The Charity Commission is putting the safeguarding organisations of Catholic dioceses under the spotlight following growing concerns about the way they are managed.
This week it revealed to The Tablet that it is considering holding an inquiry into Westminster archdiocese, in the light of damaging evidence that has emerged about its handling of cases of child sexual abuse and its aftermath. Details were revealed at the hearings of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) of survivors who felt they were unsympathetically treated by the diocese’s safeguarding team and their concerns not taken seriously.
Charity Commissioners are considering the inquiry into Westminster following a study of Birmingham Diocese’s safeguarding. They have published a report into Birmingham Diocesan Trust which they say suffered from serious shortcomings in its management of safeguarding. The trustees “appeared to be either insufficiently aware” of the problems or they “did not adequately address with the pace or in the way expected”. The Commission told The Tablet that following concerns raised by its study of Birmingham Diocesan Trust it has been in contact with the other 21 Catholic dioceses regarding safeguarding and that it will now study further information emerging about Westminster.
The Commission began its inquiry after the Birmingham trustees were unable to reassure it that they were responding quickly or robustly enough to the users of its services. The problems at Birmingham were also highlighted by the IICSA inquiry.
Among the problems identified by the commission investigation were that record keeping was chaotic, files regarding people who had served prison sentences for sexual offences were not being checked under safeguarding agreements, and there was a lack of safeguarding expertise among trustees and staff.
While the Commission says that Birmingham safeguarding has now improved and it has recruited staff with the necessary skills and experience, it has issued an order under the Charities Act 2011 which requires trustees to make further changes. They must implement a new safeguarding system, develop a strategy for monitoring safeguarding in parishes and develop an action plan for improving the overall safeguarding culture including measures to ensure it “feels safe for people to criticise or discuss safeguarding matters within the charity”.
Stephen Grenfell, head of investigations at the Charity Commssion, said that it was pleased that Birmingham had made progress but the trustees “must [still] demonstrate that continued momentum in their work to strengthen and prioritise safeguarding, and we will be holding them to account against the legal direction we have issued”.
Birmingham Archdiocese said that it had co-operated fully with the Charity Commission and it now had more safeguarding staff and trustees with safeguarding experience. It also has put in place “a contract with Barnardo’s to provide external Quality Assurance and professional supervision of safeguarding staff, effective Disclosure and Barring Service vetting (DBS), moving to more efficient online applications and clear policies and practices on safeguarding referrals.”
It also said: “Following the publication of the IICSA report earlier this year, we publicly acknowledged that we had failed victims and survivors of abuse. We recognise apologies need to be backed up by action and the Archdiocese is committed to learning from the mistakes of the past and is reviewing its practices and processes to ensure that victims and survivors of abuse receive a compassionate and caring response.”
While Catholic diocesan safeguarding organisations answer to their bishops, the dioceses are also run as charitable trusts and so the Charity Commission plays an influential role as their regulator.
A spokesperson for the diocese said: "Like other dioceses, we submitted a report to the charity commission in Spring. From this submission, they have not selected the Diocese of Westminster for further discussion."