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August-September 2013

Child Abuse in the English Church


Those of us who remember the Church before the Second Vatican Council can scarcely credit what has happened since: the churches, so full, have emptied; the Mass which we were promised would never change has been altered almost beyond recognition; we have seen priests leave the priesthood and nuns, dressed strangely, abandon their convents; vocations have  almost ceased; in schools  sound teaching was abandoned and various new schemes came in which meant that the children were not taught the Faith; there were altar girls which we could not recall being mentioned in the Documents of the Second Vatican Council; there were “lay ministers” — it was as if the Holy Catholic Church had pressed the “self-destruct” button.

Yet of all the things that have caused scandal, the worst is surely the child sex abuse that has taken place throughout the world, something that no one would have believed before Vatican II. I intend to concentrate on England and on just one feature of the response to the sex abuse scandal: the refusal of the Bishops to publish detailed statistics of abuse. I will argue that this means that they are not doing all that they can to prevent further abuse.

Media whistleblowers 

I hear many Catholics criticise newspapers such as The Guardian and The Observer and, of course, the BBC. I detest them, yet, in a strange way, we should be grateful to them. They are the ones who exposed the child sex abuse in the Church in England. Had it not been for The Observer, nothing would have been said and known about His Eminence the Cardinal Archbishop of St Andrews, and he would have attended the conclave and cast his vote. I have heard Catholics say that the BBC is always mentioning cases of priests and sex abuse. That is true. It did not do so before Vatican II. Why? Because there were no cases, or if there were, all concerned acted in the proper way and laicised the priests involved. I myself was born in 1941 and so was in my twenties when the Second Vatican Council started and I had never heard of a case of sex abuse in the Catholic Church, though The News of the World was reputed to publish cases involving the clergy of other religions.

When a number of cases of child sex abuse by priests were widely reported in 2000, the local Church almost panicked. The BBC and the newspapers called for the resignation of bishops and archbishops. I myself was telephoned by the correspondent of a national newspaper asking if I would call for the resignation of a particular prelate. I said, “No,” but have since wondered whether I ought to have said, “yes.” 

Those guilty men who advised the bishops did not apologise, let alone resign, and they are still there giving advice. It may be argued that these people made a common mistake in advising the bishops to recycle the tiny number of priests who were abusers. This is not so. I first became a headteacher in the mid 1970s and, even then, I had clear instructions about how to deal with offending teachers. I had a strict obligation, under penalty of being deemed negligent myself, to report all those dismissed for suspected child abuse, whether or not criminal charges were brought. Any such teachers were placed on a special list, list 99, by the government so that they could never again be in any school in England. 

Nolan Commission

And then the leaders of our local Church had the idea that they would set up a commission chaired by an eminent judge and consisting of mainly non-Catholics. Thus was born the Nolan Commission. Its model was the Royal Commission. One does not have to be a cynical watcher of Yes Minister to know that such commissions are usually set up not to achieve results but to convince the public that something is being done.

Nolan’s terms of reference were: “to examine and review arrangements made for child protection and the prevention of abuse within the Catholic Church in England and Wales, and to make recommendations.” These are extraordinary words: there is no suggestion of the least problems but a bland vagueness. It was as if the Catholic Church were a new organisation and not one that had existed in England since the time of St Gregory the Great. There was a wrong focus. The actual number of individual priests involved in child abuse was relatively small, though there should have been none. The real problem was that known child-abusers were being moved from one parish to another. This was the great evil that Nolan ignored. Nolan produced no relevant statistics and this lack of statistics is a continuing problem.

Fundamental flaws

Nolan had some absurd suggestions like the idea of the “glass confessional” not, it is true, an actual recommendation but deduced from its recommendation 3.3.9:

The arrangements for the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) for children are one particular aspect of managing the organisation to prevent abuse or even the suspicion of abuse which we have considered further. It is already the case that some priests administer this sacrament in a setting where both priest and lay person can be seen but not heard. We recommend that wherever possible this should be the norm for the confessions of children; other arrangements should be replaced as opportunity allows. Recommendation 25. The sacrament of reconciliation (confession) for children should wherever possible be administered in a setting where both priest and child can be seen but not heard.  

