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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

The Roman Catholic Church Case Study: Archdiocese of Birmingham Investigation Report

Executive Summary

The Archdiocese of Birmingham serves a Catholic population of nearly half a million people and is one of 22 dioceses within the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales. It has been the subject of considerable press attention due to the number of child sexual abuse cases that have come to light and concerns about the way they have been handled.

Since the mid 1930s, there have been over 130 allegations of child sexual abuse made against no fewer than 78 individuals associated with the Archdiocese. Many of the allegations have been made against priests and deacons. Thirteen individuals have been convicted of some of the most serious sexual offences against children. Three other individuals received cautions. Those 16 criminal cases involved no fewer than 53 victims. However, many of the 78 individuals accused of committing child sexual abuse are no longer alive and the allegations cannot now be fully investigated by the Archdiocese or the police.

Civil claims have also been brought against the Archdiocese and significant sums of money have been paid out in compensation and legal fees.

The true scale of offending and the number of children who were abused is likely to be far greater than set out in this report.

This case study investigated the response of the Archdiocese of Birmingham to child sexual abuse by examining the cases of four people: Samuel Penney, James Robinson, Father John Tolkien, and RC‐F167. These cases enabled the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse to consider the Archdiocese’s response in relation to those perpetrators convicted before the criminal courts (Penney and Robinson) and, in contrast, cases where there have been no formal findings in criminal or civil jurisdictions (Father Tolkien and RC‐F167). The cases have also enabled the Inquiry to consider the Archdiocesan response both before and after the publication of the 2001 Nolan report.

The Nolan report was a significant milestone for the Roman Catholic Church because it examined the Church’s child protection arrangements and made recommendations for structural and procedural reforms. Importantly, the report set out how the Church should respond to allegations of sexual abuse and recommended that the Church conduct a further review after five years. This led to the 2007 Cumberlege report which was intended to bring about further changes to child protection arrangements, placing greater emphasis on safeguarding. It is clear that whatever the state of child protection arrangements prior to 2002, the recommendations set out in these reports provided a clear direction for the Church. The recommendations were intended to bring about major reforms.

In March 1993, Samuel Penney was sentenced to seven and a half years’ imprisonment for sexually abusing seven children who were members of the church where he was the parish priest. Other complainants have since come forward. His offending spanned the late 1960s to 1992. On a number of occasions, his offending was brought to the attention of the Archdiocese. Rather than make progress by facilitating an investigation and assisting any potential victims, Monsignor Daniel Leonard, the Vicar General in charge of investigating such allegations, attempted to make arrangements for Penney to leave the UK and evade arrest.

James Robinson was a serial child abuser. The Archdiocese’s responses were characterised by failures to act. On one occasion when a complaint was made, Robinson was ultimately moved to another parish; when subsequent complaints were made, the police were not informed and there was no internal investigation. In May 1985, a victim confronted Robinson and recorded their conversation. Robinson knew the police had been informed of the allegation. The Archdiocese had also been informed of the nature of the complaint. Very shortly afterwards Robinson fled to the USA. Once settled there, Monsignor Leonard sought to suggest that Robinson was not a child abuser but someone against whom false allegations had been made. Although in 1993 there appeared to have been some recognition by Archbishop Couve de Murville of Robinson’s behaviour, Robinson was nevertheless supported financially by the Archdiocese for the next seven years.

In 2003, the BBC broadcast an episode of the documentary ‘Kenyon Confronts’ entitled ‘Secrets and Confessions’. The programme makers traced Robinson to a caravan park in the USA. After the programme was broadcast, Archbishop Vincent Nichols (the former Archbishop of Birmingham) issued a press release complaining about the tone of the programme and hostility to the Roman Catholic Church. While the Archbishop was entitled to express a view about the programme, he now recognises that he failed to give sufficient attention to the fact the programme gave a platform to those who had been abused. The effect of the press release, and subsequent publicity, was to defend the reputation of the Church rather than fully acknowledge the possibility of its shortcomings.

Robinson was able to remain in the USA until he was extradited in 2009. In 2010 he was convicted of 21 offences of child sexual abuse relating to four complainants. He was sentenced to 21 years’ imprisonment. As with Penney, the Inquiry is aware that a number of other complainants have accused Robinson of abusing them.

