Face to Faith

By Terry Philpot
July 26, 2008

Until 1992 the guidelines about child protection which governed the Catholic church in England and Wales were reactive: they were about what to do if a child was abused. Like the Catholic church in some other parts of the world, notably the US, the church here fell foul of a number of scandals where allegations of abuse were not only not reported to the police but suspect priests were moved elsewhere.

It was cases like these that caused the Bishops Conference of England and Wales in 2000 to set up an independent commission of inquiry under the Catholic peer and judge, the late Lord Nolan. Its majority of non-Catholic members drew up new proposals that enabled the church to adopt a preventative stance: how children and vulnerable adults could be better protected.

The Nolan report was published in 2001 and accepted by the bishops. The Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Adults (Copca) was created, together with a network, at parish and diocesan level and within religious orders, of child protection officers.

Nolan had recommended a review after five years, and, under another Catholic peer, the former Tory health minister Lady Cumberlege, last year such a review produced a report, Safeguarding with Confidence. While encouraged that so much progress had been achieved, it found that there remained serious flaws in the system. Much of this was the failure to adopt a "whole church" approach, which means that the Nolan recommendations had not been uniformly applied, but rather left to individual dioceses, religious orders or even parishes. To remedy this Copca has been abolished and in its place the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission has been established, which will ensure that policy on safeguarding children and voluntary adults is developed and that what needs to be done is implemented throughout the church. A Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service will advise church bodies and engage in training and development.

One of the most serious concerns has been the way that, after Nolan, accused clergy have been dealt with. They are not only suspended but evicted from their homes. Even when accusations are proved false or no conviction is secured in court, they can spend years in an ecclesiastical limbo undergoing psychological risk assessments and never returning to parish and ministry.

Cumberlege only goes part way to righting such matters in proposing an appeal against bishops' decisions. This will mean that review panels will come into being in September. However, they will make judgments on whether a priest has been wrongly dealt with on the civil law criteria of the balance of probabilities. This is to be applied to a man against whom accusations have been found to be malicious or who, if taken to court, has been found not guilty. It is difficult to imagine a worst finding than one is "probably" safe to work with children or vulnerable adults.

Cumberlege refers to "safeguarding individuals against the possibilities of injustice". Yet, the basis of its solution arguably contravenes favor rei, the doctrine, in the legal tradition of the church, that the accused enjoys the benefit of the law. The Children Act 1989 introduced the principle that the welfare of the child is paramount. This does not apply to criminal law but, for all intents and purposes, that is exactly the principle that the church has incorporated into its own "judicial" process. A priest may still also be subjected to a psychological risk assessment. Is he being assessed about the chance of him doing something he never did in the first place? What sense can be made of a finding of "low risk" for someone found not guilty by the courts?

It is ironic that the church, which has justice as one of the central tenets of its social teaching, should so unjustly treat those who serve it.

Terry Philpot is the author of Understanding Child Abuse: The Partners of Sex Offenders Tell Their Stories, to be published later this year by Routledge


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