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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

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

C.3: Father John Tolkien: an example of safeguarding response pre and post‐Nolan

18. A number of the allegations reported to the Archdiocese of Birmingham were made against clergy who had since died. In cases where the perpetrator was still alive, not all allegations resulted in a prosecution or indeed a finding that the abuse had occurred. The case of Father John Tolkien is one such example. We have examined Father Tolkien’s case, not to determine his guilt or innocence, but in order to assess how the Archdiocese responds where the accused remains unconvicted and how risk to children is managed. Institutions are responsible for managing potential risks to children of sexual abuse. In the absence of any formal findings against the perpetrator, the management of risk in these circumstances plays a vital role in keeping children safe.

19. John Tolkien was born in 1917. He was a priest in the Archdiocese of Birmingham between 1946 and 1994. From the early 1990s until his death in January 2003, Father Tolkien was the subject of allegations of child sexual abuse. He repeatedly and consistently denied the allegations made against him. There have been no criminal convictions or civil court findings against Father Tolkien, although the Archdiocese have settled claims arising from these allegations.

Allegations by Christopher Carrie

20. On 2 September 1993, Christopher Rooney (who subsequently changed his name to Carrie) met with Archbishop Couve de Murville. He told the Archbishop that he had been sexually abused by Father Tolkien when he was 12 years old. He said that, on three occasions in 1957, Father Tolkien had taken him into the presbytery and committed sexual acts on him, including masturbation carried out in a “pseudo religious way”.[1] The Archbishop took handwritten notes of Mr Carrie’s complaint which were kept on Father Tolkien’s personal file.

21. The notes from 2 September 1993 suggest that Archbishop Couve de Murville knew something of Father Tolkien’s past behaviour. The notes refer to a 16 or 17‐year‐old Scout, recording that “I spoke > him in 1966. He agreed that Fr Tolkien had done these things and others.”[2] It is apparent therefore that Mr Carrie was not the only person to disclose abuse by Father Tolkien.

22. In October 1993, Archbishop Couve de Murville wrote to Mr Carrie, saying the “passage of more than 35 years makes it difficult to establish precisely what happened and when but I have carefully investigated your complaints as far as possible. I have also interviewed Father Tolkien. He is more than 76 years old and not in good health”.[3] Father Tolkien was soon to retire and was to cease active ministry, and the Archbishop said “Perhaps Father Tolkien’s retirement is the answer you seek”. He added that if the matter were reported to the police, the Church would assist with any police investigation. In summer 1994, Mr Carrie reported the abuse to the police[4] but it appears that no police action was taken.

23. In November 2000, Mr Carrie wrote to Archbishop Nichols[5] informing him of the alleged abuse and asking him to investigate. Earlier that year, Mr Carrie had written a book called Klone it (an anagram of Tolkien) in which he repeated his allegations.

24. By May 2001, West Midlands Police commenced an investigation[6] into Father Tolkien. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) were asked to advise on whether he should be charged in relation to Mr Carrie’s complaints. On 14 February 2002, the CPS issued a press release, stating that Father Tolkien would not be charged with any offences as “it would not be in the public interest to proceed”.[7] A CPS spokesperson at the time confirmed that the evidential test was passed[8] but that medical evidence relating to Father Tolkien’s health[9] meant it was not in the public interest to bring charges against him.[10] Mr Carrie then commenced a civil compensation claim against the Archdiocese.

25. In June 2002, RC‐A348 came forward, writing to Archbishop Nichols.[11] He said he had read an article about Mr Carrie which stated that Father Tolkien denied the allegations but he said “well I know for sure Mr Carrie is telling the truth because I too was abused myself”. He went on to say “I know Father John Tolkien is 84 years old and suffering from dementia but it is wrong for him to keep denying he never did these things – he did”.[12] The Archbishop advised RC‐A348 to report the matter to the police.[13]

26. As part of Mr Carrie’s compensation claim, the Archdiocese and their solicitors carried out inquiries into Father Tolkien. The solicitors spoke with two other men, one of whom was himself a priest, who alleged that Father Tolkien had also abused them. This led the solicitors to advise that they thought it likely that a court would conclude that Father Tolkien had abused Mr Carrie.[14]

27. The solicitors’ advice also referred to Archbishop Couve de Murville’s meeting withMr Carrie in 1993.[15] As part of his own inquiries, Archbishop Couve de Murville appears to have read a 1968 file note which alleged that Father Tolkien had made a number of Boy Scouts strip naked and possibly sprinkled holy water on them. The actual 1968 note is not available but the Archbishop’s 1993 note of the 1968 note includes reference to Father Tolkien admitting these allegations[16] and possibly being sent for treatment. Aside from the reference to treatment, it seems no action was taken in 1968. The matter was not reported to the police in either 1968 or 1993.

28. Archbishop Nichols was aware of the existence of the 1968 note. In a letter to him on 10 February 2003, the Archdiocese’s solicitors noted:

“You have said that the Archdiocese would prefer not to disclose this note even if this means settling the action.”[17]

The letter stated:

“to settle this claim on the basis that the Archdiocese would not wish to make a damaging disclosure must mean that any subsequent claim brought by others arising from the activities of Father Tolkein (sic) would also have to be settled since the Note would be equally relevant in any subsequent action. We have details of as many as six potential Claimants.”[18]

29. By July 2003, the Archdiocese and Mr Carrie reached an out‐of‐court settlement in respect of the civil case. Mr Carrie received £15,000, without admission of liability.[19]

Allegations made by RC-A343

30. RC‐A343 told the Inquiry that in the early 1970s, when he was under 13 years old, his father enrolled him in a nearby Catholic junior school attached to the local church where Father Tolkien was the parish priest.[20] The school’s headteacher was a nun who was very strict with the pupils. There was a strong emphasis, he said, on obedience to both the Roman Catholic Church and to Father Tolkien. He said Father Tolkien was seen as the “creme de la creme of the church and the schools. He was on the board of a few schools around the area”[21] and was much revered as the local parish priest.

