Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Archbishop Vincent Nichols on the child abuse scandal

Archbishop Vincent Nichols has had an article published in the Times last Friday. It has the headline The Church is not trying to cover anything up.

The two central points of the article are that nobody (least of all the pope, goodness me no!) has ever been trying to cover anything up, and that the church in England and Wales is far advanced over other places in working out how not to cover things up.

Those two claims strike me as being mutually contradictory. Here's Nichols on canon law.
The relationship between the administration of church law and the criminal law in any particular state is a point of real difficulty and misunderstanding. Nothing in the requirement of canon law prohibits or impedes the reporting of criminal offences to the police. Since 2001 the Holy See, working through the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, has encouraged that course of action on dioceses who have received evidence about child abuse and which the diocesan authorities are responsible for pursuing. The canonical procedure is best put on hold until the criminal investigation is complete, whatever its outcome. This is what is needed. That it has not happened consistently is deeply regrettable.

Now, I sense some careful selection of words here. "Nothing in the requirement of canon law prohibits or impedes the reporting of criminal offences to the police." We can have our doubts about that, given what has been reported in official enquiries in Ireland.

But even if we accept Nichols on this point, he is carefully silent on whether canon law requires the reporting of criminal offences to the police. All he says is that this course of action has been "encouraged" in cases of child abuse. And as he notices, "it has not happened consistently". Now, it seems to me that if it hasn't been reported consistently, it follows that there have been cases where it has not been reported, i.e. it has been covered up.

Of course, it hasn't been reported consistently. If there is no canon or civil law requirement, the temptation is to preserve the short-term reputation of the local church and sweep it all under the carpet. If anything is going to change, there is going to have to be mandatory reporting of all cases, so that the decision as to whether there is something to investigate is taken out of the hands of those who have a responsibility to preserve the reputation of their organisation.

This issue is not one that is limited to the Catholic Church. Private schools of any denomination or none are also greatly subject to the temptation to sweep things under the carpet and avoid the bad publicity (and consequent loss of business) that goes with a paedophile case. The solution is to ensure that a school's procedures are such that cases are detected and reported quickly and the abuse ended immediately. That way, the school's management can present the case as a success, as a demonstration that their child protection procedures are operational and effective.

Nichols goes on to say:

In England and Wales, since 2001, the agreed policy followed by the bishops has been to report all allegations of child abuse, no matter from how far in the past, to the police or social services. By doing so and by having clear safeguarding procedures in place in every parish as well as independent supervision at diocesan and national level, we have built good relationships with those authorities in these matters, including, in some areas, co-operation in the supervision of offenders in the community.
Every parish? Archbishop, I would like to draw your attention to Ealing Abbey, where according to summary note of an independent review recently completed:
The Abbey Child Protection Policy is undated, does not identify a review date and is a statement of intent rather than a clear guidance document to identify and support safe practice. The absence of provenance details and review arrangements can allow such documents to be treated in a rather mechanistic manner rather than viewing them as a contribution to active, positive safeguarding behaviour.
And that is some months after the conviction of Father David Pearce on 11 charges of sexual assault and indecent assault against boys at St. Benedict's School.

To have a policy of encouragement to report, without making it mandatory, essentially leaves the status quo unchanged, even if the policy is one agreed by the bishops. There will still be people (perhaps even some bishops) who will think it better to cover up a case that looks too damaging.

I'm in touch with one of Pearce's victims, who is referred to in various court documents as "C". I'll continue to call him that. It is worth noting that C brought his civil case against Father David and the school in 2006. This followed C's approach to the Abbot in 2004 to report the abuse he suffered. The Abbot did nothing - no report was made by the Abbot to the police. The Abbot made no apology to C for his suffering. And the Abbot made no attempt to remove Pearce from contact with children. That sounds like precisely the kind of cover up that the Bishops' policy is supposed to prevent. But it didn't.

C made a report to the police. The case against Pearce was dropped for insufficient evidence. C then took the extremely brave step of instituting civil proceedings against Pearce and the school. The case came to court in 2006. Pearce and the Abbey denied all abuse. And they lost, to the tune of about £42,000 plus costs. It was paid by their insurers.

The Charity Commission then got involved in the matter, as a result of a complaint made to them. The Abbot promised to ensure that Pearce was removed from contact with children, but in describing the restricted covenant, he wrote stating that its purpose was "to protect Father David from unfounded allegations". As a result, according to the summary note of the independent review, it is unclear who knew about the restricted covenant and why, and so there was no enforcement. Pearce's last victim was groomed within the Monastery, a boy who had been employed to wash dishes.

And yet, the Abbot already knew that there were problems with Pearce's behaviour. According to this interview of another victim in the Ealing Gazette:
The victim's father began building a case against Pearce, causing him to step down from his post [as headmaster]. Yet he was still allowed to remain at the school as an administrator.
So, back in 1993, when Pearce stepped down as junior school headmaster and became bursar instead, it was already known that there was a problem with sex abuse. And yet, when the new policy supposedly came into force in 2001, "to report all allegations of child abuse, no matter from how far in the past, to the police or social services", it appears that no report was made.

