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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

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

B.3: Samuel Penney

17. On 16 March 1993, Samuel Penney pleaded guilty to 10 offences of indecent assault against seven boys and girls.[1] He was sentenced to seven and a half years’ imprisonment. The victims of these offences all belonged to two families who worshipped in parishes where Penney was the parish priest. The victims were abused on multiple occasions – the children from one family between November 1969 and May 1982, and those from the second family between April 1989 and June 1992.

18. Samuel Penney’s abuse did not stop with those seven victims. The Inquiry received evidence from RC‐A15 and Eamonn Flanagan who alleged that Penney had also abused them. The Archdiocese of Birmingham also received compensation claims from two other men, RC‐A247 (who received £6,000)[2] and RC‐A465 (who did not pursue his claim).[3]

19. Born in Ireland in 1939, Penney became a priest in March 1967. He was laicised in November 2006.[4] He was by all accounts a charismatic man[5] praised for his enthusiasm. He engaged the children of the parishes in youth clubs and trips.[6] Between 1967 and 1991, he served in at least four parishes.

The 1980s

20. The Archdiocese first became aware of concerns about Penney in 1980, when he was affiliated to St Joseph’s primary school in Stourbridge. In March 1980, the headteacher wrote to a monsignor in the Archdiocese complaining that Penney was interfering in the internal workings of the school. In that letter, the headteacher wrote:

“His power over the children now is such that what he says overrides and interferes with the teachers’ authority. He enters classrooms and interrupts lessons to discuss football. He is interviewing children privately during class time and has forbidden them to divulge the nature of the matter discussed between them. Concerning this he was very abusive to the class teacher. On more than one occasion he has been openly hostile to me.”[7]

21. This description of Penney’s behaviour demonstrates his determination to ignore boundaries. As the allegations began to mount, the Inquiry heard no evidence that the Archdiocese referred back to previous concerns or complaints. This letter was on Penney’s file and ought to have been considered as the complaints came to light.

22. RC‐A15 said he first met Penney in the 1980s, when he was under 13 years old and Penney became his parish priest. On one occasion, Penney organised a camping trip to Rhyl and RC‐A15 went along. On the fourth night of the trip, Penney made RC‐A15 sleep next to him. In the middle of the night, RC‐A15 woke to find Penney touching his genitals. RC‐A15 described it as a “shocking moment”.[8] About a week later, Penney organised a sleepover at the Presbytery and RC‐A15 stayed in Penney’s room. Penney asked RC‐A15 to get into bed with him for “a cuddle”. Although RC‐A15 refused, he explained that Penney spent two hours trying to persuade him, before telling RC‐A15 “I trust you are adult enough not to tell your parents about this”.[9]

23. In fact RC‐A15 did speak to his mother. Although he did not tell her about the abuse on the camping trip, he told her that he thought Penney was “gay” because, as he told us, he did not know the word paedophile. He also told his mother about what happened in the Presbytery at the sleepover.

24. RC‐A15’s mother confronted Penney.[10] She told him what RC‐A15 had told her and Penney accused RC‐A15 of exaggerating. She said:

“He made me feel I was misinterpreting something that was wholly innocent. He said things like ‘what are you implying, it was just for a cuddle and nothing more’ ... My overriding emotion was anger. I could see he was a liar and an arch manipulator.” [11]

25. RC‐A15’s mother tried to speak to Archbishop Maurice Couve de Murville, the then Archbishop of Birmingham. She was told that Monsignor Daniel Leonard, the Vicar General, would be in contact with her. RC‐A15’s mother and her husband then met with Monsignor Leonard. Monsignor Leonard asked her to describe what had happened to her son without naming the priest. She did so, and at the end said “you know who I am talking about don’t you?” Monsignor Leonard nodded. When she confirmed that she was talking about Penney, he showed no surprise. She asked if this had happened before, and Monsignor Leonard nodded and looked embarrassed.[12] The Inquiry has not seen any documentation relating to an allegation of child sexual abuse made prior to RC‐A15’s complaint.

26. Monsignor Leonard told her that the Church would deal with the matter, that Penney would be moved from the parish and would not be allowed contact with children. Penney was moved to Olton Friary. The Superior of the Friary was told that Penney had been accused of making an improper suggestion to a young boy.[13] Clearly this did not accurately reflect what RC‐A15’s mother told Monsignor Leonard. Penney spent several months at the Friary and when the time came for him to leave he asked Archbishop Couve de Murville to return him to a parish. The then Superior at Olton Friary, the Very Reverend Sheridan, said that based on Penney’s conduct at the friary he could see “no reason why I should not support this”.[14] In March 1985, Archbishop Couve de Murville appointed Penney to a parish in Nechells in Birmingham. While at that parish, he went on to sexually abuse more children.

27. Some years later, in 1992, RC‐A15’s mother was contacted by the BBC, which was making an ‘Everyman’ documentary about Penney. RC‐A15’s mother agreed to be interviewed for the programme because she wanted “to make the church better”.[15] She watched the programme, which included an interview with Archbishop Couve de Murville who said that she had only alleged “too close an association; she never complained about sexual abuse”.[16] During the programme the Archbishop was challenged with RC‐A15’s mother’s account and he replied “That is not the truth as we see it”. She described being “appalled that an Archbishop could twist the truth of what I had reported in such a way”.[17]

28. In 1986, RC‐A247 made a complaint to Malvern Police. He alleged that, in 1982, Penney had touched his genitals when they had been swimming. He also alleged that Penney had sexually abused him on occasions when he stayed overnight at the Presbytery. RC‐A247 was under 13 at the time. No police documentation now exists about this complaint.[18] In a press release in May 1993, the Archdiocese said that neither the complainant nor Penney nor the police had made the Church aware of this investigation.[19] This incident demonstrates a lack of information sharing between the police and the Church. Had either institution shared information properly, this may have caused the police and the Church to take further steps to investigate the allegations surrounding Penney.

