Books > Betrayed: the English Catholic Church and the sex abuse crisis

08 May 2014 | by Richard Scorer

Betrayed: the English Catholic Church and the sex abuse crisis

Reviewed by Eileen Shearer
BITEBACK, 352pp, £20
Tablet bookshop price £18                   
Tel 01420 592974

Richard Scorer’s account of the sexual-abuse scandals over the past 30 years makes distressing and depressing reading. Scorer is a leading specialist in child-abuse litigation. He has brought together a selection of case histories from the 1960s to the present day that illustrates turning points and recurring themes; however, its analysis of the causes of clerical child sexual abuse is somewhat limited, as is its account of the Church’s developing response to safeguarding vulnerable people.

Although a number of safeguarding officials and some leading figures in the Catholic Church in England and Wales spoke to Scorer off the record (“all were very courteous and helpful”, he says) those currently charged with safeguarding – the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service (CSAS) and the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission (NCSC) – did not speak to him, on legal advice, Scorer believes. If this is true, it’s a shame. It risks perpetuating the perception that the Church in England and Wales continues to cover up abuse, and makes it less likely that the real progress that has been made in some areas in recent years will be recognised.

Despite Scorer’s evident desire to give credit where it is due to church leaders (notably to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor and Cardinal Vincent Nichols), he concludes that the only substantial achievement of the past decade and a half is that cases are now reported to the police. This is far from the whole story. Even a cursory review of the CSAS and NCSC websites shows that safeguarding policies and procedures that accord with best practice are now in place, and give the most detailed information about allegations of abuse and their outcomes available. Scorer’s focus lies in past decades. The work of the NCSC and CSAS since 2008 is barely touched on. Strangely, the first chairman of the NCSC, Bill Kilgallon, a fiercely inde­pendent and principled authority on the safeguarding of children, is not mentioned.

Scorer discusses the causes of abuse. He rightly dismisses as red herrings theories that clerical celibacy or gay priests lie at the root of the problem. Persuasively, he suggests it was a culture of clericalism, an assumption that priests are an exclusive brotherhood, that led church leaders to protect and even on occasion to collude with offenders. This attitude persists, as Scorer shows in his account of recent cases in some Benedictine communities and the prestigious schools they run.

Scorer neglects theories based on what we know about how child sex offenders actually operate. This relates to an aspect of the Church’s response that Scorer doesn’t acknowledge: the recognition of the absolute importance of creating a safe environment. Sex offenders have been known to be recid­ivists since the early 1980s (contrary to claims by church leaders). They are also skilled manipulators, and persistent in trying to join organisations that give access to children, especially those that take no effective steps to stop offenders. So the unglamorous task of undertaking Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks (formerly CRB checks), and of carefully recruiting, selecting, training and supervising everyone who works with vulnerable groups, is of the utmost importance. These procedures have been in place for many years now, sending a clear deterrent message to potential offenders. From the victim’s point of view, prevention is so much more desirable than prosecution or cure. It is also of course much more easily achievable too.

Scorer’s case that the Church continues to deny and ignore the scandal of child sexual abuse rests strongly on the argument that laicisation is not carried out as often or as publicly as was recommended by the Nolan Report in 2001. Scorer argues that laicisation sends a strong message of validation to victims, who struggle to understand how child sexual abuse can sit alongside priestly status and all that it means. But he dismisses the point made by CSAS that restricted (i.e. non-public) ministry may be a safer option from the point of view of potential victims, because the offender remains the responsibility of the Church and under its authority. It’s not a straightforward issue. The recent experience in Benedictine schools demonstrates that monitoring offenders has to be continuous and rigorous to be safe, and it is sometimes more realistic to accept that an offender cannot be made safe within the Church. Many are laicised (52 lai­cisations were completed between 2001 and the end of 2013). Others are subject to restricted ministry. Equally importantly for the protection of the wider population, all those who meet the legal criteria, laicised or not, must be reported to the DBS to prevent them from working with vulnerable groups outside the Church.

Scorer rightly criticises the Church for the inadequate support it provides for victims. Bishops and their trustees can be reluctant to challenge the insurance companies which ul­timately pay these claims, but contesting compensation claims to the bitter end in court battles does not send a message of care and concern. Providing individual pastoral support has been fraught with difficulty because of insurance and legal issues, despite the existence of appropriate policies (which Scorer incorrectly states were “dumped” prior to the review of Nolan’s reforms undertaken by Baroness Cumberlege in 2007). A current pilot scheme aimed at ensuring a supportive response to all victims from the outset may reduce the number of court cases in future. Court claims for financial compensation have often been borne of victims’ understandable anger in the face of an indefensible Church response, and, as Scorer points out, even successful legal cases do not necessarily bring healing for the victim.

Scorer claims that the Church has ignored the abuse of vulnerable adults. This is untrue; the initial priority of the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults (Copca) – established to implement Nolan’s recommendations, and of which I was appointed the first director in 2001 – had to be the safeguarding of children. But the gap was always acknowledged and policies and procedures now apply with equal force to all vulnerable groups.

The independently chaired NCSC with CSAS audits all safeguarding procedures to make sure they are implemented. This is driving a genuine sea change in the culture of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. So although Scorer acknowledges that safeguarding has improved since the 2001 Nolan report into Clerical child abuse, the Church’s response has moved much further than he recognises. But he is right to point to pockets of resistance and he highlights important issues that have proved intractable. Culture change is a difficult job, but the efforts being made are serious and determined. They must continue until a humane and effective approach to the safeguarding of vulnerable people becomes second nature throughout the Catholic Church in England and Wales.

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