It is all very well to loudly declaim new policies, quite another to get people to follow them. Archbishop, I suggest you be careful not to overclaim the extent to which everybody is following them. They aren't.

C's life has been very seriously damaged by the abuse he suffered at the hands of Pearce. His trust of adult authority was blown to pieces. He got involved in some crime, and had a serious nervous breakdown.

He is still estranged from his mother, who even today finds it impossible to believe that Pearce would do such a thing and that her own son must have been lying about the abuse. This is even though Pearce has pleaded guilty to 11 counts of sexual assault and indecent assault, including occasions in which C was the victim.

This is the true horror of paedophile abuse, it is the destruction of trust in the adult world, the destruction of the child's confidence. The effects last for years, even decades afterwards. And if the child is not even believed by his own mother, who can he possibly turn to?

Now, reading this, you may think that the mother is some sort of monster. I don't mean to convey that. I guess that by the time C finally summoned the strength and courage to describe in detail what Pearce had done to him, his behaviour at home had already deteriorated to a very great extent. Pearce had taken the trouble to become a family friend to C's parents. (This is a common tactic of paedophiles who are priests or teachers. It isolates the victim and makes it harder for any complaints to be believed. Pearce of course was both a priest and a teacher to C.)

So I could quite imagine that the mother was faced with a choice between believing an angry and rebellious son who by then was probably in the habit of lashing out verbally at any passing target of opportunity, and believing in an admired and respected pillar of the community who was also an esteemed family friend. Looked at it that way, it is not as obvious as you might think that she should have believed her son. Of course, with hindsight we now know that C was telling the truth. Hindsight is easy that way, especially if you have no personal involvement in the case. The mother's only problem is that she honestly got it wrong. That happens to us all from time to time.

C is now living abroad and gradually putting his life back together again. We exchange emails from time to time. He has given me permission to recount his story here, on the understanding that I don't disclose his name or other details that would identify him.

We owe C a considerable debt of thanks. By taking on and winning his civil case, in my view he has done more than anybody else to have Pearce put behind bars. It was almost certainly the fact that the case had been won which caused the police to take the complaints of Pearce's last victim more seriously and to encourage others to come forward. Without the civil case, Pearce probably would still be a free man and still abusing children.

I mentioned this in an email to him a while back, thanking him for what he had done, and I told him he could hold his head up high and say "I put a paedophile behind bars". That's an achievement few people can equal. He replied saying that I was the first person ever to thank him for it. I sincerely hope that I am not the last.

Back in October, I wrote to the Abbot asking for a meeting to discuss C's case. I wanted to pass on on a request from him to the Abbot. My aim was to try and promote some healing in the family. From C's description, I got the impression that his mother even now finds it difficult or impossible to comprehend that somebody in the church would do such a thing. It seemed to me that a letter from Pearce's superior might help her accept this. So I wanted the Abbot to write to C's mother assuring her that she should have no doubt that C had been telling the truth about the allegations.

After a month of prevarication, the Abbot refused to meet me, saying he had been advised against a meeting.

So I described my request in more detail in an email. I never received any reply.

In this case the Abbot can't possibly be concerned that admitting and apologising for the harm done to C would leave the Abbey open to compensation claims. Compensation has already been determined by the court and there is no question of any more being paid out. I was just looking for a touch of compassion to try and help put a broken family back together - a family that was broken as a result of Pearce's crimes and the inaction of the Abbot and his predecessors in failing to bring those crimes to an end.

C himself wrote to Archbishop Vincent Nichols, describing his experiences and the effect they had had on him. Nichols' reply included the following.
I am grateful to you for telling me something of your background. I was sorry to read of the harmful experiences you have had, and the continuing effects of these for you and your family. I am sorry that you feel that the Roman Catholic Church has failed your family.

In taking the brave action of reporting the crimes inflicted on you, it is clear that you did the right thing.
There seems to be a terrible epidemic of passive voice sweeping through the Catholic Church: "the harmful experiences you have had", and "the crimes inflicted on you". Nobody wants quite to accept that these actions have actors, and that the actors are priests of the Catholic Church. It is as if they are describing some terrible natural disaster that has befallen all these children.

Note again the careful choice of words. "I am sorry that you feel that the Roman Catholic Church has failed your family." This isn't an apology that the Roman Catholic Church has failed the family, nor even an admission of the fact. It is an expression of regret that C feels that way. I was truly nauseated by that reply when I first saw it.

And I notice that when he says "In taking the brave action of reporting the crimes inflicted on you, it is clear that you did the right thing" he neglects to mention that according to the 2001 policy, the crimes should already have been reported by the Abbot.

Most of the rest of the letter simply repeats various things the Abbot said in press statements, including the promise of an independent review. Well, we now know what the Abbot meant by that.

