THE Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, has apologised for failing to disclose a piece of evidence about an allegation of child sex abuse by a priest in his archdiocese while he was Archbishop of Birmingham.
He denied, however, that his actions were a “cover-up” to protect the RC Church from further allegations of institutional child sex abuse, and expensive civil claims.
Cardinal Nichols was giving evidence to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), on Thursday of last week. He had previously pulled out of giving evidence to IICSA after falling ill on Remembrance Sunday (News, 23 November).
The hearing focused on the response by the archdiocese of Birmingham to allegations of abuse by four priests, including the now deceased Fr John Tolkien, the son of the author J. R. R. Tolkien.
One complainant, Christopher Carrie, sued the diocese in 2002 over its handling of his claim of sexual abuse by Fr Tolkien in the 1950s. In his witness statement submitted to IICSA, Mr Carrie, who died earlier this year, said that, when he was a Boy Scout, he had been touched and masturbated by Fr Tolkien on two occasions “in the context of a purported blessing”.
Mr Carrie was paid £15,000 in compensation. Prosecutors had decided not to press criminal charges against Fr Tolkien in February 2002, however, owing to his ill health. He died in 2003, aged 85.
IICSA heard that the Church had known that Fr Tolkien posed a risk to children after a note was made in 1968 of a separate allegation that he had told Boy Scouts to strip naked. Yet he was permitted to continue to work as a priest in Sparkhill, Birmingham, for decades, after undergoing “therapy” recommended by the Church.
The 1968 note came up in an internal briefing written by Cardinal Nichols at the time of the 2002 settlement. Asked why he had suppressed evidence of the note from Mr Carrie’s solicitors, Cardinal Nichols said: “My main purpose, I must admit, was to try and avoid civil action in court. . .
“The note obviously had been disclosed to the police. It wasn’t as if it was being hidden. . . It concerned an action in 1968, not in the ’50s, which was actually the point that they were investigating.”
He continued: “The decision I took was to settle the claim, knowing, on that counsel’s advice, there would be other subsequent claims. To me, that was the best way of responding to victims in finding closure. . . My priority was to get that settled, and, when that was settled, I simply didn’t give the matter any further thought, for which I apologise.”
When probed by the lead counsel for the Birmingham inquiry, Jacqueline Carey QC, about a cover-up, he denied that the settlement had been about money. “I took both a pragmatic and a prudent decision in seeking to settle this claim. . .
“I was not aware that it would be a due process to let the claimant see whatever was there, nor was that suggested to me, and my focus remained on settling rather than hiding from the claimant a note which was relevant. . .
“It was disclosed to the police in their investigation, and in that I thought that was the disclosure that was due. I was wrong.”
One of the “very distressing” things Cardinal Nichols had learned during his subsequent safeguarding training, he said, was that “any abuse committed by someone who represents the Catholic faith is destructive of the trust that the victim might have found in the truths of faith. . .
“And, to me, that is why the abuse of children in the context of a Church, in the context of faith, is such a terrible, terrible thing. In a way, it poisons the very wells of our salvation, and it is indeed something that breaks my heart and will for ever mark my ministry as a priest.”
Responding to the Cardinal’s evidence, Adam Chapman QC, of the law firm Switalskis, which represents three victims of priests from the archdiocese, said: “He did no more than events forced him to do, and he will continue to do no more than events force him to do. . .
“You have not heard a satisfactory explanation that is consistent with an archbishop who wanted to do the right thing by victims of priests in the past.”