Yet the then Director of The Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults informed me in writing that she could not  supply evidence of a single case of abuse taking place in a confessional constructed according to Canon Law. Nolan could have recommended that all confessions for the young — and the old for that matter — must be in a proper confessional as defined by Canon Law. Such confessionals, the traditional ones, make abuse physically impossible. Anyone with the least knowledge of cases of abuse would know that the problem is not Confession but so-called “counselling sessions” which happened in all sorts of unsuitable places and where, not uncommonly, there was close proximity of the two involved perhaps with physical contact. Yet Nolan ignored all that and gave the ludicrous recommendation mentioned.

The lack of consideration of actual cases by Nolan is a most serious neglect and by itself almost invalidates Nolan. This may not seem relevant but it means that in some important ways,
the report was flawed because it did not consider the context and the realities. 


Another strange feature of Nolan was its composition. For reasons unadmitted and unexplained, but presumably connected with bad publicity, the majority of the members were not Catholics.

The Nolan Committee was made up of seven men and three ladies. All were professionals, i.e. people who are involved in the way they earn their living in matters relevant to child protection. Six appear to have been London-based, though most English Catholics do not live in London. None, apparently, was a Catholic mother and there was certainly no member of that group that makes up the heart, and often the greatest number, of most Catholic parishes — the Catholic mother not engaged in full time employment. Nor was there an “ordinary” Catholic priest. Astonishingly, there was no teacher, though the best child protection in the Catholic Church was probably to be found in Catholic schools.

Confusing the issue

The essence of what was wrong with Nolan, and why it was criticised by priests goes along the following lines. The real problem was not that the Catholic Church was full of abusers, though the extent was unknown since statistics were kept secret.  The real problem was that a number of bishops had transferred known abusers to other parishes (or to work elsewhere, for example as airport chaplains). The absolute numbers were very few. Nolan did not tackle the real problem but confused the issue, its plethora of recommendations suggesting the Church was riddled with abuse, and with some recommendations, like the one about confession, suggesting that no priest was to be trusted.

Nolan did not consider any statistics of child abuse. The Nolan report was produced in a vacuum with no regard to whether a particular sex of child was more likely to be a victim of abuse, whether a particular person was more likely to be the perpetrator, whether a particular location was especially dangerous and so on.

The very nature of such committees is to assume that what they must come up with are recommendations for policies, more committees, acronyms and bureaucratic devices. Such a committee, secular in its spirit, not surprisingly, came up with secular recommendations. Personally, I think that the best recommendation that any committee on this subject could have come up with would have been along these lines: “This committee recommends that, at every level, devotion to Our Blessed Lady be fostered and that, in particular, bishops should dedicate their diocese to her as the Holy Father has asked them to do.”

Nothing could have been further from the words of the Nolan report. Nolan had no statistics and could not even assume that most of the abusers were priests.

Secular outlook

I have another reservation about Nolan along these lines:

Looking at a document, historians ask themselves: “Why was this document written?” If one applies this test to the Nolan Report, the answer might be: “This report was written to convince the secular world that the Catholic Church has just the same attitude to child abuse as the secular world, and that it is adopting the same controls that any secular organisation would adopt.”

Consider the first of Nolan’s 83 recommendations: “The Catholic Church in England and Wales should be an example of best practice in the prevention of child abuse, and in responding to it.”

The very bureaucratic words give it away, and even superficial analysis show how secular it is. Who will decide what is “best practice”? — answer, the secular world which has no idea of any spiritual dimension. Nowhere in the report is there even a quotation from the Bible, though Matthew 18:6, for instance, would seem very apposite: “He that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Nor is there a reference from even one Church source. This is especially surprising and disturbing since at least three documents by the then Pope, John Paul II, seem very relevant — Familiaris Consortio; The Charter of the Rights of the Family and The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality. In this regard, the Nolan report makes remarkably few references to parents, who, in Canon Law, possess all rights pertaining to the upbringing of children and their education. This neglect of the role of parents was another weakness of Nolan.

One wonders how, in any substantial way, the recommendations would have needed altering had they been for a completely non-religious organisation.

Bureaucratic response

But Nolan was accepted in 2001 and its recommendations implemented. If money could prevent child abuse, then there would have been no more cases: there was a national body, in Birmingham, and commissions and full-time paid workers in every diocese with officials in every parish. Whatever bureaucracy could do, then that would be done. An average diocese seems to have at least two full-time officials, but rarely are details given that can be examined. One of the features of Child Protection that one would not expect to find is a deal of secrecy.

