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IICSA report: RC Church ‘swept child abuse under the carpet’

10 November 2020

Cardinal Nichols in firing line over child sexual abuse


Cardinal Nichols at an IICSA hearing in 2019

Cardinal Nichols at an IICSA hearing in 2019

THE Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, has been castigated by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) for failing to show compassion towards victims or take responsibility for safeguarding failures.

At times, Cardinal Nichols — the most senior Roman Catholic in England and Wales — instead chose to protect the reputation of the institutional Church rather than exercise the leadership required, the inquiry has concluded.

“His acknowledgement that ‘there is plenty for us to achieve’ applies as much to him as it does to everyone else in the Church,” the report states.

Besides criticising the Cardinal, IICSA’s report, published on Tuesday, is an indictment of the entire institution, accusing the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales of “betraying” its moral purpose by turning a blind eye to dozens of abusers over many decades.

“Responses to disclosures about sexual abuse have been characterised by a failure to support victims and survivors, in stark contrast to the positive action taken to protect alleged perpetrators and the reputation of the Church.

Child sexual abuse was swept under the carpet. Resistance to external intervention was widespread.”

Failure to take decisive action when allegations of abuse were made certainly led to more children suffering, as priests, religious, and others were simply allowed to continue preying on the vulnerable, the inquiry states.

In the nearly 50 years of history examined by IICSA over 12 hearings, there were at least 931 complaints made, involving 3000 separate instances of child sexual abuse in Roman Catholic parishes, schools, and religious communities. Since 2016, allegations have risen to more than 100 a year.

These, which are expected to be a significant under-estimate owing to the lack of records and under-reporting, have led to 177 prosecutions and 133 convictions.

“Real and lasting changes to attitudes have some way to go if the Roman Catholic Church is to shake off the failures of the past,” the report concludes. “As a senior leader and the figurehead for the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Catholics look to Cardinal Nichols to lead by example. It is difficult to exercise good leadership if you engage in bad practice.”

Cardinal Nichols is criticised further in two specific, more recent, cases. In one, the alleged victim of abuse and rape by a priest spent years battling with the diocese of Westminster over the handling of her complaint.

Internal emails published by IICSA reveal that safeguarding staff called her “needy” and “manipulative”. Cardinal Nichols failed to raise this inappropriate language with his staff, and also refused to meet with the survivor until her case was highlighted by a media coverage.

“Over the best part of two-and-a-half years, I came face to face with the Church at its most defensive and protective of its own,” she told the Inquiry.

In another case, sensitive information about an alleged victim who had accused Cardinal Nichols’s predecessor as Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, was leaked to online news websites in the United States.

Instead of focusing on the devastating impact that the leak, which remains unsolved, had on the survivor, Cardinal Nichols’s emphasis was on safeguarding the position of Pope Francis, who was the target of the online stories.

The Cardinal attempted to prevent any press coverage, and initially declined to apologise to the victim about the leak, “out of his misplaced desire to give priority to the protection of the reputation of the Church, the Pope, and Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor”, the IICSA report concludes.

The 162-page report catalogues horrifying stories by survivors. It tells of a priest who assaulted a 17-year-old girl in a wheelchair who had already experienced abuse in childhood; and of a trainee cleric who raped a young boy in his own home.

A junior teacher at a RC school touched one pupil’s genitals during reading lessons, while a monk forced a teenage girl to strip naked during private counselling sessions so that he could abuse her. A senior priest who abused a child hundreds of times, forced the child to confess after each occasion, causing further trauma.

The devastating impact of such abuse is laid bare. Survivors have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as battling addiction, self-harm, low self-esteem, and nervous breakdowns, some of which required hospital admission.

Others are quoted saying how their experiences left them feeling guilty and depressed, confused at how supposedly holy men of God could do such things. Trust in God was destroyed, and even marriages broken by memories of abuse. One survivor recounted several attempts at suicide.

The abbeys in Ampleforth, Downside, and Ealing and their associated schools come in for particular criticism. On multiple occasions, reports from children about abuse at the hands of monks and teachers were brushed under the carpet.

At Ampleforth, in particular, IICSA reports with incredulity that some abusers did not even attempt to hide their sexual interest in children, given the “culture of acceptance” which turned a blind eye to the “fondling of children, and instances of mutual and group masturbation both indoors and outdoors”.

Suspected perpetrators were often moved on to other parishes or schools. The police or secular safeguarding authorities were rarely notified.

The report also includes strong criticism for the Vatican, noting several times that the Apostolic Nuncio — the Pope’s representative in England — failed to co-operate properly with the inquiry, offering very limited information, and refusing to give a witness statement.

IICSA also condemns the delays in communicating with departments in Rome, including over the laicising convicted priests, even after a request from English dioceses.

The report urges the Vatican to rewrite its canon law, which currently characterises sexual abuse of children as a form of breaking the sixth commandment. “Describing child sexual abuse as the canonical crime of ‘adultery’ is wrong, and minimises the criminal nature of abuse inflicted on child victims.”

Another recurring theme was how slowly the RC Church in England and Wales moved towards reform. IICSA notes how one recommendation from a safeguarding review in 2007 was implemented only in July this year.

Although some progress has been made in the past two decades — safeguarding commissions are now established in every diocese — the Church has not yet engaged every “heart and mind” when it comes to child protection, the report concludes. Even where good policies exist, they are often difficult to understand and sometimes weakly implemented.

“While there have undoubtedly been improvements in the Church’s response to child sexual abuse, based on the evidence we heard, Church leaders need to do more to encourage and embed a culture of safeguarding throughout the entire Catholic Church in England and Wales,” the report states.

Among its other formal recommendations are for the Bishops’ Conference to appoint a cleric to lead on safeguarding affairs; mandatory training for all who work with children; and for the Church to establish rules and sanctions for those who do not comply with existing safeguarding policies.

In its response, the Bishops’ Conference said that it welcomed the report, and said that listening to the testimony from victims and survivors during the hearings had “brought into sharp relief the extent of the damage this sexual abuse has had on their lives. . .

“Abuse is an evil act against the most vulnerable; it must never be excused or covered up. We apologise to all victims and survivors who have not been properly listened to, or properly supported by us,” the statement said.

The Church’s safeguarding procedures needed constant improvement, and would be the subject of a meeting next week, where the bishops would begin to “integrate the findings of this important inquiry into the life and work of the Church in order to consistently safeguard children and the vulnerable”.

To read the report in full, visit: iicsa.org.uk/publications/investigation/roman-catholic-church.

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