys.
Stunned but not altogether surprised, I listened, wanting the conversation to end. I looked around for my friend who, fortunately, had just arrived. I ordered two pints and said goodbye.
Uncle Peter – Father Peter Orr – was my father’s elder brother. Peter, whose visits to my childhood home near Dublin I loathed. Peter, a teacher and pedant: he once returned a letter I’d dutifully written to him from boarding school with my grammar and spelling mistakes circled in red ink. Eccentric Peter, who so embarrassed me as a teenager by recounting our family history to strangers on buses and in cafes. Peter, the serial paedophile, it turns out.
News of Peter’s death in 2010 reached me via emails from my mother in Ireland and a cousin in Australia. My family and I had just arrived in Darjeeling after a week of trekking in the Himalayas, a last hurrah before the end of my 11-year stint as a foreign correspondent in south Asia. I remember thinking the former colonial outpost would have been a place where my uncle – indeed his whole family – might have felt at home. The seven children – my father included – had grown up in what was then Malaya where my grandfather was a rubber planter between the two world wars.
On the last occasion I saw Peter – a dinner at home with my wife in London – he presented me with a military swagger stick belonging to his uncle, who had drowned when his ship was torpedoed off the coast of Italy in the first world war. Thinking there might be more heirlooms to be had after his death, I rang the Jesuit house in Preston, Lancashire, where he lived during his later years, introducing myself as his only nephew.
“We’ve got rid of all his belongings,” said the priest who had taken the call, “there’s nothing left for you.” No condolences were offered. I remember thinking it was as if the residents of the house wanted to cleanse themselves of all memory of Peter Dennis Orr SJ. He had died, after a period of ill health, at the age of 85.
It was only after some years, remembering the conversation with the man in the London pub, that I thought to do an internet search on my uncle. There I found a two-part blog by another former pupil at Wimbledon College, the first part of which was entitled, “In which the author does an unsatisfactory dance on the grave of Father Peter Orr SJ and fails yet again to single-handedly destroy the Roman Catholic church.”
Beyond declaring a visceral hatred for Peter Orr, the teachers and the Catholic church in general, the writer is vague in his accusations. “I’m sure he never touched me or acted out of propriety [sic],” he writes, “although he was famous for coming into the showers after rugby and insisting the boys drop their towels.” While my uncle seems to have been instrumental in the author’s expulsion from the school, there is a vagueness about that, too: “In March 1968, a few months before my O-levels, I was expelled after losing my temper in the classroom and telling Father Orr to fuck off and that if he came anywhere near me I’d hit him. I’ve truly no idea how it came to that.”
The second part of the blog is potentially more damning. In it, the writer says he has heard from a man in the US who, in the course of trying to track down “a priest who had abused him in Philadelphia in the early 1980s”, came across an obituary of Father Peter Orr whom he thought he recognised from the accompanying photograph. This was the priest, the American believed, who had “groomed” him, then “started coming round” to his home while his mother was out.
The blogger wonders if he has somehow been “in denial” about interference he may have suffered at school. This he dismisses: “The abuse I received was not sexual, just a continued brutal assault on my mind, body and spirit.”
A comment on the first part of the blog bolsters the charges against my uncle. “Orr was barking,” the commenter writes, “with an uncontrollable temper. I saw him attack a child once and break his glasses on his face.”
Despite what I’d read, I hesitated about what to do next. I mentioned the blog to a cousin in Canada who implored me to let it rest. Her ailing mother, Alison – the last surviving Orr sibling – would be devastated by the allegations. I remembered how upset Alison had been by Peter’s behaviour when, some years earlier, she’d come to Ireland to assist with the funeral arrangements for their sister Daphne. There was a story about his drunkenly fondling one of her friends after the service. The unfortunate woman lost an earring in a tussle with my uncle on a sofa. Alison, horrified, promptly returned to Canada. In deference to my cousin’s concerns about her mother’s failing health, I dropped the matter.
It was not until late last year, with the last of the Orr siblings dead, that I resolved to call the Jesuits.
My first point of contact was Father Paul Nicholson, the socius of the order in Britain – the deputy provincial, or second-in-command. Although I’d been brought up a Catholic, I’d long ago fallen by the wayside, forgetting much of what I’d once known about the church. The Society of Jesus – as the Jesuits are officially called – is the largest Catholic order of men in the world and has its headquarters in Rome. It was founded by a Spanish priest, Ignatius of Loyola, in 1540 and is today, according to the website of the order in Britain, engaged in “evangelisation and apostolic ministry” in more than 100 countries.
