Humiliation for cardinal as rape victim wins payout over smear

The Times [England]

October 17, 2021

By Emily Kent Smith

A Catholic woman who was sexually abused by a priest took legal action about ‘disgraceful’ emails by church staff dismissing her

A woman who was sexually abused by a priest from the age of 15 has been given a payout by the Catholic church after officials branded her “needy” and “manipulative”.

The victim came forward in 2016 and told safeguarding staff that she had been abused as a child and later raped. She received a settlement in 2018.

The woman, now in her fifties, has been awarded damages after filing a legal claim setting out how she was “re-traumatised” by the church’s handling of her allegations.

It is believed to be one of the first cases of its kind.

The payout, agreed last week, could pave the way for other victims of sexual abuse who feel let down and mistreated by the church to take legal action.

The woman said she wanted to send a message that the Catholic church can’t “just keep getting away with it”.

“I don’t know of any survivor who feels they have been treated with the respect and dignity they should have been,” she said.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, head of the Catholic church in England and Wales, has faced fierce criticism for the way historic sexual abuse allegations have been handled under his watch.

He has previously said that what had happened to the victims hung over him like a “dark cloud”.

It is understood that Nichols, 75, was named in the woman’s personal injury claim, submitted to the Archdiocese of Westminster, of which he is head. No personal legal liability was alleged.

When she first came forward, the woman asked the cardinal for help. Initial requests for meetings were ignored.

It was only when she submitted a formal request to see correspondence about her that the woman discovered how she had been fobbed off and attacked in emails.

One church official wrote: “This woman is deeply manipulative.” Another said: “The victim is needy.”

The cardinal was copied into an email about the woman. “Am I right in thinking you will not be sending a further reply?,” a staff member asked. “You are right in your assumption,” Nichols wrote.

The victim said she had been left with no choice but to threaten legal action against the organisation she had been a part of since birth.

“I was silenced all those years ago as a child and a teenager and then an adult. I’m not going to be silenced now about the way the church is treating people,” she said.

Richard Scorer, a specialist abuse lawyer at Slater & Gordon who acted for the woman, said: “For many years the Catholic church’s treatment of survivors has frequently been little short of disgraceful.

“Despite this, this is the first case I know of where the church has been sued for its handling of the safeguarding process rather than the abuse itself.”

Earlier in her life, the victim had endured episodes of depression, experienced recurring flashbacks and had years of psychotherapy. Her dealings with the church when reporting the abuse led to a deterioration of her mental health and a return to therapy.

“I was disempowered and treated like this nuisance, manipulative, woman,” she said.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols told church officials he “would not be sending a further reply” to the woman

Cardinal Vincent Nichols told church officials he “would not be sending a further reply” to the woman – PETER MACDIARMID/GETTY IMAGES

The Catholic church has been the spotlight in recent weeks after a report in France was published estimating that 330,000 children were abused by members of the clergy and other figures over seven decades.

The “failures and silence” had been “systemic”, it found, with victims treated with “cruel indifference”.

Drawing parallels between her case and what had happened across the Channel, she said: “The ‘cruel indifference’ shown to victims — that just resonated with me.”

She added: “Worldwide it is showing how desperate the situation is, how rotten the church is.”

Last year, the woman’s experience was singled out by the Independent Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) as part of its investigation into the Catholic church. She was referred to under the cipher A711. The inquiry’s findings were damning.

It said: “At times, the report finds, Cardinal Nichols has shown he cares more about the impact of child sexual abuse on the Catholic church’s reputation than on victims and survivors.”

Nichols had shown “no acknowledgement of any personal responsibility to lead or influence change”, the report added. Between 1970 and 2015 the church received more than 3,000 complaints of child sexual abuse against more than 900 individuals in England and Wales, the inquiry found.

The woman said she felt physically sick when she read the email about herself. “These were people in the church who you expect to be caring, supportive, pastoral. And it was the complete opposite, any kind of Christian values were not existent.”

After the first messages were disclosed in 2019, she learnt about further correspondence and eventually discovered that a safeguarding officer had described her as “bullying”. In another blow, she discovered that personal information about her case was sent in error to someone who had the same name as a safeguarding figure.

Survivors had called for Nichols to go in the wake of the IICSA’s report.

Last November, he said he had offered to resign upon turning 75, as is church law when bishops reach this age, but the Vatican turned down his offer.

The woman said her legal claim had come out of “total disbelief” that Nichols was still in the job.

“It kind of left me with nowhere to go in the sense of there being no real accountability or taking responsibility,” she said.

“Vincent Nichols not resigning, the inquiry over … I think they thought I would just go away and have to put up with the injustices of what had happened.”

Nazir Afzal, who was the chief prosecutor in the Rochdale grooming scandal, was appointed as head of the Catholic church’s new safeguarding body earlier this year.

Afzal, who has met the victim, said: “I’m concerned that anyone who has disclosed abuse within the Catholic church should be retraumatised by the way those disclosures have been dealt with.”

He said he had made it “our priority” to meet victims to help shape the church’s future strategy.

“Nobody should have to suffer abuse, and if you have, then it’s the church’s duty to listen, act and respond with empathy, sensitivity and expedition,” Afzal added.

A spokeswoman for the Diocese of Westminster said: “A711’s claim was made against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Westminster, not against Cardinal Nichols.

“The diocese’s insurers reached a settlement to avoid the need for protracted legal proceedings. While the unreserved apologies previously given to A711 were reiterated for any offence unintentionally caused, it was denied that the diocese’s conduct was in any way negligent.

“The diocese is committed to continuing to improve the way in which it responds to and supports victims.”

Scorer, the woman’s lawyer, described the case as a “clear marker” that survivors “will not tolerate being disparaged and mistreated”.

He said: “I would like to think that this settlement will herald a new approach to survivors by the Catholic church — this is certainly long overdue.

“But I also believe that for this to happen, the bishops who have presided over this victim-blaming culture need to move on, including first and foremost Cardinal Nichols himself.”