THE refusal of the Vatican to provide evidence requested by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) is “very disappointing”, a lawyer for the Inquiry has said.
A final two-week hearing began on Monday, investigating the extent to which the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales had failed to protect children from sexual abuse. Reports on separate hearings that focused on patterns of abuse in the archdiocese of Birmingham (News, 21 June), the English Benedictine Congregation, and Ealing Abbey and St Benedict’s School, have already been published.
The chair of the Inquiry, Professor Alexis Jay, explained on Monday: “This final hearing will look at the themes that arose in those case studies, and will also look at issues which relate to the Catholic Church in England and Wales as a whole.”
This includes a review of current safeguarding procedures, recent announcements by Pope Francis — including those on mandatory reporting and the seal of the confessional — and the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Pope. The Inquiry will also consider evidence concerning recent responses of the Church to survivors of child sexual abuse, including redress, apologies, and pastoral responses.
In his opening statement, the lead council to the RC investigation, Brian Altman QC, told the Inquiry panel: “As you were told at the preliminary hearing in September, the Holy See considers that the ‘domestic laws and internal proceedings of a foreign sovereign entity are not the proper object for a British inquiry.’
“In the absence of any witness statement or other evidence from the Holy See, the Inquiry intends to ask those witnesses who are attending to give evidence about these matters.”
The Inquiry has repeatedly asked whether Vatican officials assisted a former RC monk and convicted paedophile, Laurence Soper, who jumped bail and spent five years on the run in Kosovo. He was extradited back to the UK in 2017, and is currently serving 18 years in prison for sexual offences against schoolboys in Ealing.
The Inquiry’s report on abuse at Ealing Abbey, published last Friday, explained: “Prior to the hearing, the Inquiry sought a witness statement and documentation from the Holy See, initially through a voluntary request to its diplomatic representative in the UK, the Apostolic Nuncio, who is covered by diplomatic immunity.
“The request included asking what steps were taken after Soper’s disappearance that might have assisted in locating him. The Holy See has confirmed that it does not intend to provide a witness statement but has provided some documentation which is being reviewed and may be considered further, if necessary, during the hearings we are holding in October and November 2019.”
Mr Altman said: “The Holy See’s refusal to provide the Inquiry with all the evidence it has sought is very disappointing.” It was also “difficult to reconcile” with recent calls from Pope Francis for an “all-out battle against the abuse of minors, both sexually and in other areas” (News, 1 March).
The Inquiry estimates that the RC Church has received approximately 20 separate complaints of child sexual abuse each year since the 1970s. It has also found in evidence that “boys are more likely to be abused within the Church than girls, possibly because of the greater access the clergy has to them.”
The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, is due to give evidence on Wednesday of next week. He has already been criticised by the Inquiry for failing to respond properly and investigate allegations made against his clergy while he was Archbishop of Birmingham.
He wrote in statement last week: “In the last 20 years or so, the evil of the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church has been laid bare. This abuse is both deeply damaging to all those who have been its victims, and a scandal against the faith we strive to proclaim. . .
“Appearing before the Inquiry will enable me to offer again an unreserved apology to all who have suffered in the context of the Catholic Church, and to express my profound regret at all that has taken place. It will also enable me to offer assurance of our willingness to learn further lessons about how to improve and strengthen our response to those who have suffered and our work of safeguarding.”
Progress had been made, he said, but there was much still to learn. The Bishops’ Conference, of which he is president, had met survivors of child abuse to hear their stories, he said, and “a system of audit of the work of every diocesan safeguarding office” had been established.
“The Inquiry will scrutinise all these matters. It will, in due course, make recommendations covering many, if not all, aspects of safeguarding in the Catholic Church. I am sure that this scrutiny will be wide-ranging. . . All of this will take place in the context of our record of failures as well as our achievements, [and] give importance to the voice and experience of survivors.”