Four-year study released showing impact of abuse crisis on Catholic community in England and Wales

Catholic Herald [London, England]

April 30, 2024

Durham University’s Centre for Catholic Studies has released what is being described as the first study into how the clerical child sexual abuse crisis has impacted “the whole Catholic community” in England and Wales. 

The Cross of the Moment report is based on four years of research and explores the ecclesial and cultural implications of the child abuse crisis in the Catholic Church in England and Wales. It illustrates how the abuse crisis has been experienced by different groups within the Church, most painfully by victims of abuse and their families, but also by others effected more indirectly, such as lay people, priests, deacons, bishops, religious communities and others.

The report suggests that “aspects of the culture and practices of the Catholic Church are implicated in how clerical child sexual abuse has happened”. These aspects of Catholic culture explored in the report include clericalism and the lack of practical structures of accountability. The report also highlights how the response of the Church has often failed, causing further pain and harm, which victims describe as “secondary abuse”.

“We hope this research will enable many more people to approach this painful area of our common life and become part of a redemptive response,” says Dr Pat Jones from the Centre for Catholic Studies (CCS) and the lead author of the report. “It is transformative to listen deeply to those whose lives and faith have been affected by abuse.”

The researchers carried out 82 interviews and four focus groups. Participants were drawn from 14 of the 22 Catholic dioceses and 16 religious orders across England and Wales. The focus of the research was to listen to the voices of victims of abuse and their families, though the report’s compilers also listened to others either directly or indirectly affected by the abuse crisis. This included parish communities, laypeople, priests, deacons, bishops, religious communities and safeguarding staff. 

Although the report recognises that progress has been made in safeguarding practices and in finding more compassionate ways to accompany and support victims, it concludes that more work is needed. The report notes that “all the research participants who had experienced sexual abuse in a Catholic setting” had also experienced being treated “inadequately by a representative of the Church when they came forward with an allegation or sought support around a disclosure”.

It adds: “Many disclosures were met by denial, disbelief or a lack of compassion for the person and their pain.”

One victim of abuse said that “you want belief more than anything or any financial compensation, before anything whatsoever, for somebody to say that they believe you means everything”.  

Some victims did speak of experiencing “sensitive support and solidarity”, the report notes, but adds that there were not enough of these “glimmers of hope”.

During the research, people from directly affected parishes described the pain and grief when a priest “disappears or is found guilty and imprisoned” following allegations of sexual offences. Fellow priests, deacons and bishops connected to those priests accused of abuse talked about “the burden of sadness and fear they experience and the complex responsibilities they carry” as a result of incidences of clerical sexual abuse.

The report explores the complexities of the psychological fallout of abuse, ranging from “seething” feelings of anger to what is termed “moral injury”. The latter refers to when people are compelled to act or become involved in an activity which they know or sense or later realise is wrong, they can “suffer an injury at the level of their dignity and moral conscience”, the report notes. As a result, they can lose confidence in their own goodness and feel betrayed by those whom they trusted to act correctly.

The report notes that the idea of moral injury emerged from dealing with the experiences of soldiers in combat but is now understood to apply to many other contexts where people experience moral anguish as a result of what they are asked or required to do, or as a result of what they failed to do. One definition of moral injury is that it is “the harm caused by betraying a moral code”. Moral injury typically adds to the trauma of the actual abuse, making it harder for people to believe in themselves or others, or to trust those in authority.

In relation to clerical sexual abuse in Catholic settings, the report says the moral injury experienced can be all the greater because the Church is a moral community. The Church teaches about conscience and what is right and good, begging questions and incomprehension about how can abuse have happened. For victims of abuse especially, but also for bystanders and those who were in authority at the time, there can be moral confusion and tensions as a result that can “shatter faith”.

Many research participants spoke about how priests are seen as superior, “God-like”, untouchable and assumed to be holy by default, the report says. One participant said: “We’ve put people on this pedestal and we’ve left them there”. 

The report recommends that the Church needs to learn from “restorative justice and healing circle practices” to find ways to heal the relationships between victims and the Catholic community. It also suggests that methods and habits of clericalism are changed, while accountability within the Church’s hierarchical structures is improved.

The report notes that it steers clear of making specific recommendations. Rather, it explains, it invites readers to “ listen to the voices and engage in their own reflection, discernment and response”. As such, the report is described as “a resource and a reflection rather than a set of conclusions or findings”.

The theme running throughout the report, according to its authors, is taken from Pope Francis’ affirmation that the Church needs “a continuous and profound conversion of hearts attested by concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the Church”.

The research was mainly funded by the Porticus Foundation, a Catholic grant-making trust, with additional funding from two religious orders: the British Jesuit Province and the English Benedictine Congregation. 

The research was conducted between 2019 and 2023 by the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University with the support of an independently chaired steering group and an advisory body of stakeholders. Victims of abuse were included as members of both groups.

“I commend the report for equipping the whole church with a diagnostic resource which will be invaluable in its mission of collective healing, restorative justice and care,” says Antonia Sobocki, director of charity LOUDfence, which aims to work with churches to actively foster a culture which is pro-safeguarding and truth telling.

The report’s authors highlight that the report does not cover current safeguarding policy or practices currently established by the Church, noting that “there are already expert agencies and structures” charged with ensuring that all Catholic institutions maintain high standards of safeguarding practise. These include the new and fully independent agencies such as the Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency (CSSA) and Religious Life Safeguarding Service (RLSS).

“In responding as a whole Church, it is not enough to ensure that there are strong and effective safeguarding standards, policies and procedures and professional safeguarding staff,” the report says. “We must listen and work to understand more fully what this crisis means and to nurture a culture which faces up to the questions asked with honesty and humility.”