by Catherine Pepinster in THE TABLET, 11 November 2019
Lawyers acting for dozens of victims of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests have called for Cardinal Vincent Nichols to resign.
The call came in a letter, published below and in The Tablet this week following the Cardinal’s lengthy evidence to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) last week. The hearing focused on safeguarding and support for survivors in the Cardinal’s archdiocese of Westminster, as well his involvement in safeguarding work at the Vatican and in the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, the role of the Holy See, and his views of mandatory reporting of abuse.
The lawyers, Richard Scorer of Slater and Gordon, and David Enright of Howe and Co, are both solicitors who have acted for almost 50 victims and survivors at the IICSA hearings into the Catholic Church. In their letter, they say that the Catholic Church is failing in safeguarding and the way it treats survivors, and that “its much vaunted commitment to a ‘one church’ approach is more rhetorical than real”.
They go on to point out that the Cardinal was previously criticised in an IICSA report on the Archdiocese of Birmingham, where he was archbishop from 2000-2009, but it is in their comments about his current roles – leadership of Westminster archdiocese as its archbishop and as president of the Bishops’ Conference – that the lawyers are most damning. Scorer and Enright write: “Witnesses have described safeguarding in the Westminster diocese as “dysfunctional” and “unsafe”. The evidence has also revealed a shocking mindset in the diocese of disdain for survivors. On all these failings, the buck stops with Cardinal Nichols, the lawyers said.
“The charge sheet against Cardinal Nichols is a long one. Having failed in his leadership roles in both Birmingham and Westminster, he cannot credibly lead the Catholic Church on these issues in the future. The systemic problems in the Catholic Church in relation to safeguarding are not capable of resolution by a single individual. But the Church needs leaders who command respect on these issues; Cardinal Nichols does not. It is clear to us, and those we represent, that the time has come for him to step down.”
Evidence given at the hearing last week revealed the Westminster diocese safeguarding office as under-resourced and dysfunctional, with the safeguarding adviser and safeguarding officer at one time not speaking to one another. Susie Hayward, the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission link person with Westminster, said she reported several times to the NCSC that Westminster safeguarding was “a dangerous situation” and that Westminster “is not a safe diocese”. She tried to meet Cardinal Nichols but was blocked.
During the hearing, Cardinal Nichols revealed that an independent review of the safeguarding Cumberlege Report is only now being organised, 12 years after publication, and that its terms of reference have taken more than a year to be devised. A code of conduct for clergy has taken 12 years and is still not completed. Efforts to get England and Wales accepted as one territory by the Holy See, in order to facilitate the one church policy for safeguarding, was first identified by Cumberlege, but the Holy See has still not given the vital ‘recognitio’.
The Cardinal also told the inquiry that the Church would resist any efforts to challenge the sacramental seal of confession to force priests to report child abuse admissions. He said that if IICSA recommended that there should be mandatory reporting of abuse, including those disclosed in confession, it would be rejected by the Church. “I would defend the Seal of Confession absolutely”, he said, reminding the inquiry that priests have died rather than break it.
Responding to the letter Baroness Nuala O’Loan, chair of the Catholic Council for IICSA, told The Tablet: “It is wholly inappropriate to comment publicly on the evidence at a point when IICSA is considering a great deal of material from a variety of sources. In due course the Chair and Panel will prepare a careful and balanced report and it is wholly inappropriate to pre-empt that in any way which would undermine the work of the Inquiry. It is its job to weigh up and consider the matters before it, taking into account the views of the Church before doing so. CCIICSA is concerned that this letter seeks to prevent and undermine that process.
”The Cardinal and CCIICSA remain fully engaged and committed to working and supporting the work of the Inquiry.”
The letter in full:
We act for almost 50 victims and survivors in the Catholic Church investigation at IICSA. Over the past two weeks the inquiry has conducted a searching examination of the Church’s performance on safeguarding and support for survivors. The evidence shows that the Church is failing in both respects, and that the much vaunted commitment to a “one church” approach is more rhetorical than real. These failings have their roots in cultural and structural features of the Catholic Church. However, the attitude and performance of individual church leaders cannot be ignored.
Since the publication of the Nolan report in 2001, Cardinal Vincent Nichols has been at the centre of the Catholic Church’s response to the abuse scandal. In the inquiry’s report on the archdiocese of Birmingham, where he previously served as Archbishop, he was heavily criticised for his attitude to media challenges of the Archdiocese’s actions and for failing to uphold the authority of the national church safeguarding body when it came into conflict with his own Archdiocese.
It is apparent from the evidence of the past two weeks that Cardinal Nichols failed in Westminster also. Witnesses have described safeguarding in the Westminster diocese as “dysfunctional” and “unsafe”. The evidence has also revealed a shocking mindset in the diocese of disdain for survivors. On all these failings, the buck has to stop with Cardinal Nichols.
The charge sheet against Cardinal Nichols is a long one. Having failed in his leadership roles in both Birmingham and Westminster, he cannot credibly lead the Catholic Church on these issues in the future. The systemic problems in the Catholic Church in relation to safeguarding are not capable of resolution by a single individual. But the Church needs leaders who command respect on these issues; Cardinal Nichols does not. It is clear to us, and those we represent, that the time has come for him to step down.
Head of Abuse Law
Slater and Gordon
David Enright JP
Howe & Co