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Covered up Child Abuse to Protect Reputation

By Head of Abuse Team

Covered up Child Abuse to Protect Reputation

Specialist Abuse lawyer Richard Scorer addressed the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse as the panel started to hear allegations against the Catholic Church. Here is his opening statement.

Madame Chair and fellow members of the panel:  Mr O’Donnell and I represent some 27 core participants who suffered abuse in Roman Catholic institutions and a campaigner, Mr Jonathan West. All of the men and women we represent have fought bravely and tenaciously to expose this abuse, often over many decades and in the face of persistent institutional stalling and denial. Three of our clients will be giving evidence in this hearing: two who suffered abuse at Ampleforth and one who was abused by a monk from Downside.  In this opening statement I want to give our perspective on the issues to be considered over the next 3 weeks, and what we hope these hearings and your report will achieve.  

Over the course of this inquiry you have already seen that many institutions, both secular and religious, have a tendency to try to cover up the abuse of children. In considering the evidence that you hear in relation to Ampleforth and Downside, we ask you to have in mind a number of reasons why the temptation to cover up has been particularly acute in institutions associated with the Roman Catholic Church. And we invite you to consider what measures are necessary in order to overcome that temptation. 

Firstly, we submit that the temptation to cover up abuse is particularly strong in institutions which depend for their survival, and their future, on their reputation. Any child abuse is very bad for the reputation of an organisation. So where reputation is key to an organisation’s existence, we submit that there is likely to be an almost overwhelming desire to find some way of avoiding the bad publicity associated with child sex abuse. This is not necessarily deliberate recklessness on the part of the institution, they might genuinely believe (or at least hope) that they can protect both their reputation and the children in their care. But the only person protected in practice is the abuser himself, who knows that future abuses will also go unreported. Moreover, when the fact becomes known around the institution, other people who are similarly inclined will be emboldened to try their luck. For this reason some institutions become “honeypots” where multiple offenders operate. If they get to know of each other’s existence they can cover for each other. 

Of course, many institutions, both secular and religious, depend on reputation for their survival and their future. Private schools rely for their income stream on parents who select the school for their children on the basis of reputation.  Ampleforth and Downside, as well as being monastic institutions, are also fee paying schools, so they have reputational pressure from that direction. 

However, we submit that religious organisations, including but not limited to the Catholic Church, are particularly subject to the temptation to cover up abuse for reputational reasons. The Catholic Church purports and claims to be a moral beacon for the world around it. The Catholic Church seeks to offer moral guidance and moral leadership to others. That is the very essence of what it claims to do.  Yet clerical sex abuse cases and the scandals associated with them powerfully undermine that claim. This can lead to a cognitive dissonance; “Fr X is a good man and a priest, he couldn’t possibly be responsible for such crimes” or once evidence is irrefutable the offence is put down to a momentary and forgivable lapse blamed in part on the victim.  This gives rise in the Catholic Church, even more than in most institutions, to an overwhelming  dynamic leading to the cover up of abuse. 

In the Catholic Church that dynamic is reinforced by other deep seated cultural and theological factors. In particular, according to the doctrine of the Catholic Church, priests are regarded, on ordination, as being “ontologically changed” , in other words changed in the nature of their being. As such they are “invested with a ‘Sacred Power’. Ordination in Catholic doctrine places the priest on a higher plane. This means that wrongdoing  by a priest or a monk reflects far more badly on the church than wrongdoing by a layman. Again, this creates a powerful dynamic to deny the fact of abuse when it happens, to turn a blind eye to it, and in many cases to cover it up. 

We submit that over the course of evidence you will see that dynamic playing out over and over again. You will see it, for example, in the evidence from Dr Elizabeth Mann, the psychologist who interviewed abusive monks at Ampleforth between 2001 and 2005. As she explains in her statement, 

The Abbott told me that my problem was that I did not believe in Divine Grace and he had serious doubts about the authenticity of the whole Child Protection Business and it was not in the best interests  of anyone”  . His actual words were “I am not having child protection policies in the monastery”.   

Dr Mann goes on to say that  “The prevailing attitude within the wider community of the monastery during my years of working there was indifference about reporting sexual abuse and a lack of concern about the effects on victims.... there was a serous dissonance between the culture of religious life in the Benedictine order which protected offending priests, and the secular culture of the law of the land which emphasised the need to  protect children”.

A second example: when Downside Abbey discovered the abuse by Richard White (otherwise known as Fr Nicholas White), rather than simply report the matter to the police, they instead consulted with their solicitors to find out whether they had to report. The answer (sadly quite correct in law, and this is a point I shall return to) was that they did not. And so no report was made. White was sheltered for decades at Downside and Fort Augustus. Successive abbots at both locations accepted his presence in the knowledge of the crimes he had committed, and made no attempt to bring them to the attention of the authorities. This remained the case until White’s arrest in 2010 when his case was stumbled on by police examining records as part of a different investigation. But for that White would still be evading justice now. 