The 1990s

29. In May 1990, the parents of Eamonn Flanagan (a core participant in this investigation who has waived his right to anonymity) told their parish priest, Father Pat Browne, that Penney had abused their son. Father Browne was advised by Bishop Philip Pargeter to tell the Vicar General, Monsignor Leonard. In a letter written in 1994, Bishop Pargeter said he knew that Father Browne did raise it with Monsignor Leonard.[20] It is likely that no action was taken by Monsignor Leonard. By this time, Penney was parish priest at St Joseph’s in Nechells and was abusing two victims (RC‐A357 and RC‐A360).

30. On 1 July 1991, Eamonn Flanagan told Bishop Pargeter, in person, that Penney had sexually abused him in the mid 1970s. The abuse included Penney kissing and masturbating him on numerous occasions over a number of years, including three or four occasions whilst Penney was at Olton Friary.[21] At that time, Mr Flanagan did not want to report the matter to the police or for Penney to be removed from the priesthood. He simply wanted Penney to be stopped from parish work and not to have contact with children.[22] By 16 July 1991, Bishop Pargeter wrote to Mr Flanagan saying that the matter had been resolved and all the conditions asked for had been met.[23]

31. It is not entirely clear what happened to Penney in the immediate aftermath of Mr Flanagan’s complaint, but he may have gone to a retreat house in Scotland.[24]The May 1993 press release by the Archdiocese stated that Penney was warned not to have any future contact with the parish and to cancel his future engagements.[25] It is evident that the matter was not reported to the police.

32. By September 1991, Penney had been sent to Heronbrook House, a therapeutic centre for clergy and members of religious congregations. He underwent a psychiatric assessment, which concluded that he would benefit from a period of residential treatment.[26] Funded by the Archdiocese, Penney was under the care of Heronbrook from approximately November 1991 to May 1992.

33. However, Heronbrook was not a secure unit and Penney was free to leave when he wanted.[27] He did leave and, in direct contravention of the Archdiocese’s wishes, returned to Nechells and stayed in RC‐A357 parents’ home. Whilst a guest there, he sexually abused RC‐A357. The abuse occurred on a number of occasions.[28] Penney had told RC‐A357’s parents not to tell those at Archbishops’ House that he was planning to visit.

34. In June 1992, Archbishop Couve de Murville dispensed Penney from the ‘obligations of the priesthood’ (ie stopped him from working as a priest).[29] That same month Penney left Heronbrook and was committed to the Gracewell Institute, a clinic that provided treatment for those accused or convicted of child sexual abuse.[30]

35. Whilst he was at Gracewell, Monsignor Leonard contemplated making arrangements for Penney to leave the Gracewell Institute and flee to America. These proposed arrangements only came to light in December 2018 after the Inquiry had concluded the first five days of evidence at the public hearing. Father Gerard Doyle had been watching the public hearing and the evidence in relation to Penney triggered his memory.

36. Father Doyle recalled that in the early 1990s, Monsignor Leonard rang him and asked him to dress in lay clothes and go to Gracewell. Father Doyle was, at that time, a young parish priest in Wolverhampton. Father Doyle was told to tell Penney that he was about to be arrested and so should make his way to Ireland and, from there, to the USA. He was told to give Penney several hundred pounds. Father Doyle said that this request came ‘out of the blue’. He did not know what Penney was going to be arrested for but said:

“For the Vicar General to be phoning me was in some ways like receiving a phone call from God, in that we held him in the highest regard ... at that time it was not acceptable for a young priest to refuse instructions from the Vicar General.”[31]

37. Father Doyle was in a state of shock and so told his housekeeper what he had been asked to do. He said that he knew what he was being asked to do was “wrong”[32] but before he had a chance to ring Monsignor Leonard back, Monsignor Leonard rang him. Monsignor Leonard said that he should not go to Gracewell, but should instead visit Penney’s sister and tell her that her brother was about to be arrested. Father Doyle complied to the extent that he telephoned Penney’s sister and told her of the impending police action. Father Doyle did not know what Penney’s sister did with this information, but Penney remained at Gracewell until his Court appearance in March 1993.

38. There were a number of failures in the institutional responses in Penney’s case:

38.1. In 1984, RC‐A15’s mother told Monsignor Leonard that Penney had abused her son. The only action taken by the Archdiocese was to move Penney to Olton Friary and from there on to a different parish.

38.2. In 1986, the police failed to take more decisive action against Penney when they did not tell the Archdiocese that Penney had been arrested on suspicion of sexually abusing RC‐A247.

38.3. In 1990, when Eamonn Flanagan reported to the Church that he had been abused by Penney, Penney was sent to Heronbrook House but was still able to continue committing acts of child sexual abuse.

38.4. In 1991, given the evidence of Father Doyle, it is clear that Monsignor Leonard contemplated making efforts for Penney to evade arrest.

39. Action could have been taken by the Archdiocese in the 1980s and early 1990s which might have prevented Penney from abusing other children. On each occasion that Penney’s abuse was reported, it seems little, if any, thought was given to victims, both past and future. Monsignor Leonard simply sought to move Penney on, after treatment, to another parish. Whatever his reasons for doing so, the consequence was to allow Penney to continue sexually abusing children.

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