Top Catholic bishop to be ques­tioned on child abuse scan­dal

Car­di­nal will be first leader of English church to tes­tify un­der oath

The Observer - - News - Har­riet Sher­wood Re­li­gion Cor­re­spon­dent

The Ro­man Catholic church in Eng­land will come un­der in­tense scru­tiny this week over its han­dling of child sex­ual abuse and the coverup 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.

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. 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.

Vin­cent Ni­chols will give ev­i­dence to the in­de­pen­dent in­quiry into child sex­ual abuse.

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