Problematic checks

The Nolan Commission recommendations were reviewed in 2007 by a similar commission under the Chairmanship of Baroness Cumberlege. No significant changes were made.

Another serious defect since Nolan, which the Cumberlege report did not correct, is that too much reliance is given to Criminal Record Bureau (CRB) checks. Of course, such checks are necessary, but they are not, in themselves, sufficient. They have a number of deficiencies.

First, and most obviously, CRB checks can reveal evidence only about those that have committed, or been suspected of committing, acts that are against the law. A person who habitually committed sexual acts with boys or girls of 16 or older would have no adverse comment on a CRB check.

More than this, local authorities now do not necessarily report cases of child abuse to the police. I have long evidence from my own local authority (and I know that the situation is not different elsewhere). To take what is a clear, most obvious and undisputable case, that of the pregnancy of a girl under 16. Such a case must have come about through child abuse of the worst kind which is a criminal offence under English law. Local authorities do not feel obliged to report such matters to the police but leave it to the judgement of “the professionals.” Even parents are not necessarily informed and abortions may be arranged without the knowledge of parents, let alone their consent. Nothing of these abusers goes into the CRB records, since they are unknown to the police.

Thirdly, many offences that would be considered as child abuse by parents (and not just Catholic parents) such as instructing children in the details of sex, are no longer considered illegal and, in practice, the police seem reluctant to take any action in such cases.

So CRB checks though necessary are not sufficient. Catholic authorities, in my judgement, place too much reliance on them. Schools, in addition to CRB checks, undertake many other checks on those applying for posts. Some of these would not be appropriate in parishes but some others are needed. For example, the use of a standard reference form for referees to fill in would first save the time of the referees, but more importantly, could specifically raise questions not covered by the CRB checks. To give one obvious example, someone should try to ascertain whether a person has ever had any sexual dealings with anyone under the age of 18 or whether that person approves of such contacts, outside a valid marriage, of course. There is a string of other questions.

Statistical resistance

Each year, the national body, publishes a report which gives “statistics.” Since, as I have mentioned, the Nolan Commission produced no statistics, comparisons are very difficult. The latest report, 2011–2012, is also vague.

About those abused, one is told nothing. Of the 58 victims, one is given no idea of whether they were girls or boys; nor is their age mentioned, let alone anything of the circumstances of the abuse. This is said of the alleged abusers: “Of the 49 alleged abusers, 28 are Clergy or Religious, 9 Volunteers, 5 Employees and 7 Parishioners.” No idea is given of whether they are male or female.

In a letter to me in January 2005, the then Director of what was then called the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults (COPCA) wrote: “It is my professional experience (and this is born out in all the research) that the vast majority of those who abuse children sexually are men.” She did not mention whether, in her professional experience, the majority of victims were male or female. There is firm resistance to giving the sex of the victims. Originally, the excuse was that of cost. In the same  letter she said: “I do appreciate that the information that you are asking is of interest (I was asking that the sex of the victims should not be kept secret); however within the resources available to COPCA and within the Dioceses who are extremely busy in implementing Lord Nolan’s recommendations, decisions have to be made about priorities.”

This is, if you will excuse me, a COPCA-out. The dioceses do have the detailed figures giving the sex of the child abused. My own diocese of Salford was reasonably helpful. It is true that I wrote asking for statistics on 24th October, 2012 and, after another exchange of letters, did not actually receive the information until 24th January, 2013. However, I do not believe that there was any real obstruction: I simply think that the information was rarely requested and so the officer responsible wanted to ensure it was OK with her superiors to release it. The letters from the diocese were polite and I was asked if I should like to go in to discuss things, an offer I did not take up because of my time arrangements. 

A letter to me from what was now called the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission (NCSC)(1) of July 2011 contained an admission that the figures are known in the dioceses and, therefore, would be easy to collate: “It is logical to assume that at Diocesan level where details of allegations are received and passed to the statutory authorities to investigate, the gender of a victim will be known.” Indeed, but the national body steadfastly refuses even to collect such statistics. “Why?” one might ask.

