IICSA Report: Roman Catholic Church

On Tuesday 10 November, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) published its overarching investigation report into the Catholic ChurchThe Roman Catholic Church Investigation Report (“the Report”) is based on public hearings held during October and November 2019, which examined the response of the Catholic Church to allegations of child sexual abuse, as well as the adequacy of the current safeguarding regime and any improvements needed to policies and practices. The Roman Catholic Church of England and Wales has issued a Statement on the publication of the Report.


The hearings examined the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and the Valladolid (Campus) Training and took a closer look at the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission and the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service. The Inquiry heard evidence from senior Church leaders, safeguarding experts and victims and survivors on their views of the Church’s response to allegations of child sexual abuse and the help and reparations offered to victims and survivors.

As well as evidence heard during that hearing, this Report considers common themes and issues identified by the Inquiry in relation to the Roman Catholic Church as a whole within its previous reports. The Inquiry previously held public hearings into the Diocese of Birmingham and the English Benedictine Congregation case studies of Ampleforth, Downside and Ealing Abbey and St Benedict’s Schools. The reports into those case studies, published in August 2018 and June and October 2019, concluded that the Church’s response to claims of child sexual abuse was marked by cover-up, denial and the failure to act.

The reports also identified themes in the institutional responses to child sexual abuse by the Catholic Church, describing a closed and defensive culture, where leaders were reluctant to support allegations of abuse for fear it would undermine the institutions and the Church. That made it harder for complaints to be made, and easier for the abuse to continue.

Press Release

A Press Release on 9 November stated that the Inquiry found that the Catholic Church prioritised its own reputation over the welfare of vulnerable children for decades, according to the 147 page Report published today (November 10) by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. The report finds finds the Catholic Church’s moral purpose has been betrayed by those who sexually abused children, as well as those who turned a blind eye and failed to take action against perpetrators.

Between 1970 and 2015, the Catholic Church received more than 900 complaints involving over 3,000 instances of child sexual abuse in England and Wales. Since 2016, there have been more than 100 reported allegations each year. The true scale of abuse over the last 50 years is likely to have been far higher.

The Report finds that the Catholic Church repeatedly failed to support victims and survivors, while taking positive action to protect alleged perpetrators, including moving them to different parishes. Victims described the profound and lifelong effects of abuse, including depression, anxiety, self-harming and trust issues.

In recent years, senior leaders have been resistant to external oversight and have only partially implemented the recommendations of previous reviews, such as the 2001 Nolan report and 2007 Cumberlege report.

As the most senior Catholic leader in England and Wales, Cardinal Nichols should be leading by example. However, when he apologised for the Catholic Church’s failings in our 2018 hearing, he did not acknowledge any personal responsibility or show compassion for victims in the recent cases we examined.

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.

The Holy See and the Apostolic Nuncio, its ambassador to the UK, did not provide a witness statement to this Inquiry despite repeated requests. They had been asked about the Apostolic Nuncio’s involvement in handling child sexual abuse allegations at Ealing Abbey, as well as other issues. The Inquiry could not understand their lack of cooperation.

The Inquiry has held seven weeks of public hearings in this investigation, including case studies into the English Benedictine Congregation and the Archdiocese of Birmingham.

The Roman Catholic Church Investigation Report

The Report concludes that the Holy See’s actions stand in direct contrast with Pope Francis’ public statement on child sexual abuse in 2019, calling for “concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the Church”. It comprises twelve parts, links to which are given below. In addition, the Executive Summary and Conclusions and Recommendations are reproduced in full.

Executive Summary

This investigation report examines the extent of institutional failings by the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales to protect children from sexual abuse and examines the Church’s current safeguarding regime. It draws on evidence from the Inquiry’s three case studies on Ampleforth and Downside Abbeys and their respective schools, Ealing Abbey and St Benedict’s School, and the Archdiocese of Birmingham.
Between 1970 and 2015, the Roman Catholic Church received more than 900 complaints involving over 3,000 instances of child sexual abuse against more than 900 individuals connected to the Church, including priests, monks and volunteers. In the same period, there were 177 prosecutions resulting in 133 convictions. Civil claims against dioceses and religious institutes have resulted in millions of pounds being paid in compensation.

