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IICSA: Archdiocese favoured reputation over victims

20 June 2019


Cardinal Vincent Nichols, former RC Archbishop of Birmingham, outside the IICSA inquiry last December

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, former RC Archbishop of Birmingham, outside the IICSA inquiry last December

CLERGY child abusers were able to carry on offending because the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham was obsessed with defending its own reputation, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has found.

Paedophile priests could have been stopped, and children protected from lifelong harm, the inquiry states in its report published on Thursday; but instead, the archdiocese was “driven by a determination to protect the reputation of the Church. . .

“In doing so, it sealed the fate of many victims whose trust was placed in these abusers. The plight of victims was ignored or swept under the carpet, allowing the perpetrators to carry on abusing, often for many years.”

The conclusions are particularly uncomfortable for the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols. Before he took up his present post as head of the English RC Church, he was Archbishop of Birmingham, and is criticised several times throughout the report.

IICSA examined four case studies of priests who were either convicted or accused of abusing children, including John Tolkien, son of the author of The Lord of the Rings.

On multiple occasions, when accusations were made against a priest, the archdiocese simply moved them to new parishes, and made little effort to investigate the claims.

Even more troubling, the IICSA report details how a senior archdiocesan official, Mgr Daniel Leonard, actively helped one paedophile priest — Samuel Penney — to evade capture by fleeing the UK after repeated accusations were made against him.

Penney was eventually caught and jailed in 1993 for sexually abusing seven children in his parish from the late 1960s to the early 1990s.

In a separate case, the archdiocese moved James Robinson, described as a “serial child abuser”, from parish to parish as complaints were made, never once warning anyone of the risks he poses to children, or informing the police.

Eventually, Robinson fled to the United States to avoid arrest. The IICSA report records that Mgr Leonard then deliberately misled the US Roman Catholic Church into thinking Robinson was simply the victim of false charges, and not an abuser.

It is in connection with Robinson’s case that Cardinal Nichols’s conduct is most directly criticised. In 2003, the BBC broadcast a documentary about the case after tracking down Robinson to a caravan park in California.

Cardinal Nichols, the then-Archbishop of Birmingham, released a statement at the time attacking the BBC for being overly hostile to the RC Church.

“[Cardinal Nichols] now recognises that he failed to give sufficient attention to the fact the programme gave a platform to those who had been abused,” the IICSA report concludes.

“The effect of the press release, and subsequent publicity, was to defend the reputation of the Church rather than fully acknowledge the possibility of its shortcomings.”

The archdiocese continued to support Robinson financially for seven more years after he fled justice in Britain. He was finally extradited back to the UK in 2009, and is currently serving a 21-year prison sentence.

IICSA concluded that the archdiocese had repeatedly committed such grave institutional failings that it “permitted the sexual abuse of children to continue when it might otherwise have been stopped”.

There have been at least 130 allegations of child abuse made against 78 individuals in the archdiocese since the 1930s. The 16 cases which have actually made it to trial involved 53 victims, and the IICSA report suggests that the true numbers are much higher.

Professor Alexis Jay, the chair of the inquiry, said: “It is clear that the Church could have stopped children being abused if it had not been so determined to protect its own reputation. We hope this report will help ensure that never happens again.”

In a statement, the archdiocese said: “We accept that we have failed victims and survivors of abuse and again apologise for the grievous failings we have made in the past.

“Apologies are just words, though, if not backed up by action. We will the take the time needed to review the IICSA report thoroughly, in order to make a considered and detailed response, which will inform our ongoing commitment to do more and do better.”

When asked to comment, Cardinals Nichols said that he had addressed all the points made in the report during his own witness statement to IICSA last year (News, 21 December 2018).

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