England is reckoning with a clerical sex abuse crisis. Again.
Editor’s note: This article contains descriptions of child sexual abuse and trauma.
On the night before her confirmation, Sue Cox was sexually abused by a Catholic priest at a convent where she was attending summer school to improve her catechism. She was 10. When she was 13, the same priest again raped her in the bedroom of her own home.
“My mother caught him and told me to pray for him and to offer it up,” Ms. Cox, who is from Warwickshire, England, told America. Listening to the advice her adoptive mother gave after she walked in on the priest, “I felt sacrificial,” she said.
“We were told that he could do no wrong,” and that he had “sacred hands,” said Ms. Cox, an award-winning addiction specialist and acupuncturist. “Worse than that, we were told that priests were next to God—that they were ontologically changed at ordination.”
Ms. Cox, who is 73 years old and today describes herself as an atheist, said that this was the belief that her “fiercely superstitious Catholic family” ingrained in her as a young child. “Well,” she added. “I can tell you that a child is ontologically changed when she is abused at that age.”
She was in her fifties before she finally broke the silence about her abuse, around the same time that Pope Benedict XVI visited the United Kingdom. “It’s not something that I could talk about when I was a little girl,” Ms. Cox said. She began engaging in compulsive self-harm. “When other girls were forming friendships, I was hiding my broken arms and scratched body and nightmares,” she remembered. “When they were all starting to have boyfriends, I couldn’t talk about my experiences because they were dirty secrets.”
“My mother caught him and told me to pray for him and to offer it up.” Listening to the advice her adoptive mother gave after she walked in on the priest, “I felt sacrificial,” Sue Cox said.
Ms. Cox described the devastation her abuser unleashed on her life. “I managed to run away from home to get married when I was 17,” she said. “I married somebody very violent because I was making poor choices. I was already an alcoholic; I was an addict. And, it got worse and worse and worse.”
Ms. Cox said it is essential to understand the crippling consequences that child sexual abuse often has for survivors. It is an experience that “completely destroys lives,” she said. By the time Ms. Cox was 29, she already had six children. For their sake, “It was necessary to get sober,” she said. “I managed to get free from drink; free from any kind of mood-altering chemicals—and it’s 45 years this year since I had a mood-altering chemical.”
Ms. Cox is one of the abuse survivors who provided evidence to a government inquiry into the sexual abuse of children in the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales. The inquiry has identified significant and ongoing failings in the church’s safeguarding of children and in decision-making among its highest leaders.
Published on Nov. 10, the same day the Vatican released its internal report into decades-long sexual abuse by Theodore McCarrick, a former U.S. cardinal, the inquiry into the Catholic Church in England and Wales reports that the church’s “moral purpose was betrayed over decades by those in the Church who perpetrated this abuse and those who turned a blind eye to it.”
It is essential to understand the crippling consequences that child sexual abuse often has for survivors. It is an experience that “completely destroys lives.”
Survivors of sexual abuse continue to receive inadequate pastoral and therapeutic support and church leadership is lacking at all levels, according to the report. It concludes: “The Church’s neglect of the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of children and young people in favour of protecting its reputation was in conflict with its mission of love and care for the innocent and vulnerable.”
The inquiry found that the church’s mismanagement of sexual abuse is not merely a historical problem but one that persists today. “Since 2016, there have been more than 100 reported allegations each year,” investigators said. “Across the entire period of nearly 50 years covered by this inquiry, the true scale of sexual abuse of children is likely to have been much higher.”
Government investigators add that they experienced significant resistance from the Vatican in providing evidence sought by the inquiry. According to the report, “‘[t]he Holy See’s limited response on this matter manifestly did not demonstrate a commitment to taking action. Their lack of cooperation passes understanding.”
The government-mandated Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church in England and Wales revealed that along with systemic sexual abuse, the church rushed more quickly to save its image than it did to respond to the plight of survivors. According to the report, over a half-century, the Catholic Church in England and Wales had received complaints alleging more than 3,000 instances of child sexual abuse against 936 people associated with the church, among them priests, vowed religious and volunteers.
“The account given in the [inquiry’s report] of abuse known to be inflicted on children in the Catholic Church in England and Wales in the past 50 years is shocking and overwhelming,” the bishops of England and Wales wrote in a statement released on Nov. 20.
“At our meeting this week, we Bishops have stood together in profound shame,” they added. “We express our sorrow and contrition before God.” The bishops accepted the inquiry’s recommendations in full and vowed to make sweeping changes, including the appointment of a new bishop to deal specifically with the safeguarding of children and a complete overhaul of the church’s child protection systems.
“Nothing will cause us more despair,” survivors said, “than to hear more of the same, with a future inquiry a few years from now.”
The bishops thanked survivors “who have come forward, not only to lay before us their experience of abuse,” they said, “but to help us understand the depth of their pain.” They also asked “anyone who has experienced abuse to come forward, no matter how long ago the abuse took place” and promised to “to listen more intently to those who have been abused so as to learn from them and benefit from their wisdom.”
For many survivors, the bishops’ renewed commitment and promises ring hollow.
“The report clearly shows the Church’s lack of willingness and ability to change of its own accord,” survivors of child sexual abuse wrote in an open letter published in The Tablet, a weekly Catholic magazine in the United Kingdom.
“There should be no crocodile tears from the Church hierarchy, calling this report a ‘wake-up call.’ The Catholic Church has been here before, with the Nolan report in 2001 and the Cumberlege report in 2007, both followed by broken promises and shocking inertia,” they said. “We believe there is clear evidence that there must be mandatory safeguarding reporting laws and an independent body responsible for the oversight of safeguarding. Without this, there is little hope of meaningful change, when the Church has repeatedly failed to regulate itself, with catastrophic consequences.