The Js, as my mother always called them, have been particularly big in education, helping form – as they see it – “the whole person”, mind, body and spirit. Despite our family connections, I was sent to a boarding school run by the Benedictines (who also practised corporal punishment on their charges, though reputedly with less gusto than the Jesuits).
I explained to Nicholson that I wanted to learn more about my uncle. He said it wasn’t possible to release the personal files of members of the order until 40 years after their deaths but sent me my uncle’s CV and asked if he could be of further help.
I hadn’t been quite prepared to find myself talking to one of the top Jesuits in the country, someone who from the outset seemed quite open and helpful. When I told him about the allegations online against my uncle, the socius offered to “have a word with the provincial”, his superior and head of the Jesuit order in Britain. A while later, I was back on the phone with Nicholson who conceded that “several reports” of sexual abuse by Peter Orr had been received.
I recalled my uncle’s musty smell and felt nauseous. While he was not someone to whom I felt particularly close, he was – besides my mother – the only person who really kept alive the memory of the father I’d never known. Unlike his other siblings, all living abroad by the time I was a teenager, he often came to Ireland and made an effort to stay in touch. He’d loved my father (“Your poor Daddy”) and, for that, I was grateful.
Peter Orr existed on the periphery of my family’s life in Ireland, making occasional appearances at the house in County Dublin where, until my final year of university, I lived with my mother, her second husband, their two children and my grandmother. In my younger days, I found his visits tedious. From time to time he took me on tours of dusty libraries and gloomy churches. He presented improving books – encyclopedias and dictionaries – with exhortations to studiousness. As I grew older, I came to see him as a bit of a character, a peculiar person but not without some Dickensian charm and academic allure. He enjoyed talking about books and travel, and if his views on the world were doctrinaire, I was relieved he never took me to task on my lack of religious faith.
Like some, though not all, of his siblings, Peter Orr seemed a rather sad individual. They never had much of a home life, having been packed off at a young age to boarding school in Ireland or the UK. Once, when their parents returned home from Malaya, the children failed to recognise them. Peter and his elder brother George subsequently joined the Jesuits in Britain. Daphne tried to become a nun but was rejected; another sister, Cynthia, suffered from depression and ended up in a care home in Northern Ireland. Two sisters were considered “normal” by my mother: Marjorie, who had married and emigrated to Australia with her husband and daughters, and Alison, who had married in Canada and had one daughter. My father, Tony, my mother stressed, had also been loving and “normal”, despite having had a tough time at the hands of the priests and nuns into whose care he’d been entrusted by his absent parents. He died when I was a few months old.
Peter Orr would summon a meeting perhaps once a year, sometimes turning up on the doorstep, other times waiting for me in a pub. I remember him in my childhood wearing dreary clerical garb, though in his senior years he took to sporting odd outfits, including a garish Hawaiian shirt and an Australian bush hat. In his 60s and 70s, he called to mind Anthony Hopkins.
“No hurry with the dinner, dear,” my uncle would say to my wife when he came for dinner. “I’d like another drink.” His rendition of postprandial Irish ballads could be entertaining, his defence of Irish Republican extremism and his diatribes against Islam less so.
Over the years, he sent postcards inscribed with his ornate Gothic script. They came from all over the world: Spain, Portugal, France, the US, Canada, Australia and of course Malaysia where he’d spent his childhood. I’ve kept many of them, curiosities for their stilted syntax as much as for their calligraphy. “I much enjoyed our far-ranging pow-wow, not to speak of the toothsome repast,” he wrote in 1999 on a card showing an advertisement for interwar cruises of India and Ceylon, “and it was good to set eyes on my one and only grand-nephew, who looks a true-blue Celt of Aryan stock.” Having paid tribute to my son’s perceived racial purity, he saluted our departure for New Delhi where I’d been posted as a correspondent, wishing us “bon voyage to the bright and colourful Orient; so, adieu for the nonce!”
At some point around then, my mother heard through his dour brother George that Peter Orr had been grounded in the UK by his order, the British Province of the Society of Jesus. Too much gallivanting, she assumed. Peter’s fondness for foreign travel and strong drink was no secret. We learned that, to fund his lifestyle, he’d been cadging money from well-heeled former schoolmates. “A disgrace to the cloth,” my mother reproved, though the extent of his wrongdoing was beyond our imagining.
Accusations of sexual abuse against priests and cover-ups by the Catholic hierarchy first began to receive media and public attention in the 1990s. Cases, often alleging abuse carried out years or decades earlier, appeared in the British and Irish press. A series of popes, from the turn of the millennium onwards, issued apologies and condemned the evil of abuse which, they admitted, had often been hidden by the church. Yet back then it never occurred to us that Peter Orr – for all his faults – was one of the abusers.
