CARDINAL Vincent Nichols said plenty of the right things when he was confronted by the report into the Roman Catholic Church by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) (News, 13 November). He was shocked, ashamed, deeply sorry, and grateful for the report from which he and his fellow bishops would learn lessons. The problem was that he also said some wrong things.
He said the right things about the accusations that the Church had betrayed its moral purpose by sheltering more than 900 individuals involved in 3000 instances of child sexual abuse over five decades. But he said nothing about the accusations against him personally: that he “demonstrated a lack of understanding of the impact” on abuse on the victims, “seemingly put the reputation of the church first”, and demonstrated “no acknowledgement of any personal responsibility to lead or influence change”.
And, when he was asked whether he was going to resign, he said the wrong thing by replying: “I was 75 very recently. A few weeks ago, as according to the law of the Church, I sent my resignation into Pope Francis and I have received a very unequivocal reply, and that is that he tells me to stay in office here. So that is what I will do, that is where my orders come from. I’m staying.” He went on: “I do what I’m told. The Holy Father put me here and he tells me to stay here — that’s enough for me.”
This was an institutional defence. It does not refer to his conscience, to the gospel, or to God, but, rather, his line manager, the Pope. He still does not appear to be taking any responsibility himself. It was, critics suggested, like saying “I was only obeying orders.”
There is a significant faction in the higher reaches of the English Church which has long thought that it would not get a fair hearing at IICSA. The Church has come a long way since it commissioned the Nolan report in 2001 from the first chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Six years later, the Cumberlege report found that 79 of Lord Nolan’s 83 recommendations had been at least partially addressed. But IICSA was hunting for scapegoats, some bishops felt.
In fact, the IICSA report acknowledges that “the changes brought about by Nolan and Cumberlege resulted in improvements over the years”, but it noted slower progress in other areas. The Church’s first director of child protection complained of “some resistance to the changes by bishops and religious institutes”. And one member of the Pope’s Commission for the Protection of Minors resigned, referring to “unacceptable resistance to the commission’s proposals from the Vatican’s doctrine office”. All this is not just historic: since 2016, there have been more than 100 reported allegations each year.
Moreover, the report praises the Archbishop of Birmingham, the Most Revd Bernard Longley, as “a positive example of leadership”, even as it criticises other senior churchmen for “weaknesses in leadership [which] were significant in the failures to address child sexual abuse”. It refers to delay, failure to hold individuals to account, and “a grudging and unsympathetic attitude to victims”. The Cardinal handled some victims with a lack of care and compassion, was deficient in sympathy let alone empathy, and “did not always exercise the leadership expected of a senior member of the Church”.
IICSA insiders suggested that the Cardinal’s responses to the inquiry were bare, defensive, and even arrogant. If he went to IICSA convinced that he would not get a fair hearing, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That said, it was clear that IICSA does not fully comprehend how the Church works. It criticised the Papal Nuncio (the Vatican ambassador to the UK) for declining to give evidence, saying that Rome’s “lack of cooperation passes understanding”. That would only be so for those who mistakenly assume the Catholic Church to be structured like an army or a multinational business. In fact, its provinces and dioceses have far more autonomy; they are governed by a culture rather than a direct chain of command. The Nuncio has no direct part in English church governance.
The Nuncio’s key job is to select a successor to Archbishop Nichols, and, if he is perceptive, he will have learned a lesson from this sorry business. The next leader of the Catholic Church here needs to be someone capable of bridging the gap between the Church and society, who has credibility in the Church, but also among victims of clerical abuse, someone who can speak a different language and embody a different approach. It’s no small task.