Catholic leader Vincent Nichols put church ahead of sex abuse victims, inquiry rules

Image credit: Catholic church

By Catherine Pepinster

Vulnerable victims of child sexual abuse were repeatedly failed by Roman Catholic bishops who put the reputation of their church first, a damning report said today.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) reports that hundreds of children were abused over 50 years by priests and members of religious orders. But there was a lack of concern about their plight, with senior figures in the church often turning a blind eye and failing to take action against the perpetrators.

Professor Alexis Jay, who chaired the inquiry, said: “The church’s reputation was valued above the value of the victims with allegations ignored and perpetrators protected.”

There was even harsher criticism from the survivors’ organisation, the Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors (Macsas), which said: “The Catholic church has clearly demonstrated that it cannot be trusted to ‘mark its own homework’ and there must be independent oversight of safeguarding in such institutions.”

The inquiry report, which refers to “appalling abuse” and the church’s moral purpose being betrayed, was particularly damning in its criticism of Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic leader in England and Wales.

The inquiry’s board heard evidence of the cardinal’s time as Archbishop of Birmingham, from 2000 to 2009, and as Archbishop of Westminster, since 2009, and the way in which survivors of historic abuse and more recent victims were treated, as well as the two dioceses’ safeguarding procedure.

Survivors told the inquiry that the cardinal lacked understanding of the impact of abuse on them and of problems with safeguarding in his dioceses.

The report said: “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’s acknowledgment that “there is much more we have to achieve” applies as much to him and other senior leaders as it does to the rest of the Catholic church.

“He did not always exercise the leadership expected of a senior member of the church, at times preferring to protect the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales and in Rome.”

During the hearing Cardinal Nichols said he had met several victims but those who gave evidence to the inquiry said he was reluctant to speak to them. In a statement he issued today in his role as president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, and co-written with the vice-president, Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool, he wrote: “We apologise to all victims and survivors who have not been properly listened to, or properly supported by us.

“By listening with humility to those who have suffered, we can contribute to the healing of the wounds of abuse, as well as learn from those most directly affected how we must improve the church’s safeguarding standards, policies and procedures.”

However, Richard Scorer, of Slater and Gordon solicitors, who represented 32 survivors during the IICSA hearings, said this week that the apology was not good enough and that Cardinal Nichols should resign.

“Cardinal Nichols needs to go right away — in any other walk of life he would be gone immediately. This is a church that cannot be trusted to protect children.

“The only way forward now is a mandatory reporting law, so that abuse cannot be covered up, and independent external oversight of church safeguarding. The church cannot be relied on to put its own house in order, and so without these changes, children will continue to be at risk.” 

On Monday, the day before the report was published, Cardinal Nichols issued a statement in which he said he had tendered his resignation to the Pope, as was the custom for an archbishop on reaching his 75th birthday — which was on Sunday — and Pope Francis had asked him to carry on for the time being.

The 147-page IICSA report said that between 1970 and 2015, the Catholic church in England and Wales received more than 900 complaints involving 3,000 sexual abuse incidents but it believed the scale of abuse in the past 50 years was much higher. It also noted that there had been more than 100 allegations of abuse reported every year since.

It heard from survivors of abuse that abuse ranged from touching to rape and was sometimes accompanied by sadistic beatings. The abuse was swept under the carpet, said the report, with a lack of action against the perpetrators and often efforts to cover up their crimes.

During its hearings, the inquiry focused on three case studies: the dioceses of Westminster and Birmingham and the Benedictine religious order. It heard that priests and monks who were known abusers were not reported to the police but sometimes moved around the country and would abuse other children in their new locations.

Most of the abusers in the dioceses were parish priests who gained access to children through their pastoral work, while the abuser monks were able to target children attending three schools run by the order in Ealing, west London, Downside, Somerset, and Ampleforth in North Yorkshire.

The report acknowledged efforts by the church in England and Wales to reform child protection, with inquiries headed by Lord Nolan in 2001 and Baroness Cumberlege in 2007, and improvements made such as more formal handling of reports of abuse, better training for the clergy and religious and those involved in safeguarding.

There was more co-operation with authorities such as the police and social services. But the progress was far too slow with one of the Cumberlege reforms 13 years overdue and efforts to set up the Safe Spaces pastoral and therapeutic support project jointly with the Anglicans taking six years.

In the Nolan Report, the paramountcy principle making children’s welfare the priority was first mentioned but the report found that it was still not being enacted. Efforts to have a “one church” approach across England and Wales, first mooted by Nolan in 2001, so that all the dioceses of England and Wales would have the same safeguarding requirements and procedures, was still not fully implemented, IICSA said.

Although the report’s chief focus is England and Wales, it is also critical of the Holy See, especially the failure of the apostolic nuncio — effectively, the Pope’s ambassador to the UK — to provide a witness statement to the inquiry. In May, 2019, Pope Francis said there needed to be action, not just words on child sexual abuse, but this was “in direct contrast to the limited information the Holy See provided to the inquiry”, the report said. 

The IICSA report makes seven recommendations although it is leaving its comments on mandatory reporting to its final report on child sexual abuse, which will examine the problem across society. It urges mandatory safeguarding training, a lead cleric on safeguarding, policies on non-compliance on safeguarding, external auditing of safeguarding, national complaints policy, a review of the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service, a national policy for complaints, and a revision to canon law on crimes against the child.

The sex abuse scandal is mirrored across the world with similar incidents of attacks on children, adolescents and young men training for the priesthood, and cover-up by senior clergy found in Ireland, Australia and the United States.

Today the Vatican published a report into the American cardinal Theodore McCarrick. It examined how, despite years of rumours of his sexual misconduct with seminarians, he was able to climb the episcopal ladder to the top of the Catholic church. The investigation began after not only allegations about McCarrick , who retired in 2006, but also after claims — not proven — that Pope Francis did nothing about his behaviour.