28 October 2019, The Tablet

Vatican response to sex abuse inquiry 'very disappointing'

'...it is difficult to reconcile the Pope’s own words with the Holy See’s response to the requests properly made to it by this inquiry.'

Vatican response to sex abuse inquiry 'very disappointing'

The IICSA and chair, centre, Professor Alexis Jay.

The response of the Vatican to the UK child sex abuse inquiry was condemned as "very disappointing" today.

During the first day of a two-week public hearing into the Roman Catholic Church, the lead counsel to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, Brian Altman QC, set out some of the main issues to be addressed. 

The inquiry will consider recent pronouncements by the Holy See "including the question of mandatory reporting and a consideration about whether this should include breaking the seal of the confessional" as well as how dioceses, religious orders and the Holy See interact.

The hearing will focus upon the institutional response by the Roman Catholic Church to allegations of child sexual abuse and, in particular, the current safeguarding regime and how it might be improved.

This week's hearing follows two case studies, into the Archdiocese of Birmingham and the English Benedictine Congregation.

The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, is expected to give evidence towards the end of the hearings.

Altman noted that, as with many of the institutions being investigated by this Inquiry, the Catholic Church has been beset by allegations of child sexual abuse.

A review conducted by the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service and the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission by Dr Stephen Bullivant, the Bullivant Report, found that in the 46 years from 1970 to 2015, 931 separate complaints of child sexual abuse were made to the Catholic Church in England and Wales. Those 931 complaints covered 3072 instances of alleged abuse made by 1753 individuals against 936 alleged perpetrators. Complaints peaked in 2010. Extracts from the Bullivant report, commissioned in 2013, will be published by IICSA on its website during the hearing. 

Altman also noted that much childhood sexual abuse goes unreported. 

Victims will also give evidence.

One victim, abused when he was aged 12-17 and now in his late 50s, said during the case study hearings: "The impact on me personally has been lifelong with many ramifications. They include persistent anxiety, bouts of anger, loss of sleep and disrupted sleep with nightmares all ongoing.” The sufferings of another were "compounded by the betrayal" of priests he went to for help.

Many victims went on to abuse alcohol and self-harm. Other children were punished for reporting the abuse. One described how within days of reporting that he was being sexually abused to one of the school nuns, he was beaten in front of the whole school in assembly. He said: “This beating made me decide that I would never trust anyone again and that I would have to go through life hurting people before they could hurt me...I did not disclose being sexually abused by RC-F282 to anyone again for 45 years”.

Altman said: "At Ampleforth and Downside Abbeys and their respective schools, the Inquiry heard that a number of allegations of child sexual abuse were never referred to the police and the offenders moved to roles where they still had access to children and, in the case of Nicholas White, for example, went on to abuse another child." At Ealing Abbey, the inquiry heard evidence that child sexual abuse perpetrated against pupils was extensive and facilitated for decades because of a culture of cover-up and denial.

Altman described Cardinal Nichols' actions after the Pope's meeting in Rome, when he wrote to all members of the Bishops’ Conference informing them about what had been discussed, and he also wrote to the Conference of Religious. He said of the meeting: “But in me, and I think in many, something deeper changed. There was a change of mood. There was a change of perspective. And I have tried to put my finger on it. For me what happened was that I began to see what we were talking about from the perspective of the victim/survivor. That is a sobering perspective for us to take.”
Altman told the panel today: "You may wish to consider why, apparently, it was not until February 2019 that Cardinal Nichols 'began to see' what they were talking about from the perspective of the victim/survivor."
He referred to the Pope's Moto Proprio of May this year, when Francis prescribed that clerics and religious must report sexual abuse, and any cover-up, to the appropriate Church authorities, save where to do so would be a breach of the sacramental seal.
Altman said: "The Motu Proprio also prescribes cooperation with state authorities, including adherence to any national reporting obligations and sets out the process for handling allegations made against a bishop or leader of a religious institute," said Altman.
Yet the inquiry made voluntary requests for statements to be provided from the current Apostolic Nuncio, Mgr Edward J. Adams, who is the Holy See's ambassador to the United Kingdom, without success. Requests were also made to the Holy See itself.
Altman said: "Let me make perfectly clear that the inquiry went through established diplomatic channels and all proper procedures, including seeking assistance and advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, despite which no statements have been provided to the inquiry by the Holy See."
He said the Holy See did provide some information relating to the dismissal of Laurence Soper from the clerical state, and the 2011 Apostolic Visitation of Ealing Abbey.
But as a result of the lack of a witness statement, the inquiry still does not know what the Holy See knew, whether any steps were taken after Soper’s disappearance to discover whether he had an account at the Vatican Bank, or whether they had any information that might have assisted in locating him earlier.”
As such, “the inquiry is unable to fully understand and assess the role that the Holy See may have played”, regarding Laurence Soper’s ability to evade justice for a number of years, Altman said.
The inquiry also requested evidence from the Holy See about the process of laicisation. Laicisation is the dismissal of a priest from the priesthood, returning him to the lay state. Priests convicted of child sexual abuse have been laicised, but the process has often taken a number of years. Ealing's Laurence Soper, currently in prison, was dismissed from the Benedictines in January 2012, having absconded in March 2011. After five years "on the run", he was located, tried and convicted in December 2017 of offences involving child sexual abuse. It was not until June this year that he was finally dismissed from the clerical state.
Altman went on: The Holy See’s refusal to provide the inquiry with all the evidence it has sought is very disappointing."
He quoted the Pope's his introduction to the recent Motu Proprio, Vos estis lux mundi, where Francis acknowledged the “physical, psychological and spiritual damage” done to the victims of child sexual abuse, and added that “a continuous and profound conversion of hearts is needed, attested by concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the Church”.
Altman said: "Chair, you may consider that it is difficult to reconcile the Pope’s own words with the Holy See’s response to the requests properly made to it by this inquiry."

Meanwhile, a priest in Liverpool has been jailed for attempting to arrange to meet a two-year-old boy in order to abuse him. Matthew Jolley, 32, of Rhona Drive, Great Sankey, Warrington, was caught by Cheshire police after he arranged the meeting in an online chatroom with an undercover police officer who was posing as the child’s father. A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Liverpool said: Jolley's actions were an "insult to the many thousands of faithful Catholics and priests who daily live out the Gospel in the service of others". Jolley pled guilty to arranging the commission of a child sex offence and was sentenced to three years and four months in prison and placed on the sex offenders register for life.

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