IICSA publishes investigation report into the Roman Catholic Church

This week IICSA published its investigation report into the Roman Catholic Church (the Church). The report aims to examine the extent of institutional failings by the Church in England and Wales to protect children from child sexual abuse and examine the Church’s current safeguarding regime. The report draws on evidence from the Inquiry’s three case studies and the final public hearing held in October and November 2019.

Whilst the report acknowledges that there has been some progression and positive action (for example, improvements following the Nolan and Cumberlege reviews; the establishment of the Survivors Advisory Panel (SAP) in 2016; the implementation of a ‘Safe Spaces Project’ which aims to enable victims and survivors to obtain pastoral support etc.), on the whole the report is critical of the Church and identifies numerous areas for improvement.

The report is critical of the Church’s leadership and notes a reluctance to acknowledge responsibility, hold individuals to account or to make sincere apologies. In addition, it identifies an uncertainty as to whether a culture of safeguarding is fully embedded across the entire Church. Delays in implementing change are a theme throughout the report in a number of different areas. The Inquiry considers that Church leaders need to do more to encourage and embed a culture of safeguarding throughout the entire Catholic Church in England and Wales.

The report is also highly critical of the way in which the Church has responded to disclosures, which it states has been characterised by a failure to support victims and survivors in stark contrast to the position and action taken to protect alleged perpetrators and the reputation of the Church. It concludes that a consistently compassionate approach to meetings with victims and survivors is also yet to be achieved.

Throughout the investigation, the Inquiry heard numerous examples of child sexual abuse allegations made to the Church which were not passed to Police or other statutory authorities. Against this background, a number of core participants and other witnesses suggested that the Inquiry should recommend mandatory reporting of all child sexual abuse allegations. The report recognises that mandatory reporting could affect the Church in the context of the seal of the confessional and that the Church maintains that a law which required the clergy to break the seal would cause fundamental conflict with the sanctity of the confessional and would be opposed by the Bishops’ Conference. The issue of mandatory reporting will be returned to in the Inquiry’s final report.

The report refers to the Church’s canonical framework and Canon Law, under which Canon 1395 of the 1983 code refers to the main canonical crime applicable to child sexual abuse allegations.  The report notes that describing child sexual abuse as the canonical crime of ‘adultery’ is  wrong and minimises the criminal nature of abuse inflicted on child victims. It concludes that a canonical crime relating to child sexual abuse should clearly be identified as a crime against the child.

With regards to the policies and procedures section of the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service (CSAS) website, the report notes that the Inquiry heard no evidence that the policies are deficient or inadequate. However, it comments that the website is not easy to use and policies and procedures themselves are also sometimes difficult to follow. There was also evidence to suggest that compliance with national policies and procedures is inconsistent.

The report contains the following recommendations:

  1. Leadership – The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and the Conference of Religious in England and Wales should each nominate a lead member of the clergy for safeguarding to provide leadership and oversight on safeguarding matters to their respective Conferences and the wider Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales.
  • Training – The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales should ensure that safeguarding training is mandatory for all staff and volunteers in roles where they work with children or victims and survivors of abuse, in addition to regular refresher training. The training should also consider the impact of child sexual abuse and should be developed in conjunction with the SAP. 
  • Compliance – There should be clear publication of a framework for dealing with cases of non-compliance with safeguarding policies and procedures, to include details re who is responsible for dealing with non-compliance at all levels of the Church, and the measures or sanctions for non-compliance.
  • External auditing – The CSAS should have the effectiveness of its audit programme regularly validated by an independent organisation which is external to the Church. These independent reports should be published.
  • Canon 1395 – The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales should request that the Holy See redraft the canonical crimes relating to child sexual abuse as crimes against the child.
  • CSAS website and policies and procedures manual – The manual and the documents within it should be reviewed to ensure that they are consistent, easier to follow and more accessible.
  • Complaints policy – A national policy should be published for complaints about the way in which a safeguarding case is handled, covering communication during the complaints process and an escalation process for all complaints to be assessed by an independent adjudicator if they are unhappy with the handling of the complaint.

In addition to mandatory reporting, the Inquiry will also return to issues identified in relation to the law of limitation in child sexual abuse cases and the applicability of Section 2 of the Compensation Act 2006 in its final report.

The Church’s response to the recommendations remains to be seen. It is hoped that the recommendations will be actioned without any unnecessary delay.

Lauren Donnison, Paralegal, BLM

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