Nichols ends the letter by saying
You may wish to show this letter to members of your family - feel free to show it, or copy it, as you wish.
Nichols talks a good talk. But the actions in this case haven't matched it. Let's see some action. Let's see:
  • a proper apology to C and to his mother,
  • a wide-ranging review at Ealing Abbey,
  • the Child Protection procedures at both the school and the abbey brought up to best practice
  • most important, reporting of suspicions and allegations of child sex abuse made mandatory throughout the church in England and Wales.
When I see these happening, I will believe that the Catholic Church is putting its house in order. I will cheer and I will give full credit for having done so.


  1. OK, this comment is on three of your posts. This seems the best place to put it, since it relates to CSAS guidelines.

    Generally, on the Nichols interview:

    Yes, he is being careful in what he says "encourages reporting" rather than "mandatory reporting". Not every jurisdiction in which the catholic church operates has mandatory reporting. The dioceses of england and wales does, he claims

    As far as I can see from the procedures, it does:

    reference: http://www.csasprocedures.uk.net/chapters/p_chi_young_peop.html#responding

    there doesn't seem to be any outcome that doesn't include reporting the allegation to the "statutory authorities".

    the procedures also give guidance to bishops and religious superiors (in this case, the Abbot of Ealing Abbey) on how to handle a complaint.


    "1.To facilitate an investigation by the Statutory Authorities at an early stage through prompt referral of the facts"

    It would appear, if C made his complaint to the Abbot in 2003, that this was not followed. It is of course possible that this part of the guidelines didn't exist in 2003, but I actually doubt it.

    At least some of the guidelines were followed in the later criminal case, in that Fr. David was removed from the abbey, which is also recommended, but not mandatory in the above procedures.

    It would also appear that the summary report of the independent reviewers was produced according to this template. (past case review).


    and their recommendations make pretty clear that they don't consider the Abbey child protection policy adequate.

    well, that's about it.

  2. I too have a "passive voice" letter from Archbishop Nichols,it nearly killed me when I first read it. It's more of a note really and the last lines read
    " These are terrible memories and I want you to know that I do understand a little about the burden you feel you carry.
    Please be sure of my prayers for you.
    With every good wish,
    Vincent Nichols"
    This was written on 27th June 2006, Nichols was Chair of COPCA .My childhood abuse happened in Coventry in the early 1970S( Birmingham Diocese) I reported it to COPCA and agreed that I wished them to report it to the police as per COPCA guidelines, I'm still waiting to hear from the police or COPCA. Sorry if this is an intrusion on this site but reading this article made me realise I'm not the only one with such a letter and I needed to share that and not feel so alone, thank you, Ellen

  3. Ellen,

    If you would like to contact me privately at jonathanwest22@googlemail.com, I can help you get in touch with the appropriate people in the police. Most police forces have specialist child abuse investigation teams, and they deal also with reports of past child abuse by people who are now adults.

  4. When was COPCA founded, if Ellen made her concerns to Copca recently but her abuse happened back in the early 70's, then you have a mountain to climb. Why did Ellen or her parents / Guardian not go to the Police at the time..??

    To blame Archbishop Nichols nearly 40 years later is just not on I'm afraid.

    I got savagely beaten (lucky I wasn't killed) in a pub in front of hundreds of witnesses on the 3/11/1993. The assailants were total strangers to me, but the bar maid and others knew these guys (5 of them) the police had their names, minutes after the event, the assailants, the police told me, were thugs who lived by breaking into houses and selling the booty at car boot sales.......guess what justice I got...??? Nada, that's what.

    Never even got to court, the police never even talked to the assailants....and Hundreds of people in a packed pub witnessed this.

    If "C" is the only witness and his own mother has difficulty in believing him.....how is a jury ever going to put some one in Jail..??

    I get the impression that there is more than a hint of lashing out at the Catholic Church here.

    Awful as these child abuse cases are....and if credible evidence can be brought, then the guilty should go to jail for a long time. But Justice rests on credible evidence. If some one charged you or me with some crime 40 years after the event.....the burden of proof would really need to be Bomb Proof.

    If not, then I'm afraid the accusers going to need to get on with life as best they can.

  5. I note the Site is called Confessions of a Skeptic. Skeptical of what..?? everything..?? Even when people come to you with allegations of crimes years after the event....would your skepticism remain undimmed..?? you'd question with the utmost rigour every accusation..??

    Having done that, we should believe you..?? Have we the right to be Skeptical of you and your motives..??

    Maybe people who want justice years after the event might want to think on the Skeptic part of the title..??

  6. Hi Crouchback

    Welcome. On the issue of whether you should believe me - the simple answer is no. Instead, take a look at the evidence for yourself and make up your own mind. If you think that my conclusions are insufficiently justified by the evidence I base them on, then you are exceedingly welcome to explain where you think I am in error. Not taking people's word for it is what skepticism is all about. I have no authority and I claim none.

    As for there being a delay between abuse and the reporting of it, this is in fact exceedingly common. If you want to understand why, go to www.chosen.org.uk, and watch the BAFTA award winning documentary there. So you should avoid assuming that the mere existence of a long delay in reporting childhood sexual abuse is any kind of indication that the testimony is unsound.