The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has produced a devastating report on the failure of the Archdiocese of Birmingham to protect children under its care. And despite numerous opportunities to put its house in order, serious deficiencies are still ongoing – children may still be at risk.
This raises questions about the fitness for office of the two most recent Archbishops of Birmingham, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, now Archbishop of Westminster, and his successor, Bernard Longley, still in post. There is no more serious obligation on their shoulders than to prevent harm to children by their own priests. Both have acknowledged their failings and apologised unreservedly. They still need to be called to account. The Pope should demand a full explanation from them, if the Vatican is to show that it is serious about investigating prelates who fail in their child safeguarding duties. All options should be open.
But the blame for the failings in protecting children from abuse is not wholly theirs. The Vatican has signally failed to supervise and correct them in the past, so it has ground to make up. While the autonomy of individual bishops may be an important demonstration of subsidiarity, solidarity with the victims and their families demands a far greater willingness to inspect and intervene. It should not need a government inquiry like IICSA to tell the Catholic Church it was failing at its own job. That in itself is a scandal.
The IICSA report will cause further damage to confidence in the Catholic Church’s commitment to child protection, already not very high. And an alarming question lingers behind all this: is it just the Archdiocese of Birmingham? What deficiencies will be uncovered when IICSA expands its net to include more dioceses in England and Wales?
The report, scrupulous in its attention to detail, examined a series of cases from the mid 1930s up to the turn of the century where members of the clergy were accused of abuse, and concluded: “Historically, the Archdiocese repeatedly failed to alert the police when an allegation of child sexual abuse was made. The default position was to take no action or to move the priest to another parish. Occasionally the perpetrator was sent for treatment but typically he returned to parochial life and was not subject to further supervision. The consequence of these failings cannot be overstated.”
The report makes a clear distinction between what happened prior to the publication of the Nolan Report, commissioned by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor and published in 2001, and afterwards. The pre-Nolan failings which the report identified were gross, and many children, now adults, suffered greatly and are suffering still. As a result of numerous sensational court cases and media reporting over the years this lamentable situation in Birmingham archdiocese – which stretches over a large area of central England from Stoke to Oxford – is now well known. Primary responsibility lies with the late Maurice Couve de Murville, archbishop between 1982 and 1999. It is clear that he was unqualified for the job, incompetent and out of his depth – and ill-served by a vicar general, Monsignor Daniel Leonard, whose egregious behaviour was quite shocking.
But what happened next is in some ways more worrying, as the failings are more subtle and out of sight. When he succeeded Couve de Murville in 2000, Archbishop Nichols, as he then was, was tasked with clearing up the mess. Though he accepted the principles laid down in the Nolan Report, and indeed became a key player in their implementation nationally, the result was an improved but still inadequate child protection regime. The archdiocese, says IICSA, was unwilling “to embrace fully the new culture of child protection advocated by the Nolan report”. It was repeatedly audited by the national safeguarding body in the Catholic Church in England and Wales, then called the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults (COPCA), and repeatedly found wanting. This continued after Archbishop Nichols moved to Westminster and was replaced by Archbishop Longley in 2009. Some of the deficiencies still existed in 2018.
Good professional safeguarding practice demands careful case management, meticulous and well organised record-keeping, effective supervision and leadership, adequate staffing and finance, and good liaison and cooperation with relevant agencies such as the police and social services as well as with national coordinating bodies such as COPCA and its successor body. There were long-running difficulties between the Birmingham child protection regime and COPCA and its successor, marred by “mistrust and a poor working relationship”. Archbishop Nichols should have sorted them out, says IICSA.
It is important to emphasise that these failings were of a different kind to those that occurred under Couve de Murville. It is a relief to read that IICSA did not identify a single case, post-Nolan, where police had not been notified of an allegation of child abuse against a priest. IICSA did not find any instance of a priest being moved to escape detection; nor was there any institutional cover-up. But failings in administration were many and various. The likelihood remained that abusive priests were slipping through the cracks because warning signs were not properly picked up, recorded or cross-referenced. The point of external auditing of safeguarding procedures is to identify and fill those gaps. The auditing happened – COPCA was diligent in trying to hold Birmingham to account – but the gaps remained.
In one of its more eye-catching remarks, IICSA refers to the way the Church often appeared to put protecting its reputation above the interests of children. This was true pre-Nolan, and it was the impression given by Archbishop Nichols in a press release in 2003. Archbishop Longley has admitted that this tendency is real. But every institution – whether government departments, big corporations, academic bodies, media outlets – protects its reputation, and is tempted to turn a blind eye to misconduct that might damage it. And given human nature, management failures and misconduct are inevitable. So constant external monitoring is vital, with vigilance, independent complaints procedures, and mechanisms to encourage and protect whistle-blowers. The idea that the Catholic Church can police itself is dead. This IICSA report buries it.