During this period, the Catholic Church commissioned 3 reports on the handling of abuse allegations: Bishop Budd’s working party, which reported in 1994; the Nolan report which was published in 2001; and the Cumberlege report published in 2007. All of those reports repeatedly stated that allegations of abuse should be reported to the statutory authorities. In the course of these hearings you will hear from Abbot Richard Yeo. A former Abbott of Downside and until very recently President of the Benedictine Congregation.  He was also a member of the Cumberlege commission, and that commission when it reported in 2007 reiterated yet again the need to report allegations of abuse to the statutory authorities. Yet despite being a member of the very commission which demanded that of the rest of the Church, and despite having knowledge of White’s crimes, he chose not to report them  to the police. 


So these examples, we submit, encapsulate the temptation to cover up which is deep seated across the Roman Catholic Church. Of course, a critical issue for you to consider is whether anything has really changed. Those who appear before you to speak on behalf of Ampleforth and Downside will tell you that bad things happened in the past, but that child protection is much better now. 

We urge you to treat that evidence with due scepticism. The reputational pressures, the cultural and theological factors which led to abuse being covered up in Catholic institutions have not gone away; they remain as powerful as ever. And indeed many of the personnel and the decision makers in the Church remain the same. And in considering the evidence presented to you about the church’s approach to child protection now, we urge to look below the surface appearance. In the course of these hearings you will hear from one of our clients who was abused at Ampleforth in the very recent past. She will tell you that Ampleforth has been obsessed with creating the impression, the appearance, of compliance with child protection policies, but that the reality is very different. Appearance was everything, because child protection policies were seen not primarily as being about protecting children, but about protecting the reputation of the institution. 

And we urge you to have in mind the comments of the former Head of Safeguarding for the Clifton Diocese, who says in her statement that “The Catholic Church’s PR machine likes to point out that it has these policies and procedures in place, but in many cases, individual Bishops and clergy (although not all) resist those policies. I experienced many times when I would explain a policy had been agreed by Bishop’s conference only to be told that Bishops had not read those policies or did not agree with them”.   She also explains how monks who did want to blow the whistle on abuse at Downside found it almost impossible to do so for fear of reprisals. And she also says that: “there was and continues to be a very strong and powerful old boy network among Downside clergy and the overwhelming aim in my experience was to protect themselves (with some honourable and notable exceptions). The power of these clergy and their friends can not be underestimated. This had and continues to have a devastating effect on victims”.   One of our clients who will be giving evidence in this hearing will be testifying to the terrible silencing power of this network.

We submit that whatever the church’s formal procedures may say, and have been saying now since 1994, the Catholic Church remains subject to a constant and in some cases overwhelming temptation to deal with abuse "in house" in the hope that the reputation of the church can be protected.  

That leads me to our final point today-  when considering how to deal with the temptation that I’ve described, we strongly urge you to consider the need for reform of the law. Failure to report abuse is currently not a crime. Therefore, the temptation to cover up abuse currently gives rise to a significant "moral hazard". Abuse can be - and in many cases has been - covered up for decades, and those committing wrongdoing by collaborating with abusers to cover up abuse have no risk of suffering adverse consequences as a result of their actions. And those good people working within Catholic Church, who want to ensure that child sex abuse is tackled properly, have no real lever by which they can enforce compliance by others. 

In the case of Richard White,  Downside went to the trouble of taking advice on whether they had a legal duty to report; the fact that they did so is the clearest possible evidence that the existence of a “mandatory reporting” law would have changed their behaviour. Had there been a law requiring the abuse to be reported at the time, White would have been brought to justice decades earlier, and he would never have had the opportunity to abuse his second victim. This is a situation that we will find repeated over and again with the Catholic Church but also elsewhere. Abuse was discovered but not reported, abusers remained free to abuse again and great but avoidable harm was done to their subsequent victims.

Because we have no mandatory reporting law, that temptation to cover up remains undiminished today. The Catholic Church will tell you that everything is different now,  but the question you have to ask is this: when all the fuss from this inquiry has died down, can we really rely on the church voluntarily to ensure it never slips back into old habits even though the old temptations exist today precisely as they did before? 

If - as we submit- you cannot safely assume that the Catholic church will volunteer to rigorously report suspicions of abuse to the secular authorities, then it follows that external compulsion must be applied in the form of a mandatory reporting law. Only then, we submit, can we have confidence that children will be properly protected into the future.