‘Shame and sorrow’: English bishops promise independent review of safeguarding procedures

NicholsCNA Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England at a Vatican press conference in 2015. | CNA

The bishops of England and Wales have released a statement addressing the recent sexual abuse scandals in the Church, both in the UK and abroad. They also announced an independent review of current policies and procedures for child protection and for handling complaints of sexual abuse.

The statement was released Sept. 24 by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales ahead of the bishops' five-yearly ad lima visit to the Holy Father and the departments of the Roman Curia.

"Both bishops and religious leaders, in various places, failed to protect the children in their care from those who have done them great harm," the statement said. 

"In particular, the failures of bishops to listen or give credence to those who have courageously spoken out about the profound damage they have suffered through childhood abuse, together with the steps some have taken in order to cover up or minimise the abuse that became known, are a great betrayal of the trust placed in them by the faithful and of the responsibilities that come with episcopal office."

The bishops are in Rome for the visit, which runs Sept. 24-29, and are expected to meet Pope Francis on Friday.

The bishops' statement said that they had asked the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission, which oversees safeguarding policy across the conference's 22 dioceses, "to commission an entirely independent and comprehensive review of the safeguarding structures that currently operate within the Catholic Church in England and Wales."

"Importantly, we will seek to ensure that the voices of the victims and survivors of abuse, through the Survivors Advisory Panel established by the NCSC, fully inform the review and its recommendations," the statement said.

In addition to international scandals involving clerical sexual abuse in Chile, Honduras, and the United States, Catholics in England have also faced revelations in their own country.

A recent report by an independent government inquiry into sexual abuse highlighted cases of "appalling sexual abuse," dating back decades, at two of the most prominent Catholic schools in the country, Ampleforth and Downside. Both of those schools are administered by a religious order.

The recent case of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick has raised serious questions across the Church about the handling of accusations against bishops. The statement from the English bishops underscored that existing nationally agreed procedures explicitly included  "the steps to be taken if allegations of abusive behavior were to be made against a bishop."

The current safeguarding procedures in English dioceses were adopted following a 2001 report on sexual abuse by Lord Nolan. Each diocese has a safeguarding coordinator and commission - broadly equivalent to diocesan review boards in American dioceses.

Following the Nolan Report, national policies were adopted by the English dioceses. A central figure in achieving this was then Archbishop Vincent Nichols, who was made chair of the report's implementation team and head of the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults.

In 2009 Nichols succeeded Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor as Archbishop of Westminster and was made a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2014.

"The impact and consequences of the shame and sorrow" felt by the bishops would set the tone for their Rome trip, both in curial meetings and during points of prayer, "especially as we come to pray at the tomb of St. Peter and at the tomb of St. Paul," the statement said.

"These themes will also be part of our conversation with Pope Francis, when we meet with him on Friday."

While the global abuse scandals will undoubtedly feature during the various meeting the English bishops will have, issues with more national focus are also expected to be discussed.

Key among them is expected to be the case of Alfie Evans, the English infant who was refused medical treatment, and barred from traveling to Rome to receive ongoing care at the Bambino Jesu hospital.

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A UK court ordered that it was in Alfie's best interests to die, and prevented his parents from seeking treatment abroad, or even taking him home from the hospital, despite life support being withdrawn by hospital staff.

Despite strong interventions by Pope Francis in favor of Alfie and his parents - efforts which were widely credited with Alfie being granted Italian citizenship - many English bishops, including Cardinal Nichols, were perceived as lukewarm on the subject and even viewed as siding with the court.

In April, Nichols was quoted as saying that "the doctors' position that no further medical help could be given was very important" and that "palliative care, which isn't a denial of help, can be an act of mercy."

"It's very hard to act in a child's best interest when this isn't always as the parents would wish – and this is why a court must decide what's best not for the parents, but for the child," Nichols said at the time.

One source close to the conference told CNA that the pope is expected to raise the case "with both barrels" during his meeting with the bishops.

The Bishops' Conference of England and Wales includes the 22 dioceses across the two nations. Its membership also includes the Military Ordinariate covering the armed forces of the UK, the Apostolic Eparchs of the Ukrainian and Syro-Malabar Churches in Britain, the Apostolic the Ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, and the Apostolic Prefect of the Falkland Islands.  

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