It was not until I was put in touch with the Jesuits’ safeguarding officer in the UK, Jo Norman, that I learned the full extent of my uncle’s depredations. Norman, who has since moved on from her role, told me the Jesuits had received numerous complaints “of a sexual nature” against my uncle, including some in schools. Most of these came from the UK and Ireland, and these are the only ones officially listed in the Jesuits’ records, though it seems there were others from farther afield.
“Some of the complaints were of the voyeuristic type,” she said, “wanting to look at boys in the showers and swimming naked. But there were also elements of lying naked with boys, sexual touching and passionate kissing.”
The first two cases against my uncle date to 1962 in Ireland, according to Norman. They involved boys under 12 whom he subjected to “spanking on the bare bottom and passionate kissing on the lips”. The complaints, it seems, were made by the boys’ parents and reported to the Garda Síochána (Irish police), though no prosecution was brought.
John McManus, head of communications for the Jesuits, says the first incident he can find in the records involved Peter Orr – “overzealous with discipline” – spanking a boy’s bare bottom at Wimbledon College in 1965. (I managed to track down the former pupil who suffered this violation aged 14 – he confirms the details.)
The next complaint was made when my uncle was filling in for an absent priest in Ireland in 1995. Again, the garda was involved and, again, the case was dropped. Peter Orr was at this stage officially based at Campion House, a Jesuit college in Osterley, west London, which has since been closed. In 1999, my uncle was once more interviewed by the garda, this time about “an alleged indecent assault” against a young man in the 1970s, though not reported until the close of the millennium. The Jesuits say that, in all reported cases, it was the police who decided not to take action against my uncle. My request to the garda for access to its records of related interviews was turned down.
When confronted by his superiors, it seems, Peter Orr not only confessed to various “relationships with young people” (Norman’s words) but attempted to justify them by talking of “love”. He admitted to involvement with numerous boys under 16 on five continents. He also acknowledged a problem with alcohol which, Norman speculates, would have helped reduce any inhibitions he might have felt.
This was the moment the Jesuits first took action. In 1999, he was put on “a safety plan”, under the terms of which he was withdrawn from ministry, ordered to stay away from children and told to remain in the UK. Specifically, he was told not to travel to Ireland.
But Peter Orr broke out and continued to travel widely. Norman says he “refused to abide by the plan”. By 2001, he was back in Ireland, “engaged in some pastoral work in the counties of Wexford and Carlow”, according to one of his postcards. After that, as his cards attest, there were chaplaincies in Spain and Bosnia, pastoral postings in Gibraltar, holidays and tourist ministries on the Costa del Sol.
Not surprisingly, the complaints continued to come. In all, Norman said she knew of 11. The Jesuits have a whole dossier on him – it’s what they call “a red file”. When I asked if I could see it, they declined, saying it contained information about people who had not given their permission for it to be shared.
What seems clear is that Peter Orr’s superiors had very little idea how to deal with him. Like other Catholic orders, the Jesuits preferred to handle such cases in-house, only rarely referring the matter up to Rome. A ploy common to many orders was to move the perpetrator quietly away from the scene of his misdeed in the hope he would not reoffend. In my uncle’s case, it was clearly his choice to move around, despite efforts to ground him. Nonetheless, he must have been facilitated – unwittingly or not – by friends and contacts within the clergy. Otherwise, how could he have indulged his peripatetic lifestyle and secured all those short-term posts abroad?
The last reported case against my uncle was in 2006, four years before his death, when he was found to have “young men coming to his room” in Preston. He was, the safeguarding officer said, “a prolific offender”.
How should we talk about those whom he abused, I wonder aloud during one of several telephone calls. Norman suggests using “victim-survivor”.
It’s a term I’ve earlier come across on the Jesuits’ website. The main page is resolutely feelgood with videos of smiling priests and young people taking contemplative walks in the countryside. But there’s also a section on safeguarding which says the Jesuits “are committed to achieving justice for victim-survivors of abuse, as well as their care and support”.
The Jesuits acknowledge “serious failures in the past, both in terms of abuse perpetrated by clergy, religious, and laity engaged in Church works, and of the often-inadequate responses of Church authorities to victim-survivors.” They say they “deeply regret” their failures and recognise that “the resulting abuse crisis has gravely damaged many people”.
Norman says she’s been in contact over recent years with three of my uncle’s victims who are suffering “real psychological distress” as a result of their treatment at his hands. When I express concern about their welfare, she tells me they have all been offered counselling or therapy to help them process the trauma.
Were the victims of abuse by priests compensated, I ask. “Compensation is not always about money,” she says. She doesn’t know about any financial compensation having been offered to my uncle’s victims, though he was persuaded to apologise to at least one of them. And the provincial in Britain, Damian Howard, made a personal apology to another of Peter Orr’s victims.
