LEICESTER, United Kingdom – A government-established inquiry into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in England and Wales says “real and lasting changes to attitudes have some way to go if the Roman Catholic Church is to shake off the failures of the past.”
The inquiry also lambasted the Vatican for its failure to fully cooperate with the investigation, saying this decision “passes understanding.”
The report from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) in England and Wales is the latest in a series covering the Catholic Church in the country, including reports into schools run by the country’s Benedictine Congregation and a report into abuse in the Archdiocese of Birmingham.
IICSA is not limited to the Catholic Church and has released previous reports on the Anglican Church and civil institutions.
The authors of the latest report said they heard “appalling accounts of sexual abuse of children perpetrated by clergy and others associated with the Roman Catholic Church.”
IICSA found that between 1970 and 2015, the Catholic Church received more than 900 complaints involving over 3,000 instances of child sexual abuse in England and Wales. This is not just a historical problem: Since 2016, there have been more than 100 reported allegations each year.
“As we have said previously, faith organizations are marked out from most other institutions by their explicit moral purpose. The Roman Catholic Church is no different. In the context of the sexual abuse of children, that moral purpose was betrayed over decades by those in the Church who perpetrated this abuse and those who turned a blind eye to it,” the report continues.
“The Church’s neglect of the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of children and young people in favor of protecting its reputation was in conflict with its mission of love and care for the innocent and vulnerable.”
Although noting positive changes in child safeguarding since the 2001 Nolan report, which was commissioned by the bishops to look into this issue of clerical sexual abuse, the inquiry said “the Catholic Church still does not give sufficient urgency and priority to implementing all safeguarding recommendations and practices.”
The inquiry took specific aim at Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster and current president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, who previously served as Archbishop of Birmingham.
“As the figurehead and the most senior leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Catholics look to Cardinal Nichols to lead by example,” the report says.
However, the authors faulted the cardinal for not acknowledging “any personal responsibility to lead or influence change” and said he did not “demonstrate compassion towards victims in the recent cases which we examined.”
IICSA also noted that despite repeated requests, the Holy See’s ambassador to the United Kingdom only supplied “very limited information” to the inquiry and would not supply a witness statement.
“This response appears to be at odds with the May 2019 Papal pronouncements from Rome in which Pope Francis asserted that there needed to be ‘concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the Church’ regarding its approach to child sexual abuse. The Holy See’s limited response on this matter manifestly did not demonstrate a commitment to taking action. Their lack of cooperation passes understanding,” the report states.
The inquiry made several recommendations for the Catholic Church in England and Wales to step up its safeguarding measures, including:
— calling on the bishops’ conference and conference of religious to each nominate a lead member of the clergy for safeguarding to provide leadership and oversight on safeguarding matters;
— make safeguarding training mandatory for all staff and volunteers in roles where they work with children or victims and survivors of abuse;
— publishing a clear framework for dealing with cases of non-compliance with safeguarding policies and procedures;
— the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service should have the effectiveness of its audit program regularly validated by an independent organization which is external to the Church. These independent reports should be published;
— changing canon law so that the sexual abuse of minors is no longer classed as a sexual crime, but as a crime against the child;
— having the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service review its policies and procedures manual and the documents within it to ensure that they are consistent, easier to follow and more accessible;
— publishing a national policy for complaints about the way in which a safeguarding case is handled.
Although IICSA didn’t make any specific recommendations about mandatory reporting and the seal of confession, it spent several paragraphs discussing the issue.
The report acknowledged “disclosure during confession is likely to be one of the less common ways in which the Church becomes aware of abuse,” but noted the seal of confession and mandatory reporting would “a subject that will form part of the Inquiry’s final report” to be released at a later date.
“For decades, the Catholic Church’s failure to tackle child sexual abuse consigned many more children to the same fate,” Professor Alexis Jay, the chair of the inquiry, said when the report was released.
“It is clear that the Church’s reputation was valued above the welfare of victims, with allegations ignored and perpetrators protected. Even today, the responses of the Holy See appear at odds with the pope’s promise to take action on this hugely important problem,” she said. “While some progress has been made, there still needs to be lasting change to culture and attitudes to avoid repeating the failures of the past.”
In a statement, the bishops’ conference said it welcomed the report, which would “now inform the ongoing reform and improvement of safeguarding in all aspects of the Church’s life.”
“Child sexual abuse is a crime. It is a crime that requires committed vigilance and strict procedures to ensure reporting to the statutory authorities. This is the Church’s policy,” the statement, signed by Nichols and Liverpool Archbishop Malcolm McMahon, continued.
“Abuse is an evil act against the most vulnerable; it must never be excused or covered up. Abuse committed against children and the consequent damage to people’s lives cannot be undone. For this, we apologize without reservation, and we are committed to listen attentively to the voices of those who have been abused,” the prelates added.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome