Catholic church ‘put its reputation above child safety’

The Times/The Sunday Times [London, England]

July 13, 2022

By Marc Horne

The Catholic church in Scotland put protecting its reputation above the safety of abused children as it covered up for paedophiles, its former safeguarding adviser has claimed.

Martin Henry advised the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh on child protection for 22 years and was a member of the Scottish Catholic bishops’ working party on child sexual abuse.

His testimony was cited after the Scottish child abuse inquiry found that sexual predators found it easier to target children in religious settings because of a culture of “habitual deference”.

“God was ‘weaponised’ in the sense that there was a habit of taking advantage of the subservience by others to the power of the religious; they could rely on routinely being held in high regard and that could operate as a mechanism to silence children,” an inquiry report on the psychology on child abusers, published today, said.

“That may have enabled the abuser to feel he had permission to abuse children, it may have helped the abuser to feel he could ‘act with impunity’.”

Henry told Lady Smith, the judge who is the inquiry chairwoman, that he stepped back from advising the church on safeguarding in 2013. He said he would not reveal the reasons for his withdrawal but suggested “they may become evident”.

“As an institution, there was this message: avoid bringing scandal on the church,” he said. “Which essentially has translated across institutions into: protect the institution and its reputation before you protect the child or the young person.

“That has been, I think, a theme that has been very strong in our child protection and sex offending debate in relation to institutions in Scotland.”

The Catholic church in Scotland issued a “profound apology” to victims of child abuse in 2015. Church documents showed that 126 historical allegations of sexual molestation had been made against priests.

Henry, who chaired the Scottish FA-commissioned review into child sexual abuse in the national sport, said: “The church itself has peculiarities about it as an institution, which allowed abuse to take place in a particular way and perhaps also to continue.”

He claimed that people had been kept silent by an institutional culture of “guilt and shame and subservience to power”, adding: “When you add God in, who is always there, omnipresent, watching what you are doing and listening to, what you’re saying and thinking, it becomes all the more powerful.

“To this day, I’m astonished that so many adults have found the courage and ability, and young people, to really break through that and talk about it. I’m thankful that they have.”

The 33-page report, published after the inquiry was addressed by a panel of experts, said: “It may have been easier for abusers from religious settings to perpetrate abuse because of them being able to take advantage of habitual deference by others to the power of the religious.

“They could rely on routinely being held in high regard and that could operate as a mechanism to silence children. That may have enabled the abuser to feel he had permission to abuse children.”

The inquiry previously heard that Nazareth Houses, residential homes overseen by the Catholic Church, were places of “fear, hostility and confusion” where vulnerable young people were beaten, abused and “degraded with impunity” by nuns.

In November 2013 the Scottish Catholic bishops asked the Very Rev Dr Andrew McLellan, a former Church of Scotland moderator, to carry out an external review of its safeguarding protocols and procedures

His report stated that “justice must be done and justice must be seen to be done for those who have been abused and for those against whom allegations of abuse are made”.

In response Archbishop Philip Tartaglia, then Scotland’s most senior Catholic, said that the church’s response to survivors had often been “slow, unsympathetic or uncaring” and pledged change.

A spokesman for the Catholic church said today: “While many institutions, including the church, may previously have sought to protect their reputations, a significant cultural change in recent decades has seen safeguarding practice become permanently embedded.

“The Catholic church maintains a deep and unwavering commitment to the highest standards of safeguarding in order to ensure that the church is a place of safety for all.”