The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) discovered more than 3,000 complaints of child sexual abuse perpetrated by over 900 priests, deacons, and other Church employees between 1970 and 2015. That’s just the cases they were able to find and document; the true numbers, they suspect, would be much higher.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and current president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, claimed to be “shocked to the core” by the level of abuse, which is a startling claim from the man who acts as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Wales and England. Reportedly, Nichols has led abuse inquiries in the past… but to hear him speak, one wonders whether he’s even been paying attention to news items about his religion over the past few decades.
But this particular inquiry got his attention, skewering him for what they described as a lack of compassion for the suffering of child abuse victims:
As the figurehead and the most senior leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Catholics look to Cardinal Nichols to lead by example. During the final public hearing in November 2018, he apologized for the Church’s failings, noting that this was a source of “great sorrow and shame for me and, indeed I know, for the Catholic Church.” But there was no acknowledgement of any personal responsibility to lead or influence change. Nor did he demonstrate compassion towards victims in the recent cases which we examined.
His acknowledgement that “there is plenty for us to achieve” applies as much to him as it does to everyone else in the Church. He did not always exercise the leadership expected of a senior member of the Church, at times preferring to protect the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales and in Rome.
Survivors described an environment where their allegations were dismissed, covered up, or viciously attacked by expensive Church-funded legal teams. Nichols dragged his feet on changes recommended by previous inquiries, then complained to IICSA about the difficulties of implementing “impersonal and somewhat inflexible” child safeguarding procedures.
A 2007 inquiry seems to have put its finger on the reason behind it all: “resistance to change and a fear and suspicion that the authority of the leadership is being undermined.” Is there anything Catholic prelates hate more than a challenge to their authority?
Perhaps one of the ugliest and most dramatic failures of compassion came out of internal correspondence from the Diocese of Westminster where Nichols presides. The language the safeguarding team employed to describe the victim in question was the very opposite of compassionate:
In her case, members of the Diocese of Westminster safeguarding team sent e-mails in 2016 and 2017 suggesting that the team needed to play the “good practice card” and described her as “needy” and “deeply manipulative.” The language used by those involved in her case was disrespectful and conveyed a worrying underlying attitude. [The woman]’s experience highlights the obvious need for the Church to put in place a complaints procedure for complaints related to the service provided by the safeguarding teams.
Lawyer Richard Scorer, who represents more than 30 sexual abuse victims working with IICSA, says the document made for impressive and horrifying reading:
This is an absolutely damning report. It highlights the shocking scale of abuse, the disgraceful slowness of the church’s response, the abject failures of leadership by Cardinal Nichols, and the Vatican’s appalling refusal to cooperate properly with the inquiry.
Cardinal Nichols needs to go right away. In any other walk of life he would be gone immediately.
But Nichols clearly disagrees. He responded to the IICSA report with a fawning apology, but he says he has no intention of resigning. He won’t take responsibility for that choice, either, insisting that it was really all up to the pontiff:
I offered my resignation to Pope Francis. His answer has come back very clear, very unambiguous. He wants me to stay in post, so I will stay because that’s where my orders come from. That’s where my mandate comes from.
He wants me to stay — I’m going to stay and continue to work wholeheartedly at these matters.
It’s amazing, the incalculable damage that can be laid at the feet of people who are just following orders. The Catholic Church provides a hierarchy that allows men like Nichols to pass the buck all the way up the chain of command until it reaches a figure too distant for anyone to touch.
As always, it’s the vulnerable people near the ground who are left to pick up the pieces.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Richard for the link)