An abuse survivor is to sue the Diocese of Westminster, including its archbishop, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, for personal injury because of the way she was treated when she asked to have access to her own safeguarding files. The claim is believed to be a highly unusual action.
The decision by A711 came as the bishops of England and Wales were due to meet on Wednesday for an all-day discussion on the highly critical report by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) on the Catholic Church, published last week. It said the Catholic Church had betrayed its moral purpose in its neglectful handling of abuse cases and the way it treated survivors. It singled out Cardinal Nichols in its report, saying that he showed “no acknowledgement of any personal responsibility to lead or influence change” and failed to be compassionate to victims.
Cardinal Nichols said in television news reports that he had tendered his resignation to Pope Francis who had asked him to stay on. But the resignation was caused by him reaching 75, the date for episcopal retirements, rather than the comments made about his handling of the abuse crisis.
According to A711, it was Cardinal Nichols’ response to the report that was “the last straw” for her and led to her decision to press for damages. “The fact that he resigned because he is 75 not because of the report has made me think there must be some sort of accountability, and I hope that’s what this action will bring about,” she said.
When A711 asked to see documents relating to her case of abuse, disparaging emails from Westminster diocesan staff were discovered and efforts to see further documents were blocked until recently. Requests to speak to the cardinal went unheeded until a newspaper reported on her case.
“I have catalogued a long list of problems about the way they have treated me over the last four years”, she said. “They retraumatised me. They can’t keep treating survivors like this”.
A711’s solicitor, Richard Scorer of Slater and Gordon, has informed Westminster diocese’s lawyers, Kingsley Napley, of the forthcoming claim. “A711 has reached this point because of Cardinal Nichols’ failure to take responsibility,” said Scorer. “The case we are making is that the Diocese caused A711 personal injury. It is about harm, not just lack of care, because of the way they behaved towards her. And she feels that harm is as bad as, or worse than the original abuse.”
Other victims of abuse have made successful claims for damages against the Catholic Church but most of these concerned the actual abuse. But this case is believed to be unusual in focusing on the treatment of a survivor by the Church.
The claimant, A711, was one of 20 signatories to an open letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church, published in The Tablet last week, that described the trauma they endured because of abuse and “how the Church perpetuates an adversarial culture in its dealings with us”, and went on: “We have the rest of our lives to live, carrying the damage done to us.”
The letter was sent to all the bishops of England and Wales and at least 11 have replied, including the Bishops of Hallam and Nottingham. In his lengthy letter, Marcus Stock, the Bishop of Leeds, apologised for victims’ suffering and pledged that he would do “all I can to put into action the “real and lasting changes” identified in the IICSA report and to ensure that those who, like you, have been hurt by abuse are protected, cared for and supported”.
Cardinal Nichols replied with a three-sentence email which said: “I understand that you have sent this same request to each of my fellow bishops. As bishops we are meeting together this coming week to consider our practical response to the IICSA report. Personally I will play my full part in this particular response.”
In an interview on BBC Radio 4's Sunday programme, Baroness (Sheila) Hollins, who was a member of Pope Francis's Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and has advised the Bishops of England and Wales on child sexual abuse, backed independent oversight of the Church's safeguarding. Asked whether Cardinal Nichols should resign with immediate effect, she said: “I’m not always convinced that somebody has to go but we have known that the Church has actually done much too little, too slowly and new leadership is required to change the Church's dealing with abuse.”
She continued: “The bishops' conference should appoint a safeguarding lead from among their number and I hope it will be someone who will have been doing things a little differently and more confidently than other members of the conference.”
A spokeswoman for the Diocese of Westminster said it had been notified of A711's intention to pursue a claim but the diocese does not comment on individual cases.