20 June 2019, The Tablet

Church 'sealed the fate' of abuse victims by seeking to protect its reputation first, report finds

Church 'sealed the fate' of abuse victims by seeking to protect its reputation first, report finds

IICSA panel and chair Professor Alexis Jay

The Church chose to protect its own reputation instead of saving children from sex abuse by priests, and is still falling short in its child safeguarding, a long-running investigation into child sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Birmingham has concluded.

The report by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse [IICSA], which was released today, detailed the “shocking scale” of abuse in the Archdiocese and concluded that “children could have been saved from abuse if the Church has not been so determined to protect its own reputation above all else”.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who was Archbishop of Birmingham between 2000 and 2009, was singled out for criticism. IICSA found that “he focused too much on the reputation of the church during his tenure, rather than the welfare of children and the impacts of child sexual abuse on victims and survivors.”

Over 130 allegations of sexual abuse have been made against 78 individuals associated with the Archdiocese since the mid 1930s. Thirteen people have been convicted of some of the most serious offences against children, while a further three have been cautioned. Because many of the 78 individuals are no longer alive the allegations cannot be fully investigated.

IICSA's chair, Professor Alexis Jay, said today: “I am truly shocked by the scale of child abuse within the Archdiocese of Birmingham. The number of perpetrators and abused children is likely to be far higher than the figures suggest.

Victims and survivors’ allegations were mostly ignored for years, while perpetrators avoided persecution. It is clear the church could have stopped children being abused if it had not been so determined to protect its own reputation. We hope this report will help to ensure that never happens again.”

The investigation has been examining the Archdiocese’s response to abuse across four cases: those of John Tolkien, James Robinson, Samuel Penney and an anonymous priest known as RC-F167. This enabled IICSA to examine cases where the perpetrators had been convicted before the criminal courts, and where there had been no formal findings. It also covered the period before and after the 2001 Nolan report, a milestone report into abuse within the Catholic Church, to examine how the Church improved safeguarding in the wake of its findings.

The report found that in a number of cases priests were moved from parish to parish within the Archdiocese after allegations were made. Abuse could have been stopped earlier if the Archdiocese had not been “driven by a determination to protect the reputation of the Church,” the report found. “In doing so it sealed the fate of many victims whose trust was placed in these abusers. The plight of victims was ignored or swept under the carpet, allowing the perpetrators to carry on abusing, often for many years.”

James Robinson, whom the report described as a “serial child abuser”, “was simply moved to a different parish when allegations were first made, before later being helped to flee to the US and avoid persecution for 25 years.” In his case “the Archdiocese’s responses were characterised by failures to act”, the report found.

While the report found that Archbishop Nichols tried to trace Robinson to assist with police inquiries, it also strongly condemned his subsequent criticisms of a BBC documentary, “Kenyon Confronts: Secrets and Confessions”, released into 2003, that focused on Robinson’s abuse.

Following its broadcast Cardinal Nichols issued a press release that criticised the BBC for airing the episode on the eve of the silver jubilee of Pope John Paul II. He said that this decision "confirmed the suspicions of many" that the BBC was biased against the Catholic Church.

“This response was misplaced and missed the point,” the report said. “The focus should have been on recognising the harm caused to the complainants and the victims. Instead the Archbishop’s reaction led many to think that the Church was still more concerned with protecting itself than the protection of children”.

The report said that there had been “improvements” in the way the Archdiocese of Birmingham handled allegations since the Nolan report, but said that a 2018 review into its own safeguarding arrangements found “the current safeguarding team was not adequately supervised and was critical of the recording systems”.

IICSA said that “despite the passage of time since the publication of the Nolan report - some 17 years had elapsed - there are still significant gaps in the Archdiocese’s child safeguarding arrangements.”

In a statement the Archdiocese of Birmingham said: “We accept that we have failed victims and survivors of abuse and again apologise for the grievous failings we have made in the past. Apologies are just words though, if not backed up by action.

We will the take the time needed to review the IICSA report thoroughly in order to make a considered and detailed response, which will inform our ongoing commitment to do more and do better.

In light of independent reviews commissioned by Trustees and made available to IICSA, the Archdiocese has already fundamentally changed its practices and processes to ensure an open and compassionate approach to victims and survivors. It now has more safeguarding personnel, better management and recording systems, stronger DBS/checking procedures and clear policies and practices on safeguarding referrals and agreements, to safeguard those who come in contact with the church.”

Peter Saunders, founder of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC) told The Telegraph following the publication of the report said that the most concerning section of the report was regarding the inadequate state of safeguarding in the Archdiocese today.

“They have to get their act together,” he said. “Children are inherently unsafe in that place. That’s the thing that strikes terror into my heart.

“This is 2019 - I was abused 50 years ago and children are still in danger today. That can’t be allowed.”

Mr Saunders added that Cardinal Nichols "joins the long list of senior clerics who have history of failing to tackle issues and a "preponderance" to put the reputation of the Church above anything else, and that includes the safety of children". 

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