‘I hope that we have managed to express to you that we as a Catholic Church in England and Wales have a very strong desire to prove and change the ways in which we protect children and vulnerable adults in our Church.’
With these words Archbishop Malcolm McMahon, in his role as vice-president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, began his summing up at the conclusion of a press conference on 20 November which outlined the Church’s response to two reports of deep significance – the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) and an independent review of the Catholic Church’s Safeguarding Structures and Arrangements in England and Wales.
The latter report, chaired by Ian Elliott, and its recommendations were the focus of the plenary meeting of the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales from 16 –19 November, and its impact will prove far-reaching, prompting the creation of a new safeguarding agency at the heart of the Church’s renewed commitment to ensuring safety. This Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency (CSSA) will be accompanied by a separate safeguarding resource especially for clergy and religious – or ICLSAL to use the review’s acronym for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life – and, moreover, a National Tribunal Service to adjudicate on cases.
In a statement, the Bishops said that the IICSA report had been ‘shocking and overwhelming’. It had considered almost 50 years of evidence, including case studies on Ampleforth and Downside Abbeys and their respective schools; Ealing Abbey and St Benedict’s School; and the Archdiocese of Birmingham. It outlined that there had been over 900 complaints against more than 900 individuals connected to the Church, including priests, monks and volunteers, and also detailed how the Church had received 100 allegations each year since 2016.
‘At our meeting this week, we Bishops have stood together in profound shame,’ the Bishops said in their statement. ‘We express our sorrow and contrition before God.’ They added: ‘We have carefully considered the recommendations of the IICSA report and formally accepted them. We have already begun work towards their implementation.’
The same applies to the Elliott report which, as the Bishops observed, will deliver a ‘standards-based approach to safeguarding together with a specially commissioned national body with powers of effective audit and oversight of safeguarding in both Dioceses and Religious Orders.’
The Bishops’ statement continued: ‘Everyone in the Church will be required to work to clear, published standards of behaviour and action. Most significantly, the Elliott report has been fashioned with the participation of survivors of abuse. Their insight and wisdom has been crucial. We thank them for their great courage and generosity in working with us and we look forward to continuing this growing collaboration.’
The 15 recommendations by Ian Elliott were presented along with the report to the Bishops’ Conference and were accepted. Among them is a set of standards with the first stating ‘that safeguarding is embedded in the Church’s leadership, governance, ministry, and culture’. According to the Elliott review: ‘This underpins all of the other recommendations that we have argued for.’
He added: ‘I believe this is a positive step forward for the Church and it sets out a path for it to follow. It will be dependent now very much on the implementation phase. But I commend them, for one, commissioning the review in the first place and secondly for accepting the recommendations that we have put to them.’
The key structural change is the establishing of the Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency (CSSA), which takes the place of the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service (CSAS) and the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission (NCSC).
According to the Ellliot review, the existing advisory relationships within the Church were not sufficiently effective. This new structure, the review promised, would be ‘empowered to set safeguarding standards, to provide a robust audit and review service, and to take responsibility for intervening where it believes inadequate or poor practice has taken place it can direct change. In other words it will have powers that currently the CSAS does not have.
‘The new tribunal service will provide quicker, easier and more transparent answers to canonical issues, and questions that arise as consequence of safeguarding concerns will be more easily accessible.’ A criticism from both survivors of abuse and the IICSA report concerned the slow speed of change and action within the governance structures of the Church but Archbishop Malcolm affirmed: ‘We get consistency and speed if we have the National Tribunal Service.’
Other steps have already been taken in response to the reports with the CSSA developing a framework of training for safeguarding roles to address the Elliott report’s recommendation for mandatory training, aligned with a standards-based approach. Training provision is now in place online and face to face for volunteers.
