News Analysis

Abuse crisis: A Westminster mystery


What is the truth about the case of Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor?

The claims are shocking. A cardinal is accused of child abuse; his diocese is accused of mishandling the accusation; Pope Francis himself is accused of cutting short the inquiry. These allegations, reported by the website LifeSiteNews last week and picked up by the Times, gave English Catholics a sinking feeling. The recent wave of scandal, which has overwhelmed the credibility of the US Church, seemed to have crossed the Atlantic – for the cardinal in question was the late Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, and the diocese was Westminster, of which he was archbishop from 2000 to 2009.

But a closer look suggests that, in this instance, the claims may not stand up. The source of the allegations is an abuse survivor who is said to have received compensation from the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton. She was assaulted by Fr Michael Hill in the 1960s – and she claims that other priests were involved, among them the future Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor.

According to LifeSiteNews, the woman “has been in contact with Church authorities for about 15 years now, without ever having received a thorough investigation of her claims”. The story alleged that in 2009 or 2010, Cardinal Nichols (Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor’s successor) received a complaint from the woman, but he “refused to investigate”.

In 2011, the report claimed, the dioceses of Portsmouth and Northampton had passed the case to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Only in 2013, LifeSiteNews alleged, did an auxiliary bishop in Westminster agree to meet the woman, “but still did not agree to start an investigation”. This, the story said, was according to “a source from England with inside knowledge of the case”.

A further allegation came from the Italian journalist Marco Tosatti. He said that a Vatican official – “an extremely good source, who was then in the government of the Curia” – had told him that Pope Francis quashed the CDF’s inquiry into Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor. The Pope summoned the CDF prefect Cardinal Gerhard Müller, according to Tosatti’s source, and asked him to call off the investigation.

How much of this is true? The answer seems to be: much of it is highly dubious, while a few points remain unclear.

The Catholic Herald has been able to talk to sources close to the process, who have clarified the picture. First, the allegations were “thoroughly investigated” by Kent police, according to a source, and there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed.

In 2011, the CDF – whose prefect at the time was Cardinal William Levada – looked into the case, and also decided there wasn’t enough evidence to take it forward.

In 2013, according to an online report by the Tablet last week, Cardinal Nichols reviewed all the abuse cases in his diocese and “found an ‘administrative gap’ in the bureaucracy around the initial handling of the claim”. The case was again referred to the CDF, now under the leadership of Cardinal Müller. Cardinal Müller checked with at least two English dioceses and concluded there was no need for a follow-up on Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor. The file was closed.

In sum: the allegations were reported and investigated by civil authorities, the Vatican looked into the case, and no reason was found to proceed. It doesn’t look much like a case of cover-up.

Nevertheless, some aspects of the story remain puzzling. What was the “administrative gap” Cardinal Nichols found in the initial response to the claim?

Perhaps more significantly, the Herald has learned that more than one bishop was unhappy with how the Diocese of Westminster addressed the case. Was it one of these bishops who asked the CDF to examine the case in 2011?

There is a final strange aspect to this story: the allegation against Pope Francis. According to Tosatti, who told the story on the website of First Things, one day in mid-2013 Cardinal Müller was celebrating Mass in Rome.

His secretary joined him at the altar: “The Pope wants to speak to you.”

“Did you tell him I am celebrating Mass?” asked Müller. “Yes,” said the secretary, “but he says he does not mind – he wants to talk to you all the same.” The cardinal went to the sacristy. The Pope, in a very bad mood, gave him some orders about a dossier concerning one of his friends, a cardinal.

Tosatti now claims that these “orders” were to close the dossier on Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor. But if the case only needed a bureaucratic error to be cleared up, why would the Pope intervene so dramatically? The story doesn’t quite add up. Indeed, given that Pope Francis faces far more cogent allegations – those made by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò six weeks ago – the story about Cardinal Müller’s Mass looks, for now, like a red herring.

We still don’t know exactly how Westminster diocese dealt with the case, or why some bishops were reportedly discontented. But it is possible this will be examined by the Inquiry into Institutional Child Abuse (IICSA), which will be looking into the Church’s response to abuse next year.

For the moment, the only certain conclusion is that you can’t believe everything you read – even if it makes it into the papers.