By Catherine Pepinster in THE TABLET, 10 November 2020

The Catholic Church betrayed its moral purpose by prioritising its own reputation over bringing child abusers to book and turning a blind eye to sex assaults, according to the official report from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

Survivors of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests, monks and other Church figures have called for mandatory reporting of assaults in the wake of the damning report, which accuses the Catholic Church of repeated failures to protect the vulnerable and of showing more interest in protecting its own reputation.

… IICSA says that the Church’s moral purpose has been betrayed by not only those who abused children but also by those who turned a blind eye to the assaults and failed to take action against the perpetrators. It says that the Church prioritised its own reputation.

It has particularly harsh words for Cardinal Vincent Nichols, whose record as Archbishop of Birmingham from 2000 to 2009 and after as Archbishop of Westminster was examined by the inquiry. It says that although he apologised for the Church’s failings during an IICSA hearing in 2018, he did not show any personal responsibility or show compassion for victims in the recent cases it examined. During the hearing Cardinal Nichols said that he had met several victims but those who gave evidence to the inquiry said he was reluctant to speak to them.

The report says that Cardinal Nichol’s “acknowledgement that ‘there is plenty for us to achieve’ applies as much to him as it does to everyone else in the Church. He did not always exercise the leadership expected of a senior member of the Church, at times preferring to protect the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales and in Rome”.

Richard Scorer, of Slater and Gordon solicitors, who represented 32 survivors during the IICSA hearings said this week that Cardinal Nichols should resign.

“Cardinal Nichols needs to go right away – in any other walk of life he would be gone immediately. This is a church that  cannot be trusted to protect children. The only way forward now is a mandatory reporting law, so that abuse cannot be covered up, and independent external oversight of church safeguarding. The church cannot be relied on to put its own house in order, and so without these changes, children will continue to be at risk.” 

However, on Monday, the day before the report was published, Cardinal Nichols issued a statement in which he said that as was the custom in the run-up to his 75th birthday on November 8, he had tendered his resignation to Pope Francis as an archbishop. But Pope Francis had indicated he should stay in office for the time being. Cardinal Nichols wrote: “So, on we go!”

The 147-page report says that between 1970 and 2015, the Catholic Church in England and Wales received more than 900 complaints involving 3,000 sexual abuse incidents but it believes that the scale of abuse in the past 50 years is much higher. It also noted that there have been more than 100 allegations of abuse reported every year since.

IICSA heard from survivors of abuse that abuse ranged from touching to rape and was sometimes accompanied by sadistic beatings. The abuse was swept under the carpet, said the report, with a lack of action against the perpetrators and often efforts to cover up their crimes. IICSA chair, Professor Alexis Jay, said: “It is clear that the Church’s reputation was valued above the welfare of victims with allegations ignored and perpetrators protected.”

The paramountcy principle that the Nolan Report first mentioned, making children’s welfare the priority was still not being enacted, and efforts to have a One Church approach across England and Wales, first mooted by Nolan in 2001, was still not fully implemented, IICSA said.

Although the report focuses on England and Wales it said it was also critical of the Holy See, especially the failure of the apostolic nuncio to provide a witness statement. In May 2019, Pope Francis said there needed to be action, not just words on child sexual abuse, but this was “in direct contrast to the limited information the Holy See provided to the inquiry”, it said.

The report did acknowledge efforts the Church in England and Wales to reform child protection, with inquiries headed by Lord Nolan in 2001 and Baroness Cumberledge in 2007, and improvements made such as more formal handling of reports of abuse, better training for the clergy and religious and those in volved in safeguarding. There was more cooperation with authorities such as the police and social services. But the progress was far too slow with one of the Cumberledge reforms 13 years overdue and efforts to set up the Safe Spaces pastoral and therapeutic support project jointly with the Anglicans taking six years.

The IICSA report makes seven recommendations although it is leaving its comments on mandatory reporting to its final report on child sexual abuse, which will examine the problem across society. It urges mandatory safeguarding training, a lead cleric on safeguarding, policies on non-compliance on safeguarding, external auditing of safeguarding, national complaints policy, a review of the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service, a national policy for complaints, and a revision to canon law on crimes against the child.

On Tuesday Cardinal Nichols, as president of the Bishops Conference, and Archbishop Malcolm McMahon, as vice-president, said in a statement that the IICSA report would “inform the ongoing reform and improvement of safeguarding in all aspects of the Church’s life” and would be discussed at the bishops’ plenary session next week. The statement said: “By listening with humility to those who have suffered, we can contribute to the healing of the wounds of abuse, as well as learn from those most directly affected how we must improve the Church’s safeguarding standards, policies and procedures”.

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