Church receives 150 sex abuse complaints

Catholic office says figures show commitment to openness

The Guardian/October 27, 2003
By Stephen Bates

The Roman Catholic church has received nearly 150 complaints about priests and church workers since introducing guidelines 18 months ago to combat sex abuse, a report to be published today will show.

The figures, which may represent only the tip of the iceberg, since many victims never report their complaints, relate to incidents some of which happened decades ago. In recent years about four priests a year, on average, have been convicted of sexual abuse.

The figures are seen by the report's authors as vindicating the church's policy of greater accountability, following prosecutions of priests in Britain and accusations of paedophilia that have rocked the church in many countries.

It is thought that more than 1,000 people have contacted the church's child protection office since it was set up in 2001, though only a minority have raised accusations.

Publishing the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults' first annual report, its non-Catholic, independent director, Eileen Shearer, will say that the figures demonstrate the church's new-found commitment to openness, even though they may cause it difficult and hostile comment.

The office was set up in the wake of the report by a committee headed by Lord Nolan that recommended each parish should appoint a child protection officer, and that each diocese should have full-time staff recording complaints.

More than 60 members of the public have contacted it about incidents, and altogether 148 cases have been logged by dioceses, though not all are said to have been criminal assaults.

Ms Shearer said: "They cover a range of situations, from allegations that have to be reported to the police, to lesser accusations of someone behaving inappropriately.

"From the point of view of the person who has been abused, one case is one too many; but I hope people feel safer now than in the past."

The report will say that the office is creating a new culture of "vigilance and awareness". It claims that 90% of the 2,500 parishes in England and Wales have appointed child protection officers -though not all are yet trained - and says the office has run 200 courses to advise parishioners on how to spot symptoms of abuse and deal with complaints

Not all the church's 300 associated religious organisations, including monasteries and welfare bodies, have procedures in place.

Lord Nolan's committee was instituted by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the head of the church in England and Wales, after he was forced to apologise for having merely moved a paedophile priest in the 1980s from one job to another after complaints about his behaviour.

That priest, Father Michael Hill, is serving his second lengthy prison sentence for abusing children.

Indicating the level that cover-up reached in the 1990s, the former Archbishop of Wales, John Ward, was forced to resign by the Pope two years ago after ignoring complaints about two priests close to him who were both later jailed for abuse.

Although the Nolan recommendations were accepted in full, Ms Shearer admitted last week that some might never be implemented on grounds of cost and practicality, including the suggestion of placing glass doors on confessional boxes; instead, priests are being told that they and a person making confession should remain in view of the rest of the church at all times, though they should not be overheard.

Nevertheless, the church's action is credited with preventing the widespread accusations of abuse and costly compensation claims that it has faced in the US and other parts of the world.

The reforms were introduced in the face of opposition from some parish priests, concerned at the emphasis on heeding the complaints of victims, because they believed it was transferring the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused. Those working with the victims of assaults by priests are also wary that the church may shirk its responsibilities for after-care.

Ms Shearer conceded that those priests who are abusers would be the most secretive and least likely to cooperate with the system of accountability.

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