It would be wrong, however, to regard child sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church as solely a historical problem. Since 2016, there have been more than 100 reported allegations each year. Across the entire period of nearly 50 years covered by this Inquiry, the true scale of sexual abuse of children is likely to have been much higher.

As we have said previously, faith organisations are marked out from most other institutions by their explicit moral purpose. The Roman Catholic Church is no different. In the context of the sexual abuse of children, that moral purpose was betrayed over decades by those in the Church who perpetrated this abuse and those who turned a blind eye to it. The Church’s neglect of the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of children and young people in favour of protecting its reputation was in conflict with its mission of love and care for the innocent and vulnerable.

Throughout this investigation, we heard appalling accounts of sexual abuse of children perpetrated by clergy and others associated with the Roman Catholic Church. The sexual offending involved acts of masturbation, oral sex, vaginal rape and anal rape. On occasions, it was accompanied by sadistic beatings driven by sexual gratification, and often involved deeply manipulative behaviour by those in positions of trust, who were respected by parents and children alike.

Victims and survivors described the profound and lifelong effect of this abuse. One witness said “the psychological effects have continued ever since, resulting in years of unbearable guilt, depression, nightmares, anxiety and PTSD symptoms”.[1] Another victim said the abuse which he experienced at junior and senior residential schools affected every aspect of his life, and led to him self-harming. It “nearly wrecked” his marriage and “destroyed my trust, not just in the church but in any authority”.[2]

In another instance, a young boy estimated that he was abused several hundred times by a senior priest between the ages of 11 and 15 years. After each incident he was required to make confession, and the priest concerned made it plain that his sister’s place at a local convent school depended on his compliance.

Amongst the many convictions of priests and monks was that of Father James Robinson. In 2010 he was convicted of 21 sexual offences against four boys. When sentencing him to 21 years’ imprisonment, the trial judge said that Robinson had used his position of authority and total trust to commit “the gravest set of offences of sexual abuse of children” that were “unimaginably wicked”.[3]

Another notorious perpetrator, Father David Pearce, was convicted in 2009 of indecently assaulting a boy aged seven or eight by beating and caning him on his bare buttocks. Pearce would smile as he caned him, and afterwards make the naked child sit on his knee. As a result of the abuse, the victim said “he hated himself” which built up and eventually resulted in him “having a nervous breakdown”.[4] His mother said:

His father and I live with the guilt of sending him to St Benedict’s, trusting a priest … and the guilt of not realising why the change in our son was not more evident to us.[5]

Historical response to child sexual abuse

The evidence in this investigation has revealed a sorry history of child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales. There have been too many examples of abusive priests and monks preying on children for prolonged periods of time. Responses to disclosures about sexual abuse have been characterised by a failure to support victims and survivors in stark contrast to the positive action taken to protect alleged perpetrators and the reputation of the Church.

Child sexual abuse was swept under the carpet. Resistance to external intervention was widespread. Father Samuel Penney was a priest in the Archdiocese of Birmingham from 1967. Reports that he sexually abused children in the 1970s were raised with senior clergy on a number of occasions. He was moved from parish to parish. There was no internal investigation and the statutory authorities were not informed. Little thought was given to the victims or the risks that he posed to other children. The failure to act decisively when the allegations were first raised consigned other children to the same fate. It permeated the responses of the Roman Catholic Church with little accountability and sometimes active cover-up, until the Nolan report in 2001.

The Nolan report (2001) and the Cumberlege report (2007)

In 2000, Lord Michael Nolan was commissioned to review the arrangements for child protection and the prevention of abuse within the Catholic Church in England and Wales. His report, published in 2001, contained 83 recommendations applicable to the dioceses and religious institutes. At the heart of the Nolan report was the ‘One Church’ approach – a single set of principles, policies and practices across the Church that put the welfare of the child first. The first recommendation required the Church to “become an example of best practice in the prevention of child abuse and in responding to it”.[6]

As a result of the Nolan report, the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults (COPCA) was established. Its role was to provide advice and support to the dioceses and religious institutes, including on the implementation of the Nolan recommendations and the adoption of the ‘One Church’ approach. Some, however, did not behave in ways which demonstrated a wholehearted acceptance of this approach. The first Director of COPCA, Eileen Shearer, found some resistance to the changes by bishops and religious institutes, not least because of the misguided perception that the paramountcy principle of the child’s welfare and canon law were “diametrically opposed”.[7]

Nevertheless, the Nolan report initiated change. The Church formalised its child protection structures to improve responses to sexual abuse. Independent child commissions were established to review risk assessments and liaise with external bodies, and child protection coordinators were appointed to improve practice at local level.

