An earlier version of this article noted that Fr Gerard Doyle had been asked by his superior to inform Fr Samuel Penney that he was about to be arrested. We would like to make it clear that Fr Doyle had no role in formulating the request, did not comply with the order and had no connection to Fr Penney.
Priests would rather die than violate the sacramental Seal of Confession, Cardinal Vincent Nichols (pictured) suggested last week.
“I would defend the Seal of Confession absolutely,” he told the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA). “The history of the Catholic Church has a number of people who’ve been put to death in defence of the Seal of Confession. It might come to that.”
The cardinal’s remarks evoke such figures as St John Sarkander, the 17th-century martyr for the Seal of Confession canonised in 1995. It is hard to imagine that priests in 21st-century Britain would be racked, branded and burned as he was. But there is a real prospect they could face jail if legal force was given to mandatory reporting of abuse admitted in Confession, given that breaking the seal incurs automatic excommunication under canon law.
In that sense, Cardinal Nichols was right to warn the inquiry that persecution might arise from such a recommendation and therefore it “would be rejected” by the bishops of England and Wales.
Persecution, of course, is not the objective of IICSA, which was set up to investigate child abuse across a range of British institutions. It is not the work of IICSA but the enormity of child abuse and the presence of offenders within the clergy that have brought the Church to this point.
It is a crisis in which the principal victims are those scarred by abuse. The perpetrators will face the judgment of God for the damage they have done to them and also to the mission of the Church, since the salvific message of the Gospel falls on deaf ears when sacred ministers commit heinous sins against children.
It is a crisis arguably anticipated by St John Henry Newman in his 1873 sermon on “The Infidelity of the Future”, in which he noted that “it is plain that we are at the mercy of even one unworthy member or false brother”. “If there ever was a time when one priest will be a spectacle to men and angels it is in the age now opening upon us,” he said.
And what a spectacle it is proving to be. Last year, for example, a priest told IICSA that Mgr Daniel Leonard, a former vicar general of the Archdiocese of Birmingham, ordered him to tip off Fr Samuel Penney, a paedophile, that he was about to be arrested and to give him cash to flee to America.
Mgr Leonard, now deceased, also provided Fr James Robinson with a good character reference so he could transfer to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles when the priest was facing allegations of child abuse in the UK, and thereby enabled him “to remain in the USA and avoid prosecution for the next quarter of a century”.
Cardinal Nichols was upbraided by the inquiry for accusing the BBC, in 2003, of “anti-Catholic bias” following the broadcast of a film about Fr Robinson on the eve of the silver jubilee of Pope John Paul II in October of that year.
Both Cardinal Nichols and Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham have since apologised for such failings but damaging revelations continue to emerge.
Last week the inquiry questioned Cardinal Nichols about the treatment of a woman, referred to as A710, who some 10 years ago accused Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor (who died in 2017) of abusing her.
The Crown Prosecution Service dismissed the case and an investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was subsequently halted. The alleged offences, Cardinal Nichols told the inquiry, were not logistically possible.
But in 2018 details of the allegations, including some which could have identified A710, were leaked, along with the claim that Pope Francis had personally halted the Vatican investigation.
This led to Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton, who had been A710’s parish priest and who found her allegations convincing, deciding to issue a public statement in support of her credibility.
The inquiry heard that the statement was withheld after Alexander Desforges, the bishops’ head of media, rang Bishop Doyle and told him it would not only expose A710 to unwanted media interest but also would be used to attack Pope Francis, who by then was facing severe criticism from Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former nuncio to the US, for allegedly failing to combat corruption.
Cardinal Nichols told the inquiry it was an “evident and obvious fact” that such a statement would be used against the Pope, and Brian Altman QC, IICSA’s lead counsel, suggested that the protection of the Pope might appear to be the cardinal’s priority.
Whatever the truth of the claims, the Church looked bad and the rift between the cardinal and at least one of the bishops is unsettling. The episode may serve as an indicator of how hard it can be to establish the truth of some allegations.
It remains to be seen whether IICSA will acknowledge such complexities. A ferociously determined but narrow focus on faults of institutions perceived to have acted callously towards children in their care means the Catholic Church, irrespective of its efforts to atone for its sins and correct its deficiencies, is now on its knees begging for mercy rather than conferring it.
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