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Lead counsel also condemns Holy See’s delay in stripping convicted offenders of clerical status
The Vatican’s repeated refusal to cooperate with official investigations into paedophile priests and its delay in stripping convicted offenders of their clerical status has been condemned by the UK’s child sexual abuse inquiry.
In a highly critical attack on the papacy’s stonewalling response to decades of complaints, the lead counsel to the inquiry, Brian Altman QC, said it was “very disappointing” that significant evidence and statements had been withheld.
The approach of the archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, was also criticised after he belatedly admitted in February that it was “sobering” when he “began to see” the problem from the perspective of the victim.
At the start of its final, two week-long hearing into abuse within the Catholic church, the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse (IICSA) detailed how it sought help from the UK Foreign Office to obtain answers from the Holy See to its questions.
The inquiry is keen, in particular, to discover more about the role of the church’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which is supposed to discipline priests who commit offences.
The Vatican sent some documentation but, Altman noted, “the Holy See has not provided any evidence about the role of the CDF and/or laicisation [the process of removing priests from the church] and declined to provide the inquiry with a witness statement.”
The papacy, he explained: “considers that the domestic laws of a foreign sovereign entity are not the proper object for a British inquiry”.
In many cases laicisation takes years, the inquiry was told. For example, a Birmingham priest, James Robinson, was imprisoned for 21 years in 2010 for child sexual abuse but it was a further seven years before he was dismissed from the priesthood. Andrew Soper, a Benedictine monk who went on the run on 2011, was not defrocked until earlier this year.
An earlier report by the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service (CSAS) and the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission found that between 1970 to 2015, there were 931 separate complaints of child sexual abuse were made to the Catholic church in England and Wales. They involved more than 3,000 instances of alleged abuse.
Cardinal Nichols, the inquiry was told, attended a meeting in Rome in February this year on protecting children in the church.
After the meeting, Nichols wrote to his fellow bishops stating: “For me what happened was that I began to see what we were talking about from the perspective of the victim/survivor. That is a sobering perspective for us to take.”
Altman remarked to the inquiry panel: “You may wish to consider why, apparently, it was not until February 2019 that Cardinal Nichols ’began to see’ what they were talking about from the perspective of the victim/survivor.”
Altman added: “The Holy See’s refusal to provide the inquiry with all the evidence it has sought is very disappointing … Pope Francis [recently] acknowledged the ‘physical, psychological and spiritual damage’ done to the victims of child sexual abuse, and added that ‘a continuous and profound conversion of hearts is needed, attested by concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the church’”.
Altman told the chair of the inquiry, Prof Alexis Jay, that she “may consider that it is difficult to reconcile the Pope’s own words with the Holy See’s response to the requests properly made to it by this inquiry.”
The papal nuncio, the Vatican’s diplomatic representative in the UK, is Edward Adams. He was asked to cooperate in handing over evidence gathered by his office in 2011 and 2012 about allegations of abuse of pupils at St Benedict’s school and Ealing Abbey in west London.
“Let me make perfectly clear,” Altman said, “that the inquiry went through established diplomatic channels and all proper procedures, including seeking assistance and advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, despite which no statements have been provided to the inquiry by the Holy See.”
Last week, IICSA published a report into the “sadistic and predatory” atmosphere and culture of cover-up and denial at St Benedict’s school that allowed sexual abusers to commit crimes against children for decades.