In 2007, the Cumberlege report was published, setting out the progress that had been made since the Nolan report. Much had improved over time. The report noted that 79 of the 83 Nolan recommendations had been addressed in full or in part, although religious institutes tended to lag behind in these developments.

Further structural changes were made. The National Catholic Safeguarding Commission (NCSC) was formed in 2008 to set the strategic direction of child protection policy and to monitor compliance. COPCA’s name was changed to the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service (CSAS) to reflect its primary role in providing support and advice on safeguarding children and adults. Each diocese now had a safeguarding commission supported by safeguarding coordinators and safeguarding representatives in parishes and religious institutes.

Current safeguarding

The changes brought about by Nolan and Cumberlege resulted in improvements over the years. These included more formal handling of reports of child sexual abuse, better training for the clergy, religious and those involved in safeguarding, and greater cooperation with the statutory authorities. This is in contrast, however, with slower progress in other areas.

In May 2019, Cardinal Vincent Nichols said: “We humbly ask forgiveness  for our slowness and defensiveness and for our neglect of both preventative and restorative actions”.[8] That slowness is exemplified by the Church’s failure to fully implement two of the Cumberlege Recommendations (one of which was 13 years overdue) and by its failure to establish the Safe Spaces joint project with the Anglican Church until September 2020. Six years have elapsed since this project was commenced and it seems little progress has been made to ensure that victims and survivors have access to the pastoral and therapeutic support that the Safe Spaces project was set up to provide.

CSAS audits in 2019 focussed on the management of safeguarding concerns and risk identification. While there was “good evidence of cooperation” between the safeguarding commissions and the statutory agencies in relation to the reporting of allegations, there remained concerns about the use of risk assessments and reviews of safeguarding plans.[9]

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (PCPM) was established by Pope Francis in 2014 to advise him on effective child protection policies. In 2016, one of the PCPM’s founding members resigned, citing “what she called ‘unacceptable’ resistance to the commission’s proposals from the Vatican’s doctrine office”.[10] That same year, the Diocese of Westminster described a victim of sexual abuse as “manipulative” and “needy” in internal correspondence amongst members of its safeguarding commission.[11] The Church’s contact with the victim was characterised by a lack of empathy and compassion.

Real and lasting changes to attitudes have some way to go if the Roman Catholic Church is to shake off the failures of the past.

Leadership of safeguarding within the Roman Catholic Church

Individual leaders in the Roman Catholic Church, as in other institutions, set the tone for how the organisation responded to the major issues with which they were confronted, through their words and deeds.

Across the Inquiry’s hearings on the Roman Catholic Church, weaknesses in leadership were significant in the failures to address child sexual abuse. The responses of Church leaders over time were marked by delay in implementing change as well as reluctance to acknowledge responsibility, to hold individuals to account or to make sincere apologies. They conveyed on occasions a grudging and unsympathetic attitude to victims. Failure in some of these areas contributed to more children experiencing actual abuse and many others being exposed to the risk of sexual abuse.

In the English Benedictine Congregation Ealing Abbey case study, the current Abbot President (Dom Christopher Jamison) accepted that “there was catastrophic moral failure on the part of monks, followed by a chronic weakness of leadership to address that … I think individual abbots and the Abbot President have not, in the past, exercised sufficient authority and leadership”.[12]

In the Archdiocese of Birmingham, the Social Care Institute for Excellence report in 2018 found significant failings in safeguarding, and a need for “radical culture change … to professionalise the leadership, governance, management and delivery of safeguarding in the Archdiocese”.[13] The Archbishop of Birmingham, Bernard Longley, spoke directly to victims and survivors in making his personal apology for what happened in Birmingham, and offering to find some way of “lifting the burden” for them.[14] The Archdiocese subsequently made additional ex gratia payments to two victims because it considered it was “fair and reasonable” to do so.[15] This is a positive example of leadership.

