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POPE Francis is currently gathering 200 bishops and heads of religious orders from around the world for a global summit in Rome to discuss the crisis facing the Catholic Church over sexual abuse scandals. It is likely to produce a new round of public apologies, expressions of concern for victims and pledges of reform.
But recent statements by leading bishops and the pope suggest that church officials are not ready to take an essential step in ending the scandal: providing a full and detailed accounting of their own role in concealing credible allegations of sexual abuse.
This was shown recently as yet another senior clergyman resigned over his role in covering up paedophile priests’ sexual abuse. Martin Shipperlee, abbot of Ealing Abbey, resigned after appearing before the UK independent inquiry into sexual abuse in early February. The inquiry has written to the Pope’s representative in Britain Archbishop Edward Adams requesting him to disclose details of his handling of complaints against staff in Catholic schools, but he has declined to co-operate.
Pope Francis recently told reporters that the Vatican summit will include a “penitential liturgy to ask forgiveness for the whole Church,” testimony from victims to make bishops “become aware” and the establishment of new “protocols” for handling abuse cases. This agenda for the current summit fits the now-familiar pattern of apologising, expressing concern for victims and pledging reform, but failing to disclose evidence for use in criminal court action.
The pope also indicated in his remarks that the summit would focus on the need for sex education that adheres to Church doctrine. This plan for reform — promoting Church doctrine on sexuality, calling out priests who have perpetrated abuse and pledging to clean house in the future — is missing a key ingredient necessary to quell the crisis: until Church officials provide a full accounting of their concerted efforts over decades to hide crimes from civil authorities, parishioners and the public, the clergy sexual abuse scandal will not go away.
From the late 1980s, allegations of sexual abuse of children associated with Catholic institutions and clerics in several countries started to be the subject of sporadic, isolated reports. In Ireland, beginning in the 1990s, a series of criminal cases and Irish government enquiries established that hundreds of priests had abused thousands of children over decades. Six reports by the former National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church established that six Irish priests had been convicted between 1975 and 2011. This has contributed to the secularisation of Ireland and to the decline in influence of the Catholic Church. Ireland held a referendum to legalise same-sex marriage in 2015 and abortion rights in 2018.
Like the Catholic sex abuse cases in the United States and hundreds of other countries, the abuse in Ireland included cases of high-profile Catholic clerics. In many cases, the abusing priests were moved to other parishes to avoid embarrassment or a scandal, assisted by senior clergy. By 2010 a number of in-depth judicial reports had been published, but with only a limited number of criminal convictions.
In the Anglican Church, former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey recently admitted under cross-examination his role in protecting the predatory paedophile ex-Bishop of Gloucester Peter Ball after he was provided with compelling evidence of the crimes committed by the clergyman.
Ball was successfully prosecuted and jailed in 2015 after a career of physically and sexually abusing and exploiting boys and young men, including some who were particularly vulnerable. A report into the cover-up of child sexual abuse within the Church in 2017 concluded that the Church establishment colluded with paedophile priests, failed to investigate allegations and ignored the needs of traumatised young men over a period of 20 years. Ball was first accused in 1993 by a 17-year-old man who took his own life in 2012 when the police accused him of lying during a botched investigation.
Fellow Establishment stalwart Lady Butler Sloss published a report in 2011 into the way the Church of England handled previous allegations against two ministers in Sussex who had sexually abused young boys. Eight months after her report was published, Butler-Sloss had to issue a six-page addendum in which she apologised for “inaccuracies” which, she admitted, arose from her failure to corroborate information given to her by senior Anglican figures as part of the inquiry. She had failed to test the evidence presented to her by senior Anglican figures keen to whitewash the scandal.
As the first IICSA head, Butler-Sloss, a devout Anglican and failed Tory general election candidate, quit following the above revelations, together with the news that her brother Michael Havers, who was attorney general under Margaret Thatcher, limited the scope of an inquiry into child sexual abuse at the Kincora Children’s Home in Northern Ireland in the 1970s.
Cabinet minutes from 1983 reveal that Havers ensured that MPs and other prominent public figures were protected by restricting the terms of reference of the inquiry. In the early 1980s, Havers was accused himself by campaigning MP Geoffrey Dickens of a cover-up when he refused to prosecute Sir Peter Hayman — a diplomat, former MI6 deputy director and member of the Paedophile Information Exchange lobbying organisation for child abusers.
In 2014 the Archbishop of York apologised for previous cover-ups of child sexual abuse by Robert Waddington, a former dean of Manchester cathedral who was once in charge of Church schools. Then Archbishop of York Lord Hope admitted he did not report the matter to the police or other child protection agencies even when evidence was shown him in 1999 and again in 2003. Waddington had begun abusing boys in the 1960s when he was headteacher at a school in Australia.
In 2015, the Methodist Church made a very public apology after a wide-ranging independent investigation unearthed nearly 2,000 reported cases of sexual abuse dating to 1950. Evidence reveals that ministers or lay employees had been involved in a quarter of the cases, which included sexual, physical, emotional and domestic abuse as well as neglect. In the 200 cases concerning ministers, 102 were of a sexual nature.
There are multiple police investigations currently under way into historic allegations of child sexual abuse by Church staff throughout Britain and Northern Ireland – all hampered by a lack of transparency and disclosure of vital evidence to secure criminal convictions.
Steven Walker is a former Unicef children’s champion and author of Safeguarding Children and Young People, Russell House Publishers.
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