Civil and Church authorities investigated abuse allegations against Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor on three occasions, and each time they found them lacking in credibility.
The cardinal, who served as Archbishop of Westminster from 2000-2009 and died last year, was accused by a woman of abuse when she was 13 or 14 years old in the 1960s. In a letter released this week, Archbishop Carlo Viganò alleged that Pope Francis quashed an inquiry into the claims.
But the allegations against Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, first lodged in 2009 or 2010, were referred by the Church authorities to the UK police, who decided not to pursue the matter. A source connected to the Kent Police investigation told the Catholic Herald that they had “thoroughly” investigated the claims.
The allegations were then referred to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Church body that handles internal canonical investigations of priests accused of abuse.
The Tablet can report that in June 2011 a letter was sent to the Archdiocese of Westminster by Cardinal William Levada, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith serving under Benedict XVI, who ruled there was no case to answer.
Two years later Archbishop Vincent Nichols initiated a review of abuse cases in his archdiocese. That process found an “administrative gap” in the bureaucracy around the initial handling of the claim and Archbishop, now Cardinal, Nichols referred the case once again to the doctrine congregation.
By this time Pope Francis had been elected, and the dicastery was led by Cardinal Gerhard Müller. After receiving details of the case, the cardinal came to the same conclusion as his predecessor.
The details that the claims against Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor were investigated under Benedict XVI’s papacy in 2011 call into question Archbishop Viganò’s claim that this Pope quashed an inquiry into the allegations.
The archbishop, a former papal ambassador to Washington, released an explosive dossier on 26 August calling on the 81-year-old Pontiff to resign for his handling of allegations that Archbishop Theodore McCarrick abused seminarians. In a 27 September letter, Archbishop Viganò stepped up the pressure claiming the Pope “has defended homosexual clergy who committed serious sexual abuses against minors or adults,” including a “halting of the investigation of sex abuse allegations against Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor.”
But the information about the 2011 letter from Cardinal Levada corresponds with The Tablet's investigation into the matter several years ago. At that time a senior Church figure stressed claims made against Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor had been investigated through the normal channels and had been found lacking in credibility.
So far, the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales is offering no comment on the Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor case. It is common practice for the Church not to make public statements about abuse cases out of a duty of care for all those making allegations, regardless of the veracity of the claims.
The Church in England and Wales’ child protection policies, considered to be among the most robust in global Catholicism, arose out of an independent review conducted in 2001 by Lord Nolan and recommendations in a report compiled by Baroness Cumberlege in 2007. A 2016 policy statement from the National Catholic Safeguarding commission makes clear that “Church authorities always report allegations of abuse to the statutory agencies to ensure that they are dealt with promptly and properly.”
After an allegation is lodged, the Church ordinarily uses the police inquiry for the substantive part of their investigation into an abuse claim, and following that outcome take the next steps in the canonical process for assessing the allegation.
This includes a review panel to examine allegations and undertake a risk assessment of the accused, who is in many cases withdrawn from ministry throughout this process.
Some media reports have quoted anonymous sources saying that Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, who was retired by the time of the allegations were lodged, should have been removed from public ministry and an independent Church investigation conducted.
But according to the guidelines set out in the 2007 Cumberlege report “the management of an allegation of abuse and whether or not a priest or religious is temporarily removed from active ministry (or an employee or volunteer is suspended from his duties) depends entirely on the nature and seriousness of the allegation and the situation of the alleged offender at the time the allegation is made.”
It also states that this decision “remains that of the Bishop or Congregational Leader” and recommends that bishops “apply the civil standard of proof” in an “internal investigation and determination of any matter relating to the abuse of children and vulnerable adults.”
This means that an assessment of allegations made against priests needs to be made, as it runs the risk that any clergy or church worker could be removed from ministry or a job as the result of false claims.
The Cumberlege report also makes clear that as a general principle those accused of abuse are treated with "respect and in a consistent manner in accordance with nationally agreed procedures, natural justice, and Canon Law.”
On Monday, during a pilgrimage to Rome to meet with Pope Francis and Vatican officials, the English and Welsh bishops announced another independent review of all procedures handling child protection and abuse allegations.
“We have decided to ask the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission to commission an entirely independent and comprehensive review of the safeguarding structures that currently operate within the Catholic Church in England and Wales,” said the bishops in a statement.“Importantly, we will seek to ensure that the voices of the victims and survivors of abuse, through the Survivors Advisory Panel established by the NCSC, fully inform the review and its recommendations.”