The Catholic Church in England and Wales yesterday attempted to head off mounting allegations of child sex abuse by priests by calling in Lord Nolan, the former judge who investigated standards in public life for Parliament, to conduct a review of its procedures for dealing with accusations.Church leaders privately acknowledged the move would not have been adopted but for accusations that the Catholic authorities attempted to cover up abuse by Father Michael Hill, released from prison last week after serving three and a half years of a five year sentence.
Revelations that Hill was removed from his parish but allowed to continue his ministry by his former bishop, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, now Archbishop of Westminster and de-facto leader of the Church in England and Wales, came close to swamping the church this summer.
The archbishop admitted yesterday that the story had been highly damaging to him personally. The church’s defensive response has caused not only external criticisms and calls for Archbishop Murphy-O’Connor’s resignation but also the voicing of concerns with the archbishop by senior lay Catholics.
The church disclosed that 21 priests, out of 5,600, have been convicted of offences against children in the last five years, though more cases are pending. The number of prosecutions is currently running at about four a year.
Yesterday the archbishop issued his most fulsome act of contrition yet for the scandal, saying: “I wish to apologise sincerely to the survivors of abuse and their families and communities…they have been hurt not just by the abusers but also by mistaken attitudes within the church community at all levels.
“I acknowledge that far too often there has been insensitivity and inadequate response to their hurt. The errors of the past must not be repeated.”
A committee of nine senior figures – only four of them, including Lord Nolan, Catholic – will review the arrangements the church has already put in place for child protection and is due to report back by next Easter. A code of conduct was adopted by the church in 1994.
Among the members is Sir Swinton Thomas, a retired justice of appeal, Gill Mackenzie, chief probation officer of Gloucestershire who chairs the association of chief probation officers and David Veness, assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.
But Lord Nolan admitted that the committee would not investigate or comment on individual cases and that it had not been given a “blank cheque” to rewrite church procedures or any assurance that its recommendations would eventually be adopted.
He said: “There is no question of this being an in-house review. It should be seen as an independent body with a broad range of expertise in the area of protecting children.”
One of the members of the committee, the Rt. Rev. Peter Smith, bishop of East Anglia, said: “There is a relatively small number of abusers, thank God but that does not mean they do not cause enormous damage. It harms the Church. We are all tainted, saddened and harmed.”
But the bishop insisted: “I don’t think it is true to say that the Catholic Church has a particular difficulty with this. The number of clergy convicted of paedophile offences is a very small proportion relatively speaking. I don’t think the public perception reflects the facts.”
And the bishop said it might be a “dangerous course” to defrock priests accused of just one offence as it might only be minor. “We have had many cases of false allegations,” he added.