When Pope Francis wrote his recent letter on abuse to the world’s Catholics, the BBC interviewed a survivor in the United States. Asked what she thought of the letter, she replied “nothing”, as it only contained words and proposed no actions. “I have no faith in the Church any more,” she said, “but I still have faith in God. And I know the difference.”
This was a devastating judgment on Church leaders who, even after all these years, fail to meet abuse survivors face to face and take action against those who have covered up crimes, putting the reputation of the institution before the criminally destroyed childhood of victims.
Last week the bishops of England and Wales announced that they had asked the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission (NCSC) to commission “an entirely independent and comprehensive review” of safeguarding. It also emerged that Cardinal Vincent Nichols will give evidence to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) in November.
These are welcome developments, but it would be unwise for Church leaders in England and Wales – and, indeed, Scotland – to stand back from the current global abuse scandal as if all were well here.
I served as chairman of the NCSC from 2012 to 2015. The commission is an independent body working within the Catholic Church in England and Wales. In that role I recognised some good safeguarding practice, in particular the work of diocesan safeguarding coordinators. But what I experienced led me to ask if some leaders still don’t “get it” when it comes to abuse.
For example, one bishop declined my request to meet the mother of a teenager who was groomed and abused by his parish priest, because his lawyer had advised him not to. An archbishop decided not to meet an abuse victim because he had been advised the person was “mad”. Another bishop appointed a diocesan safeguarding coordinator who did not fulfil the agreed national criteria for the role. When I raised this with the bishop, he simply ignored my concerns. One missionary order to this day will not meet survivors of abuse in one of their schools, failing to support them and their families.
Understandably, some victims regard these kinds of actions as “secondary abuse”. In his letter to Catholics, Pope Francis described Church leaders who fail to engage with survivors and support them as spiritually arrogant. Words without actions are empty, and abuse victims continue to make this clear.
Will they ever be heard? One doubts it, given the continuing scandals and the effort it takes to remove bishops or heads of religious orders who have made protecting the Church’s reputation their priority.
Following the IICSA report on Ampleforth and Downside, a representative of the Benedictines apologised to victims, but made no offer to meet them or give their families support. Ampleforth is still not trusted by the Charity Commission to oversee safeguarding on its own. I believe that if the Benedictines are unable to reform their safeguarding procedures, then the schools should close.
Only radical action will change the context of the continuing scandal. The following should be considered:
■ Pope Francis should remove responsibility for abuse cases from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has failed to process cases swiftly enough, and give it to local bishops’ conferences. They should set up investigating panels including lay canon lawyers and abuse survivors. They should be able to discipline – and dismiss – bishops and other leaders. They would send their decisions to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in Rome, which would then confirm the decision to the Pope or seek further clarification. This would give the commission the authority and power it currently lacks.
■ Every bishop and leader of a religious order should invite every abuse victim in their communities to meet them, so that they can apologise to them and offer appropriate support. Anyone who declines to do so should be required to resign.
■ The Pope should remove the arcane distinction between bishops and heads of religious orders which has allowed some bishops to claim they can do nothing about allegations of abuse by Religious, leading some leaders of orders to behave as if they were untouchable. Religious should be placed under the jurisdiction of the president of the bishops’ conference. The president should be able to call to account any missionary or religious order in the country.
Sadly, even if these proposals were implemented, it would be already too late for those who have killed themselves, or who are a long way from faith in the Church and, indeed, in God. The leaders of our Church are largely responsible for this.
In 2014, I took two survivors to meet Pope Francis in Rome. At Mass, he explicitly named the experience of victims: for some suicide, for others alcohol and drug addiction, for others still an inability to make or sustain relationships or alienation from the Church.
I have yet to hear a bishop or religious superior in this country talk in such a moving and direct way about survivors’ lives. But it is never too late to try.
Danny Sullivan is a former chairman of the NCSC and was a member of the McLellan Commission in Scotland from its inception in 2014
This article first appeared in the October 5 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here