THE RC Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, has said that he failed to support a survivor of abuse when he was RC Archbishop of Birmingham. There were few areas in his life in which there was “total integrity”, he admitted.
Cardinal Nichols was giving evidence at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) on Wednesday and Thursday, during the Inquiry’s examination of abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.
A report published by IICSA in June criticised Cardinal Nichols for safeguarding failures in the RC Archdiocese of Birmingham (News 27 June), where he was Archbishop before taking up his present post as head of the RC Church in England and Wales.
On Wednesday, Cardinal Nichols was questioned by the lead counsel for the inquiry, Brian Altman QC. Mr Altman asked the Cardinal about the treatment of one survivor who had approached him for help. Identified only as A711, she was abused as a teenager by a priest in the Servite Order, and raped when aged 24.
She told IICSA last week that safeguarding officials at the Archdiocese of Westminster had failed to support her when she reported the abuse, causing her to be retraumatised, and that her emails to Cardinal Nichols were often ignored.
Internal diocesan correspondence was read out to the inquiry, in which she was described as “manipulative” and “passive aggressive”.
Yet, at the time that the diocese was failing her, it was also announcing that it was to launch an independent review into safeguarding practices.
Mr Altman asked the Cardinal: “Do you not see a disconnect between the presentation of the public face of the Church, announcing a new review on all aspects of safeguarding, and the reality on the ground? At the very time you’re saying all of this publicly, privately you’re refusing to engage with this woman?”
Cardinal Nichols responded: “Yes, that’s true. I’m afraid there are not many areas of my life in which there is total integrity. I failed in this. I failed to sustain this person in a difficult period in their life.”
Mr Altman also questioned Cardinal Nichols about a worldwide summit that the Pope held in February to discuss the child sexual-abuse crisis (News, 1 March).
Asked whether he had come away from the summit thinking: “We haven’t done enough’, Cardinal Nichols agreed that there was still much to be done. He referred to the example of a bishop in Puerto Rico who encouraged the topic of safeguarding children to be discussed in every single parish in his diocese.
The Cardinal said that the culture of safeguarding in UK churches was “radically different” from 12 years ago, but also accepted: “There’s much, much more we have to achieve.”
He said that the summit had been a “revelation” to him as he listened to the experiences of survivors from around the world, though he had already heard testimonies from survivors in the UK.
“The voices I heard in the meeting in Rome were far more explicit in the physical details in which they spoke about their abuse than I’d heard when sitting face to face while I was at Birmingham,” he said.
On the second day of giving evidence to IICSA, he was questioned about the Seal of the Confession.
He said: “I would defend the seal of confession absolutely. The history of the Catholic Church has a number of people who’ve been put to death in defence of the seal of confession. It might come to that.”
Several Australian states have passed laws that will make it mandatory for priests to report sexual abuse, after a five-year inquiry into widespread historic abuse of children in the country’s Catholic institutions.
Cardinal Nichols said that, if IICSA recommended breaking the seal, as did the Royal Commission in Australia, it would be “rejected” by the RC Bishops’ Conference, of which he is the chair.
“It would put every priest in this country in a position of great liability, because he would not be able to defend himself if someone went forward and said: ‘I told Father X I am an abuser.’ Anybody could do that, and no priest could defend himself.”
He said that no one had ever declared to him during confession that they were an abuser or had been abused. He said he believed child-abusers convinced themselves they were not doing anything wrong, so were “very unlikely to confess to it as a sin”.