In England and Wales, Catholic Church names former prosecutor to lead child protection efforts

Nazir Afzal, who was appointed chair of the Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales May 18, 2021. Photo courtesy of the Catholic Safeguarding Project. Nazir Afzal, who was appointed chair of the Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales May 18, 2021. Photo courtesy of the Catholic Safeguarding Project.

Nazir Afzal, a prestigious Muslim barrister with a history of prosecuting gangs engaged in sexual abuse and grooming, is the head of the latest effort by the Catholic Church in England and Wales to ensure better prevention of sexual abuse of children and to address ongoing allegations in all Catholic institutions and groups.

"The Catholic Church has recognized the failures of the past and the need to put things right,” said Afzal, the new chair of the Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency. “This is what attracted me to the role.”

“To make a difference, you have to act differently. It usually takes great courage to do so,” Afzal, said May 17. “When I helped deliver justice to thousands of victims of abuse, I realized that they were the most courageous of all.”

Afzal’s previous roles include chief crown prosecutor for northwest England and chief executive of the Police and Crime Commissioners.

He prosecuted nine men who were part of a sex trafficking ring known as the Rochdale grooming gang. They were found guilty of 21 counts of sexual abuse. They abused girls as young as 13 between 2008 and 2010. Their grooming methods included targeting vulnerable girls with attention, often focusing on runaways or girls in social services. The gang would then ply them with alcohol, rape them, and drive them around the north of England.

The barrister also prosecuted Stuart Hall, a former television presenter convicted of several offenses against children.

Citing his last three decades responding to crimes in every community and institution, Afzal said he had learned that “victims have been failed by every institution who were responsible for safeguarding them.”  

“I also understood how reputation was thought more important than exposing those who abuse. Nowhere was safe. Victims were not only abused by perpetrators but then again by those who should have protected them and acted to stop it. The effects of abuse are lifelong and often undetected with victims beset by feelings of shame, guilt and fear. That had to change.”

Vincent Cardinal Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, said Afzal’s appointment is “a pivotal moment.” The cardinal said he has “a proven reputation for being a champion of victims and survivors of abuse in many different institutions and settings.”

“He had the experience required to make the establishment of the safeguarding agency a truly significant step,” said Cardinal Nichols. “Mr. Afzal’s firm and proven conviction that public confidence is created by clear, just and well scrutinized processes will also be at the heart of the contribution he will make.”

The Catholic Safeguarding Project’s announcement included a joint statement from two members of Catholic Survivors England who had participated in the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse.

They said they were “very encouraged by his track record with victims and survivors.”

“A seismic shift in culture is needed within the Church’s safeguarding processes and it's interaction with victims and survivors,” he said. “We hope that Nazir and the new board will be able to make the changes which are so urgently needed.”

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse, commissioned by the U.K. government in 2014 to consider abuse in multiple institutions, said in November 2020 that the Catholic Church received more than 3,000 complaints of child sex abuse against over 900 individuals with church links in the period from 1970 to 2015. There were over 1,750 alleged victims and complainants in that period, and more than 100 abuse allegations were reported each year since 2016.

The inquiry’s report was critical of Cardinal Nichols, charging that he had shown “no acknowledgement of any personal responsibility to lead or influence change.” The report charged that he failed to demonstrate compassion towards victims in recent cases the inquiry examined. The Holy See did not provide a statement to the inquiry and the apostolic nuncio refused to give evidence, actions also faulted by the report.

At the time, Cardinal Nichols said that “on behalf of everybody in the Catholic Church, how deeply, deeply regretful and sorry I am that anybody suffered, and that so many suffered is a terrible shame with which I must live and from which I must learn.”

The Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency was established at the start of 2021, replacing two Catholic safeguarding bodies. It is an agency of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales but separate from it. It works independently under a management board. Its regulatory work covers all Catholic dioceses and religious life groups. The board provides advice but also monitors compliance with safeguarding standards, through independent audit and reviews. These powers are secured through a contractual relationship with the church bodies it serves.

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There have been multiple revisions and reorganizations of Catholic child protection efforts in England and Wales since the 1990s.

In November, the Catholic bishops accepted the recommendations of the Elliot Review’s in-depth examination of safeguarding in the Catholic Church. The review, headed by safeguarding expert Ian Elliott, was commissioned by the bishops of England and Wales in October 2019.

The bishops named Dr. Edward Morgan, a barrister and international expert in canon law, to oversee the establishment of a National Tribunal Service as part of the effort to develop further safeguarding structures and processes. The tribunal service will focus mainly on regulatory cases, including clergy discipline. It aims to provide a centralized process for adjudication.

The strategy aims to give the Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency the power to enforce uniform standards of child protection. It aims to make safeguarding a “comprehensive model” that covers religious institutions and other areas of church life, in addition to diocesan parishes and schools.

In his role as safeguarding agency chair, Afzal is to work with the agency’s chief executive, the board, the Catholic Church, victim groups, and others to ensure that it achieves its objectives.

Stephen Ashley will be the vice chair of the Catholic safeguarding agency. He retired from the police in 2013 with the rank of assistant chief constable after working for the Queen’s Inspectorate of Constabulary. He produced a report for the Home Secretary on how the police dealt with allegations around Jimmy Saville, the U.K. media personality now believed to have sexually abused about 500 victims, including victims at various medical establishments.

Ashley was independent chair of the Rotherham local safeguarding board during a period of intense scrutiny. Rotherham had been the center of another grooming and sexual exploitation gang. Over 40 men and two women were convicted of various crimes, including rape and indecent assault. A 2014 report faulted failures of political and police leadership for failure to confront sexual exploitation and trafficking which resulted in hundreds of hundreds of victims, mostly teen girls but some as young as 11, over a 16-year period.

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Father David Smolira, a former British provincial of the Society of Jesus, will focus on the needs of religious congregations in the safeguarding structure.

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