Vatican silence on abuse likely to continue despite UN plea

The Catholic Church has been reticent about its investigations into child abuse. John Shore

Last week the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) asked the Vatican to disclose details of child sexual abuse cases involving Catholic clergy for the period November 1995 to January 2014.

According to officials, the aims of the questionnaire include seeking to establish what legal action is taken against “perpetrators of sexual crimes” and what support is provided for victims. However, in England and Wales, as elsewhere, the Church is unlikely to be in any position to answer such questions in sufficient detail to satisfy either the UNCRC or survivors such as those represented by Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors (MACSAS).

During the dozen years since the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales declared it was fully committed to implementing all the recommendations of the Nolan Committee, research suggests there is a large gap between the Church’s rhetoric and the reality of its practice, while systems have been insufficiently robust to collect the information required.

In 2006, MACSAS suggested victims and survivors had not felt listened to, believed or supported, or “helped towards their healing” by the church. In 2011, following a survey of survivors’ experiences, the organisation concluded that victims “continue to be ignored and their needs disregarded by Church”.

In fact, no source provides comprehensive information about relevant cases or, for example, about the number of priests subsequently laicised (the church’s equivalent of being “struck off”) as called for in the Nolan Report. National bodies such as the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service and the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission (NCSC) remain dependent on information supplied by dioceses while questions by others about actions taken in relation to individual perpetrators are usually met with refusals to give information.

Information published by the national organisations has been inconsistent, and, in May 2012, the chair of the NCSC wrote to me, saying, “Apart from specific requests we have never gathered centrally on a regular ongoing basis the numbers of diocesan priests convicted of offences against children.”

In 2010, Channel 4 News identified 22 priests in English and Welsh dioceses who had been convicted of sexual offences against children and had served all or part of their sentences, since November 2001.

Contrary to what you might expect, 14 (64%) had not been laicised. Two were priests from the Diocese of Salford. Both had been sentenced to six years. Their cases provide illustrative examples of how the church has responded in particular cases.

Thomas Doherty was convicted of five offences against a boy under 16, while William Green was convicted of 26 offences of indecent assault and sentenced in October 2008. In the absence of any public announcement that an exception had been made, parishioners assumed that Doherty had been laicised in accordance with Nolan’s recommendation 78. However, during autumn 2010 it emerged that Doherty had never been laicised.

In September 2010, a local newspaper highlighted the case of Green, noting both that “he has still not been defrocked or laicised” and that a spokesperson for the diocese had said that “Green is in the process of being laicised”. However, when they returned to the story three months later, they found that the diocese was now saying that “the laicisation was on-going and was out of their hands”. Since then, the diocese has consistently refused my requests to know whether or not Green has yet been laicised and his canonical status remains unknown to his victims and his former parishioners.

In this context, it seems unlikely that the Vatican will be either able or willing to provide the UNCRC with the information it requests.