Nazir Afzal pledges ‘hostile’ Church for abusers

The Tablet [Market Harborough, England]

May 18, 2021

By Catherine Pepinster

Catholic bishops have embraced almost all the recommendations to improve their safeguarding made by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), a report reveals this week.

According to an action plan from the Catholic Council for the IICSA, the bishops have agreed to implement major changes to the way they deal with victims of abuse, organise safeguarding training, and deal with those who fail to comply with safeguarding policies. All of them were recommended in a damning IICSA report last year into their handling of abuse.

And the plan also reveals that the Holy See will be revising its code of canon law so that for the first time crimes against minors will not be dealt with as a crime against the obligations of celibacy. Instead they will be dealt with under a category of “Crimes against the life, dignity and freedom of man” and will include a canon specific to minors – indicating that the Vatican is finally acknowledging through canon law the harm done to children.

Publication of the action plan also coincides with the appointment of the lawyer Nazir Afzal, a former chief prosecutor, as chair of the Church’s new safeguarding body, the Catholic Standards Safeguarding Agency (CSSA).

The new agency replaces two previous bodies, the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service (CSAS) and National Catholic Safeguarding Commission, that were set up following the Cumberlege Commission Report. The CSSA is an agent of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference but has been set up as a separate trading company with day to day independence to advise church agencies but also monitor their compliance.

According to the action plan, the Church has agreed to the IICSA recommendation to appoint a lead member of the clergy for safeguarding – Bishop Paul Mason, bishop of the armed forces, is to take this role. The Church has also agreed to have mandatory safeguarding training with specific training for leaders, with the voice of victims and survivors central to it. There will be a clear framework for dealing with non-compliance – this will be provided by the new CSSA, which says the action plan, will have “a dedicated audit function with the necessary powers of sanction”, as well as a more accessible website and external validating of the CSSA.

IICSA also urged the English and Welsh bishops to urge the Holy See to redraft canonical crimes relating to child sexual abuse as crimes against children and Cardinal Vincent Nichols, on behalf of the Bishops’ Conference wrote to the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, urging the redrafting. On April 23, the Council confirmed the revisions will be made.

One IICSA recommendation has not been fully met. It asked for a national complaints policy and while a template has been provided, the action plan says that “each diocese needs to adapt and formally adopt their bespoke version as each is a separate civil entity”.

The action plan also commits the new CSSA team to be in place by next month. Headhunters Saxton Bampfylde and an advisory panel, chaired by Catholic Sir Peter Fahy, chief constable of Greater Manchester, 2008-2015, helped the select the candidates for the new CSSA board.

Its new chair, Nazir Afzal, is a practising solicitor who spent most of his career in the Crown Prosecution Service, rising to be Chief Crown Prosecutor for North West England from 2011 to 2015. He is a practising Muslim with long experience of dealing with abuse cases, including sex trafficking gangs in Rochdale.

Speaking at an online press conference this morning, Mr Afzal said he felt “immensely privileged” to have taken on the role.

He said every institution he had ever come across, had invariably put their own interests first.

“I wouldn’t have taken on this role if I didn’t think this was a key change in the way things were going to be done.” It filled him with “great hope and optimism” that the Catholic Church was changing in this regard.

His goal, he added, was “to make sure we make it the most supportive environment for victims and the most hostile environment for abusers”. 

He said he had spoken with Cardinal Nichols last week and “he signalled a massive change in the way in which the church operated in terms of safeguarding”.

Survivors of abuse welcomed Afzal’s appointment. 

Deirdre McCormack, survivor of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest, said: “I am confident that he will do his utmost to try to bring about the changes that are so badly needed within the Church.”

While A711 said that although he had a proven commitment to working in the best interests of victims and survivors, they added: “I do not, underestimate the task that lies ahead for him and the new board. It remains to be seen if the bishops of England and Wales really have the will to allow change to happen”.

A711 also expressed concern that unless Afzal and the new board are given freedom and support to make changes, the new set-up “may turn out to be no more than a rearranging of the furniture”. The new chair and his directors will be working with former staff of the CSAS who have been “TUPE’D” across under employment law to the new set-up.

Richard Scorer, head of abuse law at solicitors Slater & Gordon, who represented many survivors at the IICSA hearings welcomed Afzal’s appointment but said that: “A key issue now is whether this changes and whether CSSA genuinely has the enforcement powers to override resistance in church institutions”.