From The Editor, THE TABLET, 17 August 2019
The gross evil of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy would have gone unexposed had it not been for three principal agencies, all secular. In the lead were the media, both electronic and print. They were followed by the police and other statutory agencies; and then came the courts. By contrast, the Church’s own investigations have made comparatively little impact.
This should have induced the Church to show profound gratitude and humility towards the media. Countless lives of innocent children would have been blighted by continuing sexual abuse by priests, had the media not listened to the stories of courageous survivors and exposed the perpetrators and those who tried to cover up their crimes. Pope Francis has acknowledged this debt to journalists, but elsewhere in the Church the response has been more grudging. It is also true that investigative journalists do sometimes go after their targets too hard, and have published stories that lack balance or have been later found to be false. The issue of paedophilia is highly emotional. Judgements are easily swayed by bias.
The latest in the long line of such scandals has unfolded on the Pacific island of Guam. And it was an investigation by a US news agency – Associated Press – that has exposed a disgraceful culture of clerical abuse. Not long before that, a documentary made by Polish film-makers and shown on YouTube suggested that at least 300 priests had been guilty of child abuse, while the church authorities either ignored the complaints or moved paedophile priests from parish to parish. The classic case, made into the film Spotlight, was the investigation by the Boston Globe into child abuse in the Boston, Massachusetts, archdiocese, which led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law, who had fought tooth and nail to put the journalists off the scent and derail the inquiry.
Against this background it is all the more troubling to find parallels with what happened in Birmingham archdiocese around 2003, when a BBC documentary team started to investigate a cluster of clerical abuse cases in the Midlands. During the time of Archbishop Maurice Couve de Murville, who retired in 1999, individual paedophile priests had already come to notice, but no one had looked to see if there was a pattern. The new archbishop, Vincent Nichols, seems to have taken the view that because he was effectively clearing up the mess left by his predecessor, and fully implementing the reforms to safeguarding procedures indicated by the 2001 Nolan report, such a BBC inquiry was unwelcome and unnecessary and therefore should be thwarted. He wrote to his priests telling them not to cooperate.
Nevertheless individual priests were approached by BBC journalists, and enough material was collected to fill an edition of the investigative series, Kenyon Confronts. The high point was the discovery of an ex-Birmingham priest – James Robinson, later extradited to the UK and found guilty of grave offences against children – living in self-imposed exile in Los Angeles, where he had been supported by regular payments out of archdiocesan funds.
Before the documentary was broadcast, Archbishop Nichols gave a press conference in which he alleged BBC journalists had been guilty of grossly unprofessional conduct, and later issued a press release to the same effect; after the broadcast he formally complained to the BBC. Archbishop Nichols’ detailed allegations were all successfully rebutted. Archbishop Nichols appealed against this finding, and his appeal was rejected by the BBC Governors after a further hearing. He has since declined to acknowledge that his complaints were unfounded, or to apologise to the journalists he had attacked, and whose careers were put at risk. In December last year, he told the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) that he now regretted the terms of his press release, and should have welcomed both the programme’s unearthing of Robinson, and the fact that the programme gave a voice to victims. The inquiry, in its report, said his press release seemed to show him to be more interested in protecting the Church’s reputation than in the protection of children.
It would have been gracious of Archbishop Nichols – now Cardinal Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster – to accept the findings of the BBC inquiry into his complaints, and to apologise to the journalists who worked on the programme. This is not quite the whole matter, however. Two issues remain. First, is the state of affairs in Birmingham archdiocese now satisfactory? It cannot be ignored that two successive heads of child protection services in the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Eileen Shearer and Adrian Child, said to IICSA through their counsel: “In the Archdiocese of Birmingham, there were systemic and personal failures. There was a lack of leadership from the archbishop and failures by the Safeguarding Commission and the safeguarding coordinator to perform their duties. These failures were deliberate. They were persistent. They were prolonged. And they were serious. And they have continued over a number of years.”
It would not be inappropriate for the Holy See to express its alarm that Cardinal Nichols allowed such a situation to develop. Birmingham archdiocese seemed to regard itself as “a law unto itself” where child protection was concerned. It resented the BBC’s inquiries and rebuffed the efforts of the Catholic Church’s own national safeguarding team. What was going on?
The deeper issue is the underlying assumption that the Catholic Church in general, and each diocese in particular, is a self-sufficient entity totally capable of looking after itself – in ecclesiology, a societas perfecta or “perfect society”. This ideology still shapes the structures of the Church and haunts the Catholic imagination, though it was replaced by the “People of God” theology of Vatican II. It lies at the root of the culture of clericalism, which for decades helped to shape the sense of immunity felt by child-abusing priests and the mistaken loyalty towards them of their colleagues and superiors. Clearly the Archdiocese of Birmingham was, and maybe still is, a far from perfect society. And Westminster? The People of God have a right to know.