The sexual abuse perpetrated by Penney and Robinson could have been stopped much earlier if the Archdiocese had not been driven by a determination to protect the reputation of the Church. In doing so, it sealed the fate of many victims whose trust was placed in these abusers. The plight of victims was ignored or swept under the carpet, allowing the perpetrators to carry on abusing, often for many years.

In 1957, Father Tolkien was alleged to have sexually abused Christopher Carrie, a 12-year-old boy. In 1993, Mr Carrie reported this to the then Archbishop of Birmingham, Archbishop Couve de Murville. The Archbishop made some notes which revealed that, in the mid 1960s, an allegation had also been made against Father Tolkien by a teenage Scout. The Archbishop advised Mr Carrie that Father Tolkien was soon to retire and added that, if the matter were reported to the police, the Archdiocese would cooperate with any investigation.

In 2001, the police commenced an investigation although the number of allegations that were investigated is now unclear. Due to his failing health, however, no charges relating to sexual abuse were brought against Father Tolkien, who died in early 2003. Further complainants were identified as being potential victims of Father Tolkien, including RC‐A343 and RC‐A348.

Mr Carrie and RC‐A343 commenced civil claims against the Archdiocese which were settled without any finding of liability by a court. There have therefore been no formal findings against Father Tolkien. The Archdiocese cannot, however, absolve itself from any responsibility towards the complainants and should have taken action to manage the potential risks arising from Father Tolkien’s conduct. An allegation was recorded as long ago as the 1960s. This early warning put the Archdiocese on notice of the alleged wrongdoing. Recognising that his behaviour required some form of response, the Archdiocese sent Father Tolkien for treatment but no thought was apparently given to the potential consequences for children. In 1993, the Church was again alerted to the potential risk posed by Father Tolkien but once more failed to take appropriate action to ascertain whether other children might have been put at risk.

In 1985 RC‐F167 was accused of sexually abusing two boys at the school where he taught. Following the allegation he resigned and applied to become a priest. As part of the application process, RC‐F167 was asked why he resigned. Even though RC‐F167 did not deny the allegations, the Archdiocese did not pursue the matter and did not properly consider whether he posed a risk to children. Many years later, in 1997, the two complainants reported the matter to the police but the criminal case did not proceed to trial. There have been no formal findings against RC‐F167 but the Archdiocese required RC‐F167 to undertake an assessment which concluded that he should not have unsupervised contact with children. RC‐F167 was then alleged to have asked inappropriate questions of children during confession. He was placed on leave and retired from the priesthood.

In 2004, the Archdiocese of Birmingham was informed that RC‐F167 was teaching again and the Archdiocese’s safeguarding coordinator sought advice from the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults (COPCA). What should have been a straightforward exercise turned into a long-running dispute between the Archdiocese of Birmingham and COPCA about the provision of RC‐F167’s name to COPCA – a matter which, in the spirit of cooperation, should have been resolved speedily. The Archdiocese did not appear to readily accept the role of COPCA in safeguarding, contrary to the Nolan recommendations.

The past response of the Archdiocese to child sexual abuse failed to recognise the harm and potential harm to children.

As the Archdiocese accepted:

“This Inquiry has heard more than sufficient evidence to be satisfied that during the second half of the last century, the Archdiocese was responsible for a number of institutional failings which on occasions permitted the sexual abuse of children to continue when it might otherwise have been stopped ....”

Archbishop Vincent Nichols described the steps taken to gain a better understanding of the lifelong and corrosive impact that child sexual abuse causes. In 2018, the current Archbishop of Birmingham, Archbishop Bernard Longley, commissioned a review of past cases to help learn lessons from failings and to deepen the Archdiocese’s understanding of the effects of the abuse on the victims.

Following the Nolan report, there have been improvements in the way child sexual abuse allegations are handled and increased cooperation between the Archdiocese and the police and statutory agencies. Nevertheless, recent reviews conducted by the Archdiocese in 2018 have uncovered significant problems with record keeping and case management. One of the reviews – an independent audit of the Archdiocese’s safeguarding arrangements – found that the current safeguarding team was not adequately supervised and was critical of the recording systems. The audit found it was difficult to follow what had happened from the case files and ascertain what action had been taken. Despite the passage of time since the publication of the Nolan report – some 17 years have elapsed – there are still significant gaps in the Archdiocese’s child safeguarding arrangements.

This report on the Archdiocese of Birmingham case study forms part of the Inquiry’s wider investigation into the Roman Catholic Church. As part of that investigation there will be a hearing in late 2019 following which a further report, including any recommendations, will be published.

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