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29 November 2019 | Podcasts | Article by Alan Collins

HJ Talks About Abuse: Safeguarding in the Roman Catholic Church

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The IICSA Roman Catholic Church investigation has recently concluded. IICSA was examining safeguarding in the Roman Catholic Church and the interwoven issue of mandatory reporting.

The last day of the hearing (8thNovember 2019) was concerned with the hearing of submissions by the lawyers representing the various parties. I was concerned to make the point that there was a moral and legal obligation on the Roman Catholic Church to accept what needed to be done to ensure that there was adequate safeguarding so that children and young people would be safe.

I quote in part the submission I made:

“Over the course of the last few days, we have heard much about cardinals, bishops, dioceses, conferences, commissions, priests, and I have to say, or I have to confess, that I do not pretend, even now, to fully understand how the Roman Catholic Church, in these many guises, actually functions, but it is abundantly clear that, when it comes to safeguarding, the levers of power are operated by a very small number of people. Maybe that helps to explain why the Roman Catholic Church has failed when it’s come to safeguarding and continues to fail when it comes to safeguarding. Those failures arise from a failure of leadership which is the fruit of a dysfunctional culture.”

It is patently apparent that the Roman Catholic Church in this country is incapable of fulfilling its safeguarding obligations. Those safeguarding obligations can only be met when the culture is right and when there is the right leadership.

It was very telling yesterday, I thought, towards the end of Cardinal Nichols’ evidence, when he was asked about mandatory reporting and the seal of confession.

He said, and I quote:

“The history of the Catholic Church has a number of people who have been put to death in defence of the seal of confession. It might come to that.”

He went on, but for my purposes, we will leave it at that.

That patently demonstrates that the Roman Catholic Church has hitched its star to a wagon where the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church and the interests of its priests are paramount at the expense of all else, and in this context, the interests of children, young people and survivors.

I ask myself, what is leadership in the Roman Catholic Church? And I would like to repeat a quote, give a quote, from Cardinal Newman, who converted from the Anglican Church to the Roman Catholic Church in the mid 19th century, and he was appointed as a cardinal in 1879. He said this:

“Among the obligations of a cardinal, I am pledged never to let my high dignity suffer in the eyes of men by fault of mine, never to forget what I have been made and whom I represent, and if there is a man who more requires the support of others in satisfying the duties for which he was not born and in making himself more than himself, surely it is I.”

That speaks of humility. It speaks of humility to me. That is my understanding.

The leadership of the Roman Catholic Church needs to express humility because there can be no other way. If the Roman Catholic Church is to genuinely embrace safeguarding, given all the opportunities it has had so far — with Nolan[i] and Cumberlege [ii]— it has got to find a new way, and it is quite clear, I would submit, that it’s incapable of doing it by itself.

And so it is inevitable that there is going to have to be statutory intervention. A regulator or a commissioner is going to have to be appointed by parliament to ensure that the Roman Catholic Church meets the most minimum standards of when it comes to safeguarding.

How those various orders and dioceses and various bodies come to terms with that will be of their choosing, but if they are to have a future, a future that enables them to work with children and to have a future, then they are going to have to embrace those minimum standards, and maybe, from what you have heard, you may be of the opinion that maybe there is a chance there, but that chance will never flourish unless the Roman Catholic Church conforms to what is expected by our society in the 21st century. There can be no other way.

It is no good for a cardinal to say, “If we don’t like it, we will reject it”. That is not acceptable. It is not acceptable in the civilised world in the 21st century.

The issue is not what is said in confession. The seal of confession is not a talisman. Mandatory reporting, in itself, is no panacea, but it’s an expedient part, an important part, an integral part, of what safeguarding is all about.

It is essential that the Roman Catholic Church comes to accept that. It cannot, as we heard earlier on, simply “pick and mix”. It’s not going to work.

What is going to be required, in my submission, if there is to be statutory regulation, is some minimum standards, and we will expand on this in the written submission. But getting back to culture and leadership, one of those minimum standards should be that child safety is embedded in institutional leadership, governance and culture, and I will repeat that because I say this goes to the heart of what you are looking at: child safety is embedded in institutional leadership, governance and culture.

Such standards, or something very similar, would provide a benchmark by which the Roman Catholic Church can measure itself. It also provides a benchmark for a regulator or commissioner to judge or to measure the Roman Catholic Church by.

That must surely be the way to go[iii].

If the Roman Catholic Church chooses not to, then it has to live with the consequences. I am sure you are not going to simply produce a retread of Nolan and Cumberlege, because it is patently apparent, as I have said, in all that you have heard, from the evidence submitted to you, that mandatory regulation with mandatory reporting is going to be necessary

I would like to close on this note, to pick up on what the cardinal said to you yesterday, and it was telling when he talked about the history of the church, but very revealing. Perhaps it was unfortunate for him to have said it in the context of this inquiry, because it reminded me of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed in Flossenburg concentration camp in 1945 for standing up against tyranny, oppression and wrong. He went to his death because of his faith and because of what he thought he was fighting for and for what he thought he was going to his death for. He said this:

“The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.”

It is inevitable in my opinion that mandatory reporting will be introduced and it is only a question of when. It is impossible to see how there can be an exception for catholic priests who may hear about CSA in confession. The Roman Catholic Church will have to find a way to move on from its entrenched position in relation to the seal of confession.


[i] Nolan Report recommendations

[ii] Cumberlege report and recommendations

[iii]The Tablet www.thetablet.co.uk 14.11.19 accepts that priests are going to have comply with the law or face prison

Author bio

Alan Collins


Alan Collins is one of the best known and most experienced solicitors in the field of child abuse litigation and has acted in many high profile cases, including the Jimmy Savile and Haut de la Garenne abuse scandals.  Alan has represented interested parties before public inquiries including the Independent Jersey Care Inquiry, and IICSA (Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse).

Internationally, Alan works in Australia, South East Asia, Uganda, Kenya, and California representing clients in high profile sexual abuse cases. Alan also spoke at the Third Regional Workshop on Justice for Children in East Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok hosted by Unicef and HCCH (Hague Conference on Private International Law).

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.


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