The most important thing, Norman says, is that survivor-victims should feel they’ve been listened to: “It’s about being heard and believed.” One of my uncle’s victims, she reveals, reported his abuse to another priest who “silenced” the truth for years.
The complaints against my uncle were among more than 900 involving about 3,000 instances of child sexual abuse by priests and others connected to the Catholic church between 1970 and 2015. These complaints were cited in the 2020 Roman Catholic Church Investigation Report, part of a continuing inquiry into child sexual abuse in England and Wales launched in 2014. In the reporting period, there were 177 prosecutions resulting in 133 convictions, though, as the report states, the problem continues with more than 100 reported allegations each year since 2016.
While the Catholic church is doing much to put its house in order, those working on the frontlines of support for victims of sex abuse believe that more needs to be done to sanction priests who commit sexual offences.
“Even today, priests are virtually untouchable as far as the law is concerned,” I’m told by Jon Bird of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, a British organisation that supports recovery from childhood abuse. “The Jesuits and other orders should report offending priests but generally they don’t.”
The Society of Jesus has been honest and transparent in its dealings with me and I commend the support, however limited, offered to victims of sex abuse by priests. But the fact remains the Jesuits kept my uncle within their fold for more than half a century, knowing he was abusing or likely to abuse children all over the world. Their unwillingness – or inability – to discipline and restrain their charge enabled him to extend his predatory reach far and wide. When they realised their sanctions were failing, they did little to contain him and sought no outside support to rein him in.
To all this, they said, in a statement: “If the Jesuits had been aware of Father Orr’s activities, they would have taken immediate action. When they were informed of the incidents that had taken place in Ireland (at least one of which the garda investigated), the Jesuits banned Father Orr from travelling there and having unsupervised contact with anyone under the age of 18. They placed further restrictions on Father Orr’s public ministry in 2003.”
It went on: “The Jesuits deeply regret that concerns about Father Orr were not followed up more insistently in 1965, and they extend their sympathies and prayers to the victims of his abuse. Such allegations would now be treated very differently to how they were 57 years ago. Any allegations of abuse by Jesuits are immediately reported to the police in line with the policy of the Catholic church in this country, and safeguarding issues are taken extremely seriously.”
We’ll never know exactly how many young people suffered at my uncle’s hands (the 11 reported cases against him are, in the words of the safeguarding officer, undoubtedly “the tip of the iceberg”). The truth, of course, is rarely simple or clearcut and there was only so much I was able to find out about him. For this piece I talked to several of his former pupils at Wimbledon College. While all confirmed his reputation for being attracted to boys, none laid specific charges against him. He was widely seen as “a bit of an oddball”. One old boy, who later taught alongside him, remembers him as having been professional in his duties.
I was unable to substantiate the allegation of abuse in Philadelphia made in the “dance on the grave” blog and the blogger seems to have died some years back. Jesuit records show my uncle made several trips of varying duration to the US in the 80s and 90s, though there is no mention of time spent in Pennsylvania state. Curiously, there was another paedophile Jesuit with the same surname and middle initial – Garrett D Orr – preying on boys in that part of the US at about that time. Garrett Orr was convicted in 2011, having pleaded guilty to multiple sexual offences in neighbouring Maryland.
One of my uncle’s former students, who runs a Facebook group for old Wimbledon College pupils, urged me to drop my investigation. But others, such as Bird – himself a survivor of abuse – encouraged me. “Many abused people are afraid no one will believe them if they speak out,” he said. “It’s important to say that these things did happen. The more we acknowledge them, the easier it is for survivors to move on with their lives.”
“Dum vivimus, vivamus!” Peter Orr signed off a postcard from Edinburgh at the turn of the millennium. “While we live, let us live.” It is now clear that he took this epicurean declaration to heart, putting his own pleasure before the needs and wellbeing of those in his care. Peter Orr led his life trampling on key teachings of his church and on the lives of vulnerable young people who had every reason to regard him as a guide and mentor. In betraying their trust, he undoubtedly consigned some to a lifetime of grief and distress.
As for myself, I’ve struggled over what I feel about my uncle. He was perhaps the closest embodiment of the father I lost at a very young age. My wife believes I feel angrier and more betrayed by his behaviour than I can admit. Where I might have had a role model and a worthy replacement for my father, I had neither. I’ve wondered if, in writing about him, I might have been impelled by some forlorn feeling of revenge. I don’t want to dance on my uncle’s grave – I have no intention of visiting it. I would, however, like to think of him turning uncomfortably in it, now that his story is finally out.
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