Devastating impact of clerical sex abuse in the Catholic church 

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By Catherine Pepinster

Catholic bishops of England and Wales have said that they recognise the damage done to their church by the clerical abuse scandal and the concerns about power in the church.

Commenting on the results of a consultation among all church members, the bishops acknowledge “the devastating impact of clerical sexual abuse on survivors and within the wider church”.

The consultation was part of a global “synodical process”, testing the mind of the whole church on challenges and concerns, and has been written up as the National Synthesis for England and Wales, going forward with other countries’ reports to be discussed by a synod of bishops in Rome next year.

Its publication coincided with a report from the children’s charity, Barnardo’s, on the case of Fr Bernard Quigley, who was jailed last year for abuse only after a victim had contacted the police. It is a devastating account of how abuse was handled in the Archdiocese of Birmingham over 30 years.  

The Quigley conviction was one of hundreds of cases of sex abuse committed by priests, monks and volunteers over the past 50 years, which were considered by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

The National Synthesis report describes the crisis of faith that many Catholics have endured, with many ashamed of their faith because of the many scandals involving priests sexually abusing children and adolescents.

It reports that the abuse crisis is blamed by many Catholics for others leaving the church and is an issue “constantly raised by non-Catholics who see it as proof of failure of the church to live up to what Christ has called us to be”.

The Synthesis also said that “shame and anger over the crisis also led many Catholics to keep their faith private”, and that “students felt that people were now scared to attend Mass and be labelled Catholic because of all the adverse publicity around abuse in the Catholic Church”.

This week, the bishops launched their reflection with Canon Christopher Thomas, general secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, admitting that “the report showed that the church has not supported people well. Lots of people says this was why others left the church.”

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, said studying the national synthesis had been “quite a formidable process” and the bishops had to “pay attention” to what people were saying.

The report included testimony of people who described themselves as marginalised and disempowered because of the church. They included survivors of abuse, women, LGBQT+ people, and the divorced and remarried.

Cardinal Nichols spoke of the need to develop the skill of accompaniment. “We wish to be able to find ways in which nobody walks alone and in which everybody has the capacity to accompany on this journey of faith,” he said.

But the Barnardo’s report into the Archdiocese of Birmingham, and its handling of the Quigley case, highlighted that victims did feel alone and unaccompanied by the church.

The report, commissioned by Birmingham’s Archbishop Bernard Longley after Quigley was jailed, said  that complaints about Quigley’s inappropriate behaviour towards pupils where he was a chaplain in 1990, were buried.

It highlights the roles of Archbishop Longley and his predecessor in the West Midlands, Cardinal Nichols, who left to be Archbishop of Westminster in 2009.

It says that when a victim came forward to make a complaint about Quigley in 2008, Archbishop Nichols sent him for therapy, including a stint in America, and did not immediately call in the police. It says Quigley was abusing another boy at that time and was investigated only when that victim contacted the police after receiving counselling 10 years later.

When Quigley was supposed to be restricted in his ministerial duties, he still had access to children because others were not informed of the risks.

Archbishop Longley has apologised to victims and said that he fully accepted the review. “Looking at the review, it’s clear that those things would not have happened in this way today,” he added. “Going to the police and the statutory authorities is a natural and regular part of how we respond to safeguarding issues that are brought to us.

“Our professional safeguarding team has expanded and has overseen considerable changes in how we do things today and how we are held responsible.”

The Barnardo’s review highlights the chaos of paperwork at Birmingham archdiocese that allowed Quigley’s crimes to escape notice and the way it failed to adhere to the Catholic church’s national safeguarding policies.

Archbishop Longley says it now has a full IT system in place, it has professionalised its safeguarding and employed more staff, and will always consult the local authority, as advised by Barnardo’s, when accusations are made.

Survivors of abuse and their lawyers have long advocated mandatory reporting of abuse accusations to the police, something that Archbishop Longley says is “consonant” with his diocese’s policies.


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