‘We are here to stay’ – questions to the chair of the CSSA

The Tablet [Market Harborough, England]

October 28, 2022

By Catherine Pepinster

Nazir Afzal, Chair of the Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency, spoke to The Tablet after the publication of the IICSA final report.

The report recommendations – do you wholeheartedly endorse them? 

This final report is vitally important as it consolidates all that has gone before in terms of identifying the scale of work needed to better protect children in a range of settings, as well as the work already done by the Catholic Church.

It matters to the Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency (CSSA) because it will continue to help shape our work. It matters to the Catholic Church because there won’t be more chances to get this right. Most crucially, it matters to victims and survivors of abuse.

Any measures, whether governmental, or institutional, which help us tackle abuse and protect children, must be actioned.

Do you particularly accept the recommendation of mandatory reporting of disclosures of sex abuse, even if that means priests having to break the seal of the confessional?

Mandatory reporting of any abuse, or any risk to children, already is at the heart of the Church’s safeguarding practice and sits across every area of its work (as it does with other institutions). That’s why we will audit on this rigorously. 

When it comes to the complex specific issue around the seal of confession, the sanctity of which we know is written into Canon Law for Catholics, it is really challenging. I have worked with professionals all my life where legal, and sometimes medical, privilege, comes into play – but it has never proved insurmountable.

As far as I am aware, incidences of disclosures or confessions by predators in the specific confines of the confessional, are extremely rare. But the Catholic Church needs to get this right and we are more than willing to help them work through this so that no individual is ever left at risk because of what is said during the seal of confession.

And whilst this is a really important ethical question, we can’t afford to focus on this one area of debate, at the expense of the bigger picture. The really important question – about safeguarding in every other area of Church life – is critical.

The question really is “Can anything more be done to protect people from harm?”

With the CSSA, are you going to make more effort to involve survivors of abuse in your work? I am aware of a letter sent on behalf of a group of survivors to the CSSA which points out how left out they have felt and how they have struggled to have contact with the CSSA, but I’m also aware that some survivors were invited to a CSSA conference this week. Could you tell me what is happening going forward? 

We have a really strong group of founding members of a survivor reference panel, and we are consulting with other survivors in different ways, according to their choice.

They have already taught us a lot and have been courageous in stepping forward to share insights from their lived experience, on order to help shape our work to make a difference for others – we don’t underestimate what that takes. 

Victims and survivors are not a homogenous group, they are individuals, and we need to respect that. That is why we are contacting survivors with whom we still need to build some bridges, so that we can talk further about what they would like that relationship with us to look like.

We haven’t always got it right first time, but we will not stop working to ensure survivors influence our work at every level.

Is the CSSA able to function at all at the moment, without a CEO? Why has Colette Limbrick left? When will you have a replacement? 

The CSSA is not only functioning, we’ve never been more confident in our ability to deliver. We’ve developed, from scratch, a really strong audit function. This will help us hold to account the Catholic Church and church leaders gave their wholehearted endorsement only last week (at our first national conference which safeguarding teams from around England and Wales also attended).

Some of our journey has been challenging, as with any new organisation, but we have always learnt and moved forward.

Steve Ashley, formerly vice-chair, is our CEO. Steve has over 30 years’ experience including having been an independent scrutineer in safeguarding, independent chair of Rotherham Safeguarding Children Board, and has led national inspections of child safeguarding as assistant chief constable of Merseyside Police. So, we could not be in better hands, and Steve is already making a difference.

It would not be right for us to comment on Dr Colette Limbrick’s own situation, but we know that there are people safer today because of her contribution.

We’re at the next stage of development now, having set the foundations, and we are here to stay.