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‘We will never know the true scale of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church’, inquiry reports

by Cara Bentley

An Inquiry into the abuse of children by Catholic clergy and lay people in England and Wales has found the Church prioritised its reputation over the welfare of children and that Cardinal Vincent Nichols was reluctant to take responsibility.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has looked at various institutions and on Tuesday released its final findings into the Catholic Church of England and Wales, which is lead by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster.

The report explains the Catholic Church’s response to child sexual abuse from the 1970s onwards, including safeguarding, engaging with complainants, redress and leadership.

Between 1970 and 2015, there were 931 allegations or concerns of child sexual abuse made by 1,753 individuals against clergy, members of religious institutes and lay workers (paid and voluntary). These complaints involved more than 3,000 instances of alleged abuse made against 936 alleged perpetrators.

Some of the most researched cases were in the Archdiocese of Birmingham, while others were at Ealing Abbey and St Benedict's school in Ealing. 

The report criticises the church’s slow response to implementing structural changes recommended in previous report but adds: “It would be wrong, however, to regard child sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church as solely a historical problem. Since 2016, there have been more than 100 reported allegations each year. Across the entire period of nearly 50 years covered by this Inquiry, the true scale of sexual abuse of children is likely to have been much higher.”

The report states that Cardinal Nichols was slow to act on recommendations to stop abuse and seek justice: “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. During the final public hearing in November 2018, he apologised for the Church’s failings, noting that this was a source of “great sorrow and shame for me and, indeed I know, for the Catholic Church”. But there was no acknowledgement of any personal responsibility to lead or influence change. Nor did he demonstrate compassion towards victims in the recent cases which we examined. His acknowledgement that “there is plenty for us to achieve” applies as much to him as it does to everyone else in the Church. He did not always exercise the leadership expected of a senior member of the Church, at times preferring to protect the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales and in Rome.”

Richard Scorer, specialist abuse lawyer at Slater and Gordon representing survivors at the inquiry, said: “This is an absolutely damning report. It highlights the shocking scale of abuse, the disgraceful slowness of the church’s response, the abject failures of leadership by Cardinal Nichols and the Vatican’s appalling refusal to co-operate properly with the inquiry.

“Cardinal Nichols needs to go right away – in any other walk of life he would be gone immediately."

John O’Brien, secretary to the inquiry, told Premier he thinks the Catholic Church should respond immediately, in addition to implementing the recommendations: “I think a strong recognition that, when we come to instances of child sexual abuse, that the welfare of the child in each instance should be at the heart of the church's reaction to what they do next must be the key thing that happens. Although that happens now in many instances, we still heard of instances where that hasn't happened.

"Clearly, that does two things: it means that you can't learn from the instances that you don't treat in the way that you would if you protected that child and made sure that they got the support they need. But it also means that other people who might be thinking of reporting abuse or talking about their abuse can be put off from doing that, because they see that the reaction isn't one that they might expect - that of support...That [response] can start with a strong statement that that is what the church intends to do going forward.”

The Catholic Church has said in a response signed by Cardinal Vincent Nichols: "Listening attentively to their witness testimony has brought into sharp relief the extent of the damage this sexual abuse has had on their lives. We apologise to all victims and survivors who have not been properly listened to, or properly supported by us. By listening with humility to those who have suffered, we can contribute to the healing of the wounds of abuse, as well as learn from those most directly affected how we must improve the Church’s safeguarding standards, policies and procedures."

It continues: "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 apologise without reservation, and we are committed to listen attentively to the voices of those who have been abused."

Read the full report here. 

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