Nazir Afzal is the new head of the CSSA, the Church’s safeguarding body, a role he took on only recently. He’s a Muslim: it was a widely welcomed, if unexpected, appointment. One thing struck him: “I’ve never, in all my career, encountered such low expectations, such an expectation of failure”, he said cheerfully. “Online and in blogs, you had people saying, it’s good that he’s taken on this role, but he can’t possibly succeed.”
In the course of his career – he’s 59 – he has done an awful lot of work on sexual abuse. His most celebrated decision, as regional Crown Prosecution Service head, was to prosecute the abuse of vulnerable girls in Rochester, by Muslim men. It is a dispiriting area of expertise, but he is driven, as he says by “passion to protect the vulnerable”. He has, he says, “prosecuted literally tens of thousands of cases. I prosecute without fear or favour.”
It was an interesting move for the Church to appoint not just a non-Catholic to head this new body but a Muslim. “It was rather a brave decision by the Church,” he says. “Before I applied I wondered how I would be perceived. I talked it through with the Church officials and they said that they didn’t want me for my theology but my safeguarding experience and my credibility.” Victims of abuse, he says, have been supportive. “I am reassured by their trust in me.”
Didn’t he find it tricky dealing with an institution that has a hierarchy and a complex structure and religious orders? No, he says; the issues are the same. “The commitment the Church has to a One Church philosophy means it doesn’t matter whether you are dealing with a religious order or a diocesan matter, you are committed to safeguarding people.” This approach means that there should be uniformity of response to abuse allegations throughout the Church in England and Wales.
Is there, I asked, any points of similarity between the cases he’s encountered in the Church and those in other institutions – politics, the police, sporting bodies, the BBC?
“Abuse,” he says, “is about power and control. It’s not about sex – it’s someone in power wanting to control another person. It’s always a minority. These are bad guys, driven by male power and male control. The Catholic Church is not in any way different in that respect.”
So there’s nothing unique about the Church’s scandals? “Nothing at all”, he says emphatically. I think he’s right; as Lord Acton, the great Catholic historian observed: “All power”, he wrote, “tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
For a man who deals professionally with some of the least attractive aspects of the human soul, he is a cheerful and open individual. He’s a lawyer, so he doesn’t commit himself in areas he’s not sure about, but he’s keen to talk about his role. Catholicism isn’t an entirely unknown quantity for him. His first wife was from an Irish Catholic background – they had a civil marriage – and he grew up among Birmingham Irish Catholics.
He doesn’t see the victims of abuse in an undifferentiated way. “For survivors, you need a bespoke process,” he says. “Some don’t want to be in the same room as other victims; they want to talk to me, one to one.” They are often vulnerable, he says, and the quality of evidence in each case varies. “Victims are always emotionally scarred, perhaps lacking trust in any institution. That’s our fault. It’s the fault of agencies and institutions. We have to provide the most supportive environment we can. I often tell the police: you don’t get full disclosure in the first meeting. Do not expect the victim to come to you. You have to find them. There are all sorts of reasons for their reluctance – fear of repercussions and consequences. You must find them. Listen first.”
The trouble is, I say, that lawyers can get in the way. In one instance where a religious order is accused of having presided over the historic abuse of boys, the order is refusing to acknowledge guilt or to apologise because, it would seem, a diocesan insurance lawyer is advising them not to have any direct contact with the men. So, the potential acceptance of liability, with the attendant financial implications, gets in the way of a Christian and humane response to the victims. It’s a problem that Mr Afzal is familiar with. “I understand the issue of liability and it needs looking at,” he says, “but fear of litigation impedes listening. I think our prime consideration must be the victims, and survivors should be listened to and responded to. You must always do what is humane and right, and the financial implications can be dealt with separately.”
There is also the flip side of the problem, of priests and religious wrongly accused of criminal behaviour. I raised the issue of Cardinal Pell, imprisoned for a crime which he not only didn’t do but almost certainly couldn’t have done. Without addressing this case, he observes, “Cases must be dealt with robustly but we must also be careful to uphold the principle that an accused is innocent until proven guilty. I don’t believe in prosecution without evidence.” And how do you restore the reputatation of someone who’s been wrongfully accused? “You have to make clear that the charges against them don’t stand up.”
Some priests I know find safeguarding protocols absurdly onerous. I mentioned to Mr Afzal one priest friend to whom it was suggested that he should be accompanied by a chaperone on parish visits, which has the implication that he can’t be trusted with his parishioners and would in any event make it impossible for parishioners to talk to him freely. Mr Afzal raised his eyebrows. “It’s the first I’ve heard of this concept. We have to protect not only the parishioner but also the priest from any perception of wrongdoing but if that means measures such as this, that might be an excessive, perhaps exaggerated response. The dynamic of the relationship would change. Would you expect that in the case of a doctor seeing a patient – would you expect a third person in the room? No. It could mean a breach of confidentiality of patient. It’s an extreme response to potential threat.”
Mr Afzal is keen to emphasise the need for mandatory reporting of abuse allegations in the Church as in other institutions; indeed, this is for him the most important single element of his reforms – the other being more generous funding for the CSSA.
But where does this leave confession, where someone may confess to abuse, but where the priest is bound absolutely by the seal of confession? Mr Afzal admits that he isn’t familiar with confession but says there may be ways round the difficulty. “When a doctor seeing a patient becomes aware of abuse, you can’t oblige him to disclose this but you may be able to find other evidence that can reveal the situation and lead to a safeguarding journey.”
Does Mr Afzal find that he can relate to the Church better because he is himself a man of faith? “I always say my faith doesn’t define me”, he says. “it refines me; it makes me more caring. In speaking to senior members of the Church I see lots of synergies. People of faith are good-hearted people. I am more compassionate and more humane because of my faith, and I think that is true of the Church too.”
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