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Child sexual abuse in Catholic church ‘swept under the carpet’, inquiry finds

Damning report says church put its reputation above the welfare of abuse victims

Cardinal Vincent Nichols

The report says of Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the head of the Catholic church in England and Wales: ‘There was no acknowledgement of any personal responsibility.’ Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA



The Catholic church “betrayed” its moral purpose by prioritising its reputation over the welfare of children who had been sexually abused by priests, a damning inquiry report has concluded.

In its final review of the church, the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse (IICSA) was scathing in its criticism of the leadership of Cardinal Vincent Nichols and says the Vatican’s failure to cooperate with the investigation “passes understanding”.

The 162-page report states: “The church’s neglect of the physical, emotional and spiritual well‐being of children and young people in favour of protecting its reputation was in conflict with its mission of love and care for the innocent and vulnerable.”

Between 1970 and 2015, the church received more than 900 complaints involving over 3,000 instances of child sexual abuse against more than 900 individuals, including priests, monks and volunteers. Over that period, there were 177 prosecutions resulting in 133 convictions. Civil claims against dioceses and religious institutes have resulted in millions of pounds being paid in compensation.

The sexual abuse of children involved instances of “masturbation, oral sex, vaginal rape and anal rape”. On occasions, the inquiry says, it was accompanied by “sadistic beatings driven by sexual gratification” as well as “deeply manipulative behaviour by those in positions of trust”.

One child estimated that between the ages of 11 and 15 he had been abused hundreds of times by a priest. “After each incident he was required to make confession, and the priest concerned made it plain that his sister’s place at a local convent school depended on his compliance,” the report adds.

When complaints were made, the church invariably failed to support victims and survivors but took action to protect alleged perpetrators by moving them to a different parish. “Child sexual abuse,” the report says, “was swept under the carpet.”

Of Nichols, the head of the Catholic church in England and Wales, IICSA states: “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.”

The inquiry asked the Vatican’s ambassador to the UK, the Papal Nuncio, to participate. “Very limited information was forthcoming,” the report notes. “After several months of correspondence, the Holy See belatedly confirmed it would not provide 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 … Their lack of cooperation passes understanding.”

Prof Alexis Jay, the chair of the inquiry, said: “For decades, the Catholic church’s failure to tackle child sexual abuse consigned many more children to the same fate.

“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.”

“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.”

The report cites studies in the US and Australia, where it has been estimated that 4% and 7% of priests respectively are perpetrators.

One victim who gave evidence, identified by the inquiry only as A711, said: “The findings of the IICSA report on the Catholic church once again shed light on the abysmal failings of the church in its dealings with victims and survivors of abuse. This must not be written off as a historic issue. It continues to this day.

“The church needs a seismic shift in culture, especially at the top. If there is any hope at all of real change it will require a relinquishing of power, and a will to treat survivors as human beings.”

Richard Scorer, a solicitor at the law firm Slater and Gordon who represented 32 survivors, 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 cooperate properly with the inquiry.

“Cardinal Nichols needs to resign right away – in any other walk of life he would be gone immediately. This is a church that cannot be trusted to protect children. The only way forward now is a mandatory reporting law, so that abuse cannot be covered up, and independent external oversight of church safeguarding. The church cannot be relied on to put its own house in order, and so without these changes, children will continue to be at risk”

One survivor, represented by Slater and Gordon who gave evidence before the inquiry said: “Vincent Nichols will retire with a full pension – meanwhile the victims that he had denied justice to have to live on still suffering.

“The fact is Nichols is a serial protector of paedophiles and he is the person that you should least expect it from. The head of a church should have the greatest morals of all but instead they were sending paedophiles to other areas of the country – and America – in an attempt to cover the abuse up. How ‘Christian’ is that? It was bad enough being abused in the first place but then to have it dismissed and covered up just takes even more of a toll on you.”

In a statement issued by Nichols and the archbishop of Liverpool, Malcolm McMahon, the Catholic church said it welcomed the report, which it said would “inform” improvements in “safeguarding in all aspects of the church’s life”.

The statement continued: “Listening attentively to [the victims’] 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.

“Child sexual abuse is a crime … Where there have been failings and inconsistency in the application of our safeguarding procedures, we acknowledge these and commit to actions which will bring about improvement.

“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.”

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