Top Catholic Bishop to be Questioned over Child Abuse Scandal
Cardinal Vincent Nichols will be First Leader of English Church to Testify under Oath
An Observer Article by Harriet Sherwood (Sat 10 Nov 2018)
The Roman Catholic church in England will come under intense scrutiny this week over its handling of child sexual abuse and the cover-up of predatory priests by bishops and other senior figures.
Survivors of rape and assault will testify over five days at an independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, along with church leaders, officials and child protection experts in a case study examining the archdiocese of Birmingham.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster, will give evidence in person on Tuesday – the first time that the most senior Catholic in England has been cross-examined under oath. He was archbishop of Birmingham from 2000 to 2009. Bernard Longley, the current archbishop of Birmingham, will also be cross-examined. All other earlier archbishops of the diocese have died.
A series of scandals has shaken the global church this year, embroiling Pope Francis in the biggest crisis of his papacy. At a preliminary hearing in September Alexis Jay, who chairs the sex abuse inquiry, said it would examine “the extent of any institutional failures” by the church in Birmingham to protect children. Birmingham was chosen as a case study because it is the largest archdiocese in England, stretching from Stoke-on-Trent to Reading.
The hearing is expected to focus on the cases of Father Samuel Penney and Father James Robinson, who were convicted of child abuse, and two other priests against whom allegations were made.
Last weekend churches across the archdiocese read out a letter from Longley that said he and Nichols were “at one in our sense of shame and sorrow” over abuse.
Two reports commissioned by the archdiocese had highlighted serious past failures and current areas requiring significant improvement, Longley told parishioners. “We are acting promptly to put their recommendations into action.” The two archbishops were united “in our willingness to assist this public inquiry and to learn from its findings”, he added.
Longley’s letter followed one sent by Nichols in August to all parishes in the diocese of Westminster, in which he said he took personal responsibility for the church’s failures to protect children. “I am utterly ashamed that this evil has, for so long, found a place in our house, our church,” he wrote.
“I bear this shame in a direct way, for it is the direct responsibility of a father to protect his household from harm, no matter how difficult and complex that might be.”
David Enright, who represents a number of survivors as head of the child abuse team at Howe & Co solicitors, said the church was “structurally incapable of implementing minimum uniform standards of child protection”. The safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults should be taken out of its hands.
“Not a week goes by where there is not yet another astonishing revelation about child abuse, both here and abroad, perpetrated within the Catholic church. That church is either directly or indirectly involved in the education of almost a million children in Britain, as well as care homes, playgroups, Sunday schools and a plethora of other spaces involving child care,” he said.
“The Catholic church, as currently constituted, in relation to child safeguarding, presents a clear and present danger to British children.”
The pope has come under increasing pressure on the issue this year. He was heavily criticised for his robust defence of a Chilean bishop accused of covering up abuse, and was later forced to apologise and accept the bishop’s resignation.
He was slow to respond to a devastating 900-page grand jury investigation of clerical sex crimes in Pennsylvania, waiting almost a week before writing of the church’s shame.
He made a disastrous visit to Ireland in August, where he appeared unprepared for the hostility of survivors of abuse and the widespread sympathy for them.
A retired Vatican diplomat, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, publicly called on Francis to resign, claiming the pope had ignored widespread rumours about a former archbishop of Washington, instead favouring him as a papal emissary. Viganò’s incendiary claims were seized on by Francis’s enemies within the Vatican, triggering internecine warfare at the heart of the Catholic hierarchy.
Last month a survey found that Francis’s popularity ratings among US Roman Catholics had plummeted as a result of his perceived mishandling of the sexual abuse crisis.
Britain’s independent inquiry is expected to hold further hearings into child sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic church and the Church of England next year.