“Nothing will cause us more despair,” survivors added, “than to hear more of the same, with a future inquiry a few years from now.”
Similar to the conclusions of the McCarrick Report, the inquiry into the Catholic Church in England and Wales found “weaknesses in leadership were significant in the failures to address child sexual abuse. The responses of Church leaders over time were marked by delay in implementing change as well as reluctance to acknowledge responsibility, to hold individuals to account or to make sincere apologies.”
The report added, “Failure in some of these areas contributed to more children experiencing actual abuse and many others being exposed to the risk of sexual abuse.”
Ms. Cox is also the co-founder of Survivors Voice Europe, an organization of survivors of Catholic clergy abuse. She believes that the church has historically done little to remedy its past abuses except when it is “cornered.” She argues that “anybody who has really strong affiliations with the church cannot be part of that process [of reform].”
“‘Sorry’ is pointless, unless it has actions as well. I think they need to be open to scrutiny. I think they need to recognize the severity of the crime and I think they need to compensate people accordingly.”
“They can’t be part of the solution because they are the problem. And they’ve shown time and time again that they cannot police themselves.”
David Greenwood, an attorney who has represented survivors since 1998 and is legal adviser to Minister & Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors, another survivors group, joined the video call with Ms. Cox. From his perspective the church has made some progress, but he characterized its efforts as half-hearted and inadequate.
“They did implement, in quite a hurry, some improved procedures, lots of documents that even safeguarding officials or experts felt were almost impenetrable,” he said. “And they have spent more money on diocesan safeguarding advisors.”
Among the most sharply criticized by the inquiry is Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. “He did not always exercise the leadership expected of a senior member of the Church,” investigators concluded, “at times preferring to protect the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales and in Rome.”
The inquiry notes a statement made by the cardinal following its earlier June 2019 investigation into child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Birmingham, where Cardinal Nichols served as archbishop between 2000 and 2009. At the time, he “humbly” asked for the people’s forgiveness on behalf of all bishops, “for our slowness and defensiveness,” he said, “and for our neglect of both preventative and restorative actions.”
Despite the cardinal’s apology, the inquiry points out that one of the recommendations the church had been slow to act on—calling for the creation of a centralized national body to address all safeguarding matters—had been made 13 years ago in the Cumberlege Commission Report. It had even been included 19 years ago when the 2001 Nolan Report pushed for “a Church-wide commitment to one set of policies and procedures.”
Church officials “can’t be part of the solution because they are the problem. And they’ve shown time and time again that they cannot police themselves.”
In July 2019, three months before the inquiry began its public hearings, the bishops commissioned Ian Elliot, a safeguarding expert, to chair yet another independent review of the safeguarding structures and arrangements within the Catholic Church in England and Wales. In its final report, released 10 days after the inquiry, the review recommended a new body “providing a central point of accountability, policies, procedures, and support.” In the wake of both the inquiry and the review, the bishops of England and Wales have now announced that a new “Catholic Safeguarding Standards Agency” will replace existing church safeguarding structures.
America has reached out to the cardinal for a response to the report but has not received one. In a video statement released alongside publication of the inquiry’s findings, Cardinal Nichols again apologized “to all victims and survivors who have not been properly listened to, or properly supported by us.”
“Child sexual abuse is a crime,” the cardinal said. “It is a crime that requires committed vigilance and strict procedures to ensure reporting to the statutory authorities. This is the Church’s policy. It is also why our safeguarding work needs to be continually reviewed and improved. Where there have been failings and inconsistency in the application of our safeguarding procedures, we acknowledge these and commit to actions which will bring about improvement.”
Calls for the cardinal’s resignation quickly followed the release of the report. In an interview with the BBC, he explained that he had tendered his resignation to the pope days before the release of the report upon reaching the age of retirement. “His answer has come back very clear, very unambiguous,” the cardinal said. “He wants me to stay in post, so I will stay because that’s where my orders come from, that’s where my mandate comes from. I’m going to stay and continue to work wholeheartedly at these matters.”
On Nov. 20, a week after the report and following the bishops’ meeting, the cardinal made a personal statement. “To each and every one, I express my profound sorrow and apologies,” he 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.”
Ms. Cox has so far found the response from bishops less than satisfactory. “If they were entering into a 12-step program, they would be drinking, they would be using because they would not be sober,” she said, “because that is not the way to make amends.
“‘Sorry’ is pointless, unless it has actions as well,” she said. “I think they need to be open to scrutiny. I think they need to recognize the severity of the crime and I think they need to compensate people accordingly,” she added. “I think our lawyers need to be given teeth.”
Mr. Greenwood said that the church might begin to make amends for its historical abuses by showing seriousness now; being honest about abuse when it comes to light; recognizing that it is not above the law as an institution; and submitting itself to prosecutors when wrongdoing is found among its clergy or laypeople.
When dealing with the sexual abuse of children, “we’re in a dark place, and have been for a long time,” Mr. Greenwood said. “But, there’s got to be hope,” he added. “I’m hopeful that together governments and prosecutors and legal establishments around the world, hopefully in conjunction with the churches and different organizations, can work out a much better way of protecting children.”
“It’s an ugly subject, but it’s a lot uglier when we don’t talk about it,” said Ms. Cox. “And it’s a lot more ugly when the church won’t talk about it.”
Correction, Dec. 5, 2020: Originally, this article incorrectly referred to the “United Kingdom,” “U.K.” and “British.” Neither the Catholic Church in Scotland or Northern Ireland were investigated by the independent inquiry; they each belong to different bishops’ conferences than the church in England and Wales. The article has been corrected to reflect these distinctions. We regret the error.
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