31. RC‐A343 became an altar boy at the church. He recalled an occasion when Father Tolkien asked him to do the first reading at mass. RC‐A343 struggled with reading and, when this became apparent, Father Tolkien asked RC‐A343 to go to his house for “special reading lessons”. RC‐343 did so and, once there, he was left on his own in a room with Father Tolkien who told him that he had been chosen to participate in a “special prayer ceremony”. Reading was not mentioned.[22] RC‐A343 was told that he must keep the ceremony a secret and that Jesus would find out if he broke the secret. RC‐A343 went on to tell us that Father Tolkien made RC‐A343 remove his trousers, kneel down and then sexually abused him.[23] RC‐A343 said that he visited Father Tolkien on a further three to five occasions[24] and that on each visit he was sexually abused.

32. RC‐A343 reported his abuse to the police in the early 2000s after seeing an article placed in the local newspaper by West Midlands Police regarding Father Tolkien abusing young boys.[25] It is not clear if RC‐A343’s allegations formed part of the police investigation into Mr Carrie’s complaints as neither West Midlands Police nor the CPS retained the case papers. RC‐A343 did recall he was ultimately informed that Father Tolkien would not be prosecuted.

33. In the mid 2000s, RC‐A343 brought a civil claim against the Archdiocese. He was asked if he could prove definitively that he had been in contact with Father Tolkien,[26] which he could not. The Archdiocese contested the civil claim on the basis the claim was made outside of the relevant time limit.[27] Eventually his compensation claim was settled for a modest sum.

34. Having learned that Archbishop Nichols did not want to disclose the 1968 note during the civil claim brought by Mr Carrie, RC‐A343 told the Inquiry:

“in 1968 Father Tolkien was reported to the archbishop that he’d abused two boys, and they sent him for therapy. Knowing that two years later he abused me in the same church or the same school, and then they had the nerve to deny the claim that he did anything wrong when they must have known about it for years, and Vincent Nichols, the so‐called Cardinal of England and Wales, has the nerve to start talking to the solicitors on how to cover things up. That’s not Christian.”[28] 

RC‐A343 felt the Church’s handling of his claim was “Disgusting. Low level”.[29]

The response of the Archdiocese

35. Archbishop Nichols said that throughout the course of Mr Carrie’s civil claim his main objective was “to try and avoid civil action in court”.[30] During the course of the compensation claim, the Tolkien family engaged solicitors who, according to Archbishop Nichols, “were very firm in asserting their position that it would be quite improper for the diocese to admit legally that these acts had taken place because Father Tolkien would have no opportunity to defend himself”.[31]

36. While not disputing he had said “the Archdiocese would prefer not to disclose this note even if this means settling the action”, Archbishop Nichols thought a more accurate reflection of his views would be if it read “The Archdiocese would prefer not to take this matter to court and therefore not to disclose the note”.[32] He accepted that he did not write back to the Archdiocese’s solicitors to correct this inaccuracy.[33] The Archbishop denied settling the claim with the intention of covering up any documentation, and said the note had been disclosed to the police.[34]

37. When asked if the reason for non‐disclosure of the note in the civil proceedings was a desire to protect the reputation of the Church, he said “I don’t remember that being uppermost in my mind ... uppermost in my mind was a desire to settle this claim so that these difficult situations certainly for Mr Carrie, certainly for the Tolkien family ... could be closed”.[35] The Archbishop accepted that, having settled Mr Carrie’s case, it did not occur to him that people might have a legitimate interest in knowing that in 1968 the Church had failed to take action against Father Tolkien, “for which I apologise”.[36]

38. The passage of time and the paucity of contemporaneous documentation make it difficult to establish precisely what steps the Archdiocese took in 1968. Had any steps been taken, any potential risk to children might have been reduced.

39. Similarly, in 1993, the Archdiocese failed to take appropriate action in response to Mr Carrie’s complaints made against Father Tolkien. Archbishop Couve de Murville was aware that there was a previous allegation against Father Tolkien. The police should have been informed and steps taken to ensure that Father Tolkien did not have unsupervised contact with children.

40. Given Archbishop Nichols was advised by solicitors that a court would be likely to conclude that Father Tolkien had abused Mr Carrie, it was understandable he wished to settle the civil claim. The 1968 note was disclosed to the police so it cannot be suggested that the Archdiocese sought to cover up the note. However, the note does demonstrate that the Church was aware of the risk Father Tolkien posed to children and yet the Archdiocese took little or no steps to protect children from those risks. As Archbishop Nichols said, “by any standards today, what happened then was not right. It was wrong. And it led directly to his [RC‐A343] abuse, which I sincerely regret. Now that he knows that that report was given in 1968, I’m sure that has renewed and deepened his sense of betrayal and his sense of hurt, and I apologise for that.”[37]

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