Safeguarding: giving voice to the voiceless

The Tablet [Market Harborough, England]

May 26, 2021

By Catherine Pepinster

Nazir Afzal, the man who will lead the Catholic Church’s work on child safety, has an impressive track record in combating sexual abuse, and an understanding of the role of religion in people’s lives – he is a practising Muslim

It’s an all too common story. A young teenager cultivated by a friendly adult finds kindness being replaced by unwanted sexual advances and then threats if she tells anyone about it. And when the adults do find out, nobody accepts her story and the authorities do nothing.

Sounds familiar? It’s happened to plenty of victims – male and female – of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. It’s happened in plenty of communities across Britain. But in one neighbourhood something changed. Nazir Afzal, a lawyer from Birmingham, arrived in the north-west of England to become the chief prosecutor of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

He discovered a series of grooming cases in Rochdale that the CPS had previously decided not to pursue. Afzal thought otherwise. He stepped in to prosecute for one key reason: he believed the victims.

Now Afzal has been appointed chair of the Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency (CSSA), the new safeguarding body created to oversee the Catholic Church’s work on child safety. Many assumed the bishops would turn to a trusty lay Catholic – a retired judge, say, or civil servant – to take on the role. Afzal’s appointment has taken them by surprise.

Afzal is a man with an impressive track record in combating child sexual abuse and an understanding of the role of religion in people’s lives – he is a practising Muslim. He also has a liking for plain speaking and a certain fondness for self-promotion. His personal website includes a list of his awards and praise from The New York Times. The paper profiled him for his work in Rochdale and highlighted his sense of humour. “I’ve done my bit for multifaith engagement,” he told them. “As a good Muslim boy, I’ve been married three times. First to an Irish Catholic, then to an Indian Hindu and then to a British Sikh.”

He was born in 1962 into a Pashtun family a year after his parents migrated from Pakistan to Birmingham. He was one of seven children. He was bullied at school and the family was racially abused on a daily basis. In his autobiography The Prosecutor: One Man’s Pursuit of Justice for the Voiceless, he recalls being the victim of a racially motivated attack, and his father telling him: “The police are not interested in you. Justice doesn’t mean anything to us.”

It was a defining moment, inspiring Afzal to study law at Birmingham University before qualifying as a solicitor. A second epiphany came in the early Nineties, when he represented a man charged with rape. When Afzal realised he was lying, he decided to resign and soon after he offered his services to the CPS.

He developed specialist knowledge of what he calls “gender terrorism” – violence against women and girls, including honour killings and forced marriages – and saw the extent of victim blaming. Afzal recalls one case in particular where the father of a 16-year-old girl, on trial for her murder after he slit her throat for dating a boy, had his sentence reduced when the victim was portrayed by the defence as “wayward”.

In another case, he successfully brought to justice a brother and cousin of 25-year-old Samaira Nazir, whom they had murdered in an honour killing. He came to realise that ideas about family honour and female purity, which he had expected to die out in second- and third-generation families, were being perpetuated.

The treatment of young girls in immigrant communities was also at the heart of his work in Rochdale after he had been appointed the north-west’s chief Crown prosecutor. When he arrived in 2011, it was already known that young, vulnerable girls from dysfunctional families were being groomed and passed around men who raped them.

He decided to overturn a previous decision by the CPS not to prosecute. Nine men were convicted of offences including rape, sexual activity with a girl under 16 and trafficking for sexual exploitation.

Afzal has since observed that delays in bringing perpetrators to justice in Rochdale were in part due to politically correct white professionals being afraid of being considered racist. Since then, other investigations and the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) have exposed even more about abuse and how it is often covered up, as well as the need to doggedly pursue abusers, listen to victims and put in place safeguarding ­practices to protect children. The Catholic bishops’ latest action plan indicates they have taken these priorities on board. It will be down to Afzal to ensure they shape the new agency’s work.

After leaving the CPS in 2015, Afzal became the chief executive of the Police and Crime Commissioners, but resigned less than a year later so he could be free to express his views on events such as the Manchester Arena bombing. He now has a portfolio career. He has an honorary law lecturership at Manchester University and is chair of Hopwood Hall College, which has a campus in Rochdale; he sits on the board of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) and is also national adviser on ­gender-based violence to the Welsh government. In 2018, he joined the advisory board of Google’s Innovation Fund for counter-­extremism. None of these positions rivals the challenge inherent in reforming the ­safeguarding work of the Catholic Church.

If Afzal thinks he has left behind abuse of the kind he endured in the past – he was attacked viciously by the far-right English Defence League for his work as a prosecutor – he is mistaken. Already Church Militant, an ultra-conservative Catholic website, has launched a personal attack based on his approval of the government’s policy on LGBT education and his ­support for the UK’s abortion laws.

Afzal, meanwhile, is focusing his own ire on abusers. He said last week he had taken on the CSSA role because he is optimistic that the Church is changing in its approach to tackling abuse. Now he is intent, he says, on making the Catholic Church “the most supportive environment for victims and the most hostile environment for abusers”.