As the figurehead and the most senior leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Catholics look to Cardinal Nichols to lead by example. During the final public hearing in November 2018, he apologised for the Church’s failings, noting that this was a source of “great sorrow and shame for me and, indeed I know, for the Catholic Church”.[16] But there was no acknowledgement of any personal responsibility to lead or influence change. Nor did he demonstrate compassion towards victims in the recent cases which we examined.

His acknowledgement that “there is plenty for us to achieve” applies as much to him as it does to everyone else in the Church. He did not always exercise the leadership expected of a senior member of the Church, at times preferring to protect the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales and in Rome.[17]

The Holy See

In 2018 and 2019, the Inquiry asked the Apostolic Nuncio (the Holy See’s ambassador to the United Kingdom) and the Holy See for information relevant to both the public hearing on Ealing Abbey and St Benedict’s School and the final hearing on the Roman Catholic Church, held in late 2019. The Holy See is a foreign state and the Apostolic Nuncio’s diplomatic status means that neither the institution nor the individual can be compelled to provide a statement to the Inquiry or to give evidence. Despite efforts by the Inquiry, very limited information was forthcoming. Much of the information that was provided was already in the public domain. After several months of correspondence, the Holy See belatedly confirmed it would not provide a witness statement. This response appears to be at odds with the May 2019 Papal pronouncements from Rome in which Pope Francis asserted that there needed to be “concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the Church” regarding its approach to child sexual abuse.[18]

The Holy See’s limited response on this matter manifestly did not demonstrate a commitment to taking action. Their lack of cooperation passes understanding.


This report makes seven recommendations, covering leadership and oversight on safeguarding matters, a framework for dealing with cases of non-compliance with safeguarding policies and procedures, re-framing canonical crimes relating to child sexual abuse, reviewing policies and procedures, and also a complaints policy for safeguarding cases. These recommendations are made in order to ensure that the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales has consistent and accessible policies and procedures for dealing with cases concerning child sexual abuse.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The Chair and Panel make the following recommendations, which arise directly from this investigation. The Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales should publish its response to these recommendations, including the timetable involved, within six months of the publication of this Report.

Recommendation 1: Leadership

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and the Conference of Religious in England and Wales should each nominate a lead member of the clergy for safeguarding to provide leadership and oversight on safeguarding matters to their respective Conferences and the wider Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales.

Recommendation 2: Training

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales should ensure that safeguarding training is mandatory for all staff and volunteers in roles where they work with children or victims and survivors of abuse. It should also be a requirement that regular refresher training is completed. The training should consider the impact of child sexual abuse, including the impact of trauma and the perspective of victims and survivors, and should be developed in conjunction with the Survivor Advisory Panel.

Recommendation 3: Compliance

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and the Conference of Religious should publish a clear framework for dealing with cases of non-compliance with safeguarding policies and procedures. That framework should identify who is responsible for dealing with issues of non-compliance at all levels of the Church, and include the measures or sanctions for non-compliance.

Recommendation 4: External auditing

The Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service should have the effectiveness of its audit programme regularly validated by an independent organisation which is external to the Church. These independent reports should be published.

Recommendation 5: Canon 1395

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales should request that the Holy See redraft the canonical crimes relating to child sexual abuse as crimes against the child.

Recommendation 6: Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service website and policies and procedures manual

The Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service should review its policies and procedures manual and the documents within it to ensure that they are consistent, easier to follow and more accessible.

Recommendation 7: Complaints policy

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and the Conference of Religious should publish a national policy for complaints about the way in which a safeguarding case is handled.

The policy should deal with communication with complainants during the complaints process and set out an escalation process for all complainants to have their complaint assessed by an independent adjudicator, if they are unhappy with how their complaint has been handled.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "IICSA Report: Roman Catholic Church" in Law & Religion UK, 10 November 2020, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2020/11/10/iicsa-report-roman-catholic-church/

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