Crackdown on abuse by priests
By Stephen Bates, religious affairs correspondent societyguardian.co.uk, April 18, 2001
The Roman Catholic church was told yesterday that it must appoint child protection representatives in every parish in England and Wales to head off the wave of criticism that has broken over the church after a series of high-profile abuse cases involving clergy.
Even closed religious orders will be required to select protection coordinators as part of a 50-point strategy recommended by an independent committee headed by Lord Nolan, the man who laid down standards for parliament. Everyone working in the church - staff, volunteers and clergy - will be subject to police checks and all applicants will be asked to disclose details of any criminal offences against children and young people.
The 35-page report represents an all but unprecedented, wide-ranging secular assault on the practices of a church where bishops and clergy have traditionally had unquestioned authority.
Lord Nolan told a press conference in London: "The care of children is at the forefront of the teachings of Christ. We believe that the Catholic church in England and Wales should become an example of best practice in the prevention of child abuse and in responding to it.
"Our overriding aim has been to create a secure environment for children. We also want to ensure a consistent and effective approach across the church to allegations of child abuse."
The review is intended to supersede guidelines in place since 1994, which proved ineffective. They were brought into question last year when Archbishop John Ward of Cardiff was seen to have ignored warnings from a fellow bishop in ordaining a priest, Father Joe Jordan, who was subsequently jailed for eight years for indecent assaults against children.
It remained unclear how far the new recommendations would be accepted, although Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, leader of the church in England and Wales, has pledged that they will be adopted when bishops meet in London next week.
Yesterday he said cautiously that the "extremely constructive and helpful" report would form a main item for discussion. "We are committed to ensuring that the Catholic church becomes the safest of places for children and I am sure this report ... will help us to achieve this."
The cardinal came under attack last year for his action as bishop of Arundel and Brighton in the 1980s in moving Father Michael Hill, a priest accused of sexual abuse, from one parish to another and eventually to a chaplaincy at Gatwick airport, where he assaulted a child with learning disabilities. Hill was jailed for five years in 1997 after being convicted of assaults over a 19-year period. He is now free.
The review was set up last autumn to head off criticisms that the church had tolerated abuse by priests and had too often appeared more concerned to protect its clergy than those they were abusing.
Between 1995 and 1999, 21 Catholic priests were convicted of sexual offences against children, two were tried but acquitted, 10 charged but subsequently had the charges dropped, 63 investigated but never charged and six given a police caution.
The review recommends that a national database be set up on all candidates for ordination, that allegations be responded to swiftly, and that cautioned or convicted abusers should not hold any position bringing them into contact with children. It also proposes more pastoral provision to help victims and support parishes.
The report says priests must not give away confidences heard at confession. All new confessionals will have to be constructed so that both priest and parishioner remain visible, if not audible, to those outside.
In extreme cases - where sentences of more than 12 months have been passed on offenders - the review recommends that priests be laicised, effectively dismissed.
Although the review was broadly welcomed by children's charities, some former victims remained unconvinced of the effectiveness of the recommendations.
One, abused at a Catholic children's home in Warwickshire by Father Eric Taylor, an 80-year-old priest who is serving a seven-year prison sentence, said: "The proposals are wishy-washy. A voluntary code by itself will never work. It is going to be pretty difficult to weed out these people."
Lord Nolan said: "I think the accusations have done great harm to the church. Whatever reluctance it has shown in the past to grapple wholeheartedly with child abuse, the church is now fully committed to setting a lead in the matter."
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