Studious complacency

Baroness Scotland was appointed, with a great deal of publicity, as Chairman of NCSC in mid-March 2011. She seemed from the public-relations point-of-view the ideal person for such a post: a Labour peer, former Attorney General, female and black.  However, The Daily Telegraph reported on 28th July 2011 that the number of cases of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church had doubled in a year. The Daily Mail reported as follows: “‘Churchgoers should take priests out for a glass of wine or to football matches so they aren't tempted to become paedophiles,’ Baroness Scotland has said. The former Labour minister said that many priests have a 'fairly lonely existence' and need to mix more with their parishioners on a social basis. The child protection expert claimed that church leaders could end up becoming abusers because they are isolated.”

By 31st December of the very same year, after only nine months in the post, Lady Scotland resigned. The Catholic Herald said that she had merely offered as her reason, “Increasing pressures in other areas of her work.” However, The Herald also stated: “Victims’ groups called for Baroness Scotland’s resignation in August after she was quoted as saying that priests sometimes abused because they were ‘unsupported emotionally’ by lay people.” A comment on the Herald's website was apposite:

In what way is the NCSC "an independent organisation"? Its chair is appointed by the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales and the Congregation of Religion. The CBCEW and the CoR each appoint a vice-chair and in 2011, 5 of its remaining 12 members were bishops, priests or members of religious orders. Its first chair, Bill Kilgallon, was a former priest who had studied at seminary alongside Archbishop Vincent Nicholls.

In America, where things are much less secret, the John Jay Study of 2004, published statistics of the victims. It stated, that four per cent of all priests had been accused of child abuse. It also stated that 81% of the victims were young males, and that 40% of the victims were boys between the ages of 11 and 14. The report confined itself to abuse by the clergy. Nothing like the John Jay study was ever made in England; secrecy has been the way.

The same is true of books: in America, within almost a year, four important studies of child abuse in the Catholic Church came out: but in England, I do not know of one independent study of the problem. There is a complacency in England. I wrote to CSAS in April and received a reply stating that there were no plans to change their way of doing things. A person is going to do some research at some time in the future. All is vague and without any sense of urgency. 


1. As a matter of urgency, the Catholic Church, whether through NCSC or not, should publish full details of all accepted incidents of child abuse, as outlined above. At least the following for each incident: the age and sex of the victim; the age and sex of the perpetrator, and his (or her) status. Then there must be the location of the incident and the circumstances. 

2. A standard form should be produced to ask for references for all working with children in the Catholic Church. This form must take account of Catholic teaching and the requirements of Catholic parents and be specifically designed to supplement the information obtained from CRB checks.

3. NCSC should be reviewed. In particular, it should end all secrecy and put all its documents and doings in the public domain.  Its board should contain a majority of people who are Catholic mothers or fathers. They could have other qualifications. There must be a “typical” Catholic parish priest. The annual review should concentrate on providing information and not resemble a public-relations document.

Sadly, I offer these recommendations with little confidence that they will be seriously considered. For I am sorry to say that those who lead the Catholic Church in England cannot be relied upon to protect children. In its dying days, the last Labour government made an attempt to push through compulsory sex education in every maintained school, including Catholic maintained schools. This was evil: there were to be compulsory lessons on contraception and abortion and other horrors too bad to be mentioned in this magazine. The Catholic Education Service supported the Labour government and not Catholic parents. I sent a copy of a detailed letter about the matter to every Catholic bishop in England and Wales (published in the March 2010 Christian Order) together with a copy of the Vatican Document The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality: Guidelines for Education within the Family. Only five bishops took the trouble even to acknowledge my letter.


As a note to this article, I want to mention the recent Jimmy Savile affair. It is well-known that Mr Savile was considered a very worthy person to be given a Catholic decoration and the Bishops of England and Wales wrote to Rome recommending him. When there was bad publicity, the Archbishop of Westminster apparently asked Rome to take back, posthumously, the papal decoration but was told that it was too late. Less well known is that Mr Savile was a member of the most famous and prestigious Gentleman’s Club in England, the London Athenaeum. The newspaper account about this said that, of course, the members were horrified that this man was proposed as a member, but that no one would blackball his membership because of the prestige of the person proposing his membership — a certain Basil Cardinal Hume, Archbishop of Westminster.


(1) Currently another acronym is employed alongside NCSC; the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service (CSAS). The differences in the two are not so clear and they share the same address and post code.




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