Working with survivors
In their response to the two reports, the Bishops expressed their gratitude to the survivors of abuse who had come forward to contribute and underlined their wish for an ongoing dialogue. ‘We have reflected on our need to reach out afresh to those who bear the wounds of permanent damage caused by this abuse,’ they said. ‘We commit ourselves to listen more intently to those who have been abused so as to learn from them and benefit from their wisdom. It is through learning from their testimony that hearts are changed.
‘We are grateful to those survivors who have come forward, not only to lay before us their experience of abuse, but to help us understand the depth of their pain. We invite anyone who has experienced abuse to come forward, no matter how long ago the abuse took place. We undertake to listen carefully to them with open heart and mind and support them on a journey of healing.’
To achieve this, Ian Elliott said it would be necessary to encourage ‘one to one conversations with a trusted individual’ rather than as part of a group or panel. He added: ‘There is a real desire of many of them to make a contribution, to share their knowledge, to exert what influence they can on bringing about change and I personally want to thank them very greatly for their willingness to do that.’
The role of survivors was also touched on by Bishop Marcus Stock, vice-chair of the implementation committee. The involvement of survivors in the recommendations for change marks this process as different from previous reviews undertaken by the Church and Bishop Stock said: ‘We are going to extend the range and opportunity for survivors’ voices to take part in the Church in the future.’
Bishop Paul Mason, a member of the review committee, added: ‘I think the voice of survivors can be absolutely material to the change of culture. If we simply see safeguarding issues as problems to be solved, we’re a stage removed from the reality of what’s happened in people’s lives, and the more we engage with survivors then that change of culture can come about. We’ve done a lot of work in this area, we are continuing to do it, and in terms of safety, with the vital input of survivors we are making our churches safer and safer and I am confident about safety of our churches now.’
Cardinal’s commitment renewed
In a personal statement, Cardinal Nichols said: ‘I have spent many hours listening to survivors. I have sat and talked with them, shared meals with them and wept with them. Nothing removes from my soul the horror of what has happened to them. I will continue to listen to survivors.
‘Hearing them is a humbling and learning experience for me. So, I say again, I am very sorry. I say this for many bishops who have gone before me over these 50 years. Many hearing this will feel that we let you down. Yes, we did let you down, in many ways, in different times in different places for different reasons. I apologise again. I am so sorry for all that has happened over all these years.’
The Cardinal went on: ‘I have no wish whatsoever to turn my back on this challenge, no wish to walk away at all. I want to be there, I want to do everything I can to take these important recommendations forward. You see, I am very, very grateful to Mr Elliott and I gave him my full support in this. What he has done for us is exactly what is needed – he has given us a searching analysis of how we work as a Church. And I think that is exactly what I can fully support and enable. I won’t be doing the work myself – it is work given to professional people designated to do it – but they can be sure they will have my full support and enabling ability to bring this to a proper end.’
It is a conviction shared by his confreres. As Archbishop Malcolm said when addressing the media at the end of the conference: ‘We feel that we have done a lot of work over the last 25–30 years but there is so much more to be done and we are very open to that. We also as a group of bishops, a group of leaders in the Church, we have all been profoundly changed in our hearts by the experiences of others that we have engaged with over those years; and we want to use that change as the votive power to make a difference to our structures so that we can really be a Church that responds to the needs of vulnerable people and also to protect them into the future.’
If you are concerned about the welfare of a child or adult at risk, do not delay in contacting the police, using 999 if a child or adult is believed to be in immediate danger. It is the policy of the Catholic Church in England and Wales to report all allegations of abuse to statutory authorities, regardless of whether the abuse occurred recently or in the past, or whether the accused person is living or deceased.
You will be heard, be supported, and have your concerns taken seriously. It is your choice who you share your experience, or your concerns, with. You can contact Alexandra Griffiths, Archdiocesan safeguarding coordinator, on 0151 522 1043 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Safe Spaces run by Victim Support on 0300 303 1056 or email@example.com: or see the Archdiocesan Safeguarding pages for a list of victim support services.