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Archdiocese of Birmingham 'ignored child sex abuse to protect reputation'

By David Banner | Birmingham | Crime | Published:

The panel found the Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham was more concerned about protecting its reputation.

Former priest James Robinson, 73, who was jailed for 21 years

Children could have been saved from sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Birmingham if the Catholic church had not been so determined to protect its reputation, a damning report has found.

More than 130 allegations of child sex abuse have been made against 78 individuals associated with the archdiocese since the mid-1930s, but the true scale of offending is likely to be far higher, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) concluded.

The panel found the church had “repeatedly failed” to alert police to allegations, and said the consequences of those failings “cannot be overstated”.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, leaves after giving evidence to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

While 13 people have been convicted of some of the most serious offences against children and a further three cautioned, many of the 78 individuals have died meaning the allegations cannot be fully investigated.

The report said: “In some cases, the lack of action by the church meant that the abuser was free to continue to commit acts of child sexual abuse.”

Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the current leader of Roman Catholics in England and Wales, was archbishop of Birmingham between 2000 and 2009 and was said by the inquiry to have focused too much on the reputation of the church during his time there, instead of the welfare of children.

Inquiry chairwoman Professor Alexis Jay, said she was “truly shocked” by the abuse and hoped the findings would help to ensure no repeat of such failings.

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She said: “I am truly shocked by the scale of child sexual abuse within the Archdiocese of Birmingham.

“The number of perpetrators and abused children is likely to be far higher than the figures suggest.

“Victims and survivors’ allegations were mostly ignored for years, while perpetrators avoided prosecution.

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“It is clear that the church could have stopped children being abused if it had not been so determined to protect its own reputation.

“We hope this report will help ensure that never happens again.”

The report’s findings include that “little or no steps” were taken to protect children from the risk of abuse by the late Father John Tolkien, son of novelist J.R.R Tolkien.

The archdiocese settled claims arising from allegations against the priest, who died in 2003 and was never convicted in court.

The inquiry heard Cardinal Nichols had been aware of a 1968 note which included a reference to Fr Tolkien having apparently admitted ordering a group of Scouts to strip naked.

The report found that the church “was aware of the risk Father Tolkien posed to children and yet the archdiocese took little or no steps to protect children from those risks”.

In another instance the cardinal issued a press release complaining about anti-Catholic bias after a BBC documentary in which serial child abuser James Robinson was confronted by reporters after fleeing to the US.

Complaints about Robinson, who was found guilty in 2010 of 21 child sex abuse offences against four boys, were made to the church in the 1970s and 1980s but the inquiry said he had simply been moved to a different parish and that the archdiocese did not appear to have reported allegations to police.

The hurt and damage caused by Robinson had been compounded, the panel said, by Cardinal Nichols’ press release which “focused too much on his grievance with the programme makers and too little on the public interest in exposing the abuse committed by the clergy and the harm done to the victims of such abuse”.

The report, which looked at the responses of the church to four priests in total, also concluded that the Archdiocese of Birmingham is still falling short in its child safeguarding arrangements, despite recommendations from major reports in recent years.

The panel said: “The Archdiocese of Birmingham must professionalise both the way the safeguarding team operates and the way the team is managed and overseen.”

A statement from the archdiocese said it will study the findings and use them to “inform our ongoing commitment to do more and do better”.

It said: “We accept that we have failed victims and survivors of abuse and again apologise for the grievous failings we have made in the past.

“Apologies are just words though, if not backed up by action.

“We will the take the time needed to review the IICSA report thoroughly in order to make a considered and detailed response, which will inform our ongoing commitment to do more and do better.”

The archdiocese has already “fundamentally changed its practices and processes to ensure an open and compassionate approach to victims and survivors”, it said.

The statement added: “It now has more safeguarding personnel, better management and recording systems, stronger DBS/checking procedures and clear policies and practices on safeguarding referrals and agreements, to safeguard those who come in contact with the church.”

Following the report Cardinal Nichols said: “I thank IICSA for their review of the past and in my witness statements address all the points contained in the report.

“I look forward to the next phase which I trust will help us in our present and future tasks.”

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