28 March 2010

Archbishop Nichols defends Pontiff

His Excellency the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, recently defended His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI against unjust media claims in an editorial to The Times:

The child abuse committed within the Catholic Church and its concealment is deeply shocking and totally unacceptable. I am ashamed of what has happened.

That shame and anger centres on the damage done to every, single abused child. Abuse damages, often irrevocably, a child’s ability to trust, to fashion stable relationships, to sustain self-esteem. When it is inflicted within a religious context, then it damages that child’s relationship to God. It rightly attracts deep anger. Today, not for the first time, I express my unreserved shame and sorrow for what has happened to many in the Church.

My shame is compounded, as is the anger of many, at the mistaken judgements made within the Church: that reassurance from a suspect could be believed; that credible allegations were deemed to be ‘unbelievable’; that the reputation of the Church mattered more than the safeguarding of children. These wrong reactions arise whenever and wherever allegations of abuse are made, whether within a family or a Church. We have to insist on the importance of the Paramouncy principle: the safety of the child comes first because the child is powerless.

There have been serious mistakes made within the Catholic Church. There is some misunderstanding, too.

Within the Catholic Church world-wide, there is a legal structure, its Canon Law. It is the duty of each diocesan bishop to administer that law. Certain serious offences against that law have to be referred to the Holy See to ensure that proper justice is administered. This was again clarified in 2001. Some of these offences are not criminal in public law (such as profanation of the Sacraments), others are (such as offences against children). The role of the Holy See is to offer guidance and advice so as to ensure that proper procedures are followed, including the confidentially needed for the protection of the good name of witnesses and victims, and for the accused until the trial is completed. It is part of a responsible legal procedure.

This ‘secrecy’ is nothing to do with the confidentiality, or ‘seal’ of the Confessional, which is protected for reasons of the rights of conscience.

The relationship between the administration of Church law and the criminal law in any particular state is a point of real difficulty and misunderstanding. Nothing in the requirement of Canon Law prohibits or impedes the reporting of criminal offences to the police. Since 2001, the Holy See, working through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has encouraged that course of action on dioceses which have received evidence of child abuse and which the diocesan authorities are responsible for pursing. This is a diocesan responsibility. The Canonical procedure is best put on hold until the criminal investigation is complete, right through to its due outcome, whatever that may be. This is what is needed. That this is has not consistently happened is deeply regrettable.

In England and Wales, since 2001, the agreed policy followed by the bishops has been to report all allegations of child abuse, no matter from how far back in the past, to the police or social services. By doing so, and by having clear protection procedures in place in every parish as well as independent supervision at diocesan and national level, we have built up good relationships with those authorities in these matters, including, in some areas, cooperation in the supervision of offenders in the community.

What of the role of Pope Benedict? When he was in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he led important changes made to Church law: the inclusion in canon law of internet offences against children, the extension of child abuse offences to include the sexual abuse of all under 18 years of age, the case by case waiving of the statue of limitation, and the establishment of a fast-track dismissal from the clerical state for offenders. He is not an idle observer. His actions speak as well as his words [those who seek to viciously malign him conveniently ignore all of this].

Every year since 2002 the Catholic Church in England and Wales has made public the exact number of allegations made within the Church, the number reported to the police, the action taken and the outcome. As far as I know, no other body or organisation in this country does this. This is not a cover-up; it is clear and total disclosure. The purpose of our doing so is not to defend the Church. It is to make plain that in the Catholic Church in England and Wales there is no hiding place for those who seek to harm children. On this we are determined.

One more fact. In the last forty years, less than half of 1% of Catholic priests in England and Wales (0.4%) have had allegations of child abuse made against them. Fewer have been found guilty. Do not misunderstand me. One is too many. One broken child is a tragedy and a disgrace. One case alone is enough to justify anger and outrage. The work of safeguarding, needed within any organisation and within our society as a whole, is demanding but absolutely necessary. The Catholic Church here is committed to that work.
Well done, Your Excellency!

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