Skip to main content

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 Investigation Report


C.3: The institutions of the Holy See

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

12. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) is one of the administrative institutions of the Holy See. The CDF has:

overall responsibility for passing on the Catholic faith. One of the ways in which it does this is to exercise disciplinary responsibility for canonical crimes in the area of faith and the celebration of the sacraments, as well as the moral issues connected with these.[1]

13. In general terms, the CDF will become involved in a complaint of child sexual abuse against a member of the clergy in two ways:

  • a canonical process to establish whether a canonical crime has been committed; and
  • the laicisation process.

Canonical process in a child sexual abuse allegation

14. Where an allegation of child sexual abuse is made against a member of the clergy, canon law requires the matter to be reported to the relevant bishop or religious institute leader.[2] This requirement exists alongside the Church’s obligations to report a child sexual abuse allegation or concern to the statutory authorities. In England and Wales “canonical rules and processes must be subordinated” to any statutory investigation and so the canonical process is adjourned until the state’s investigations are completed.[3]

15. Once the state’s investigations have concluded, the substantive canonical process begins. This involves the bishop or religious leader conducting a preliminary investigation to establish whether “there is knowledge, which at least seems true” of a canonical crime.[4] As Monsignor Read put it, the question to be determined is: “Is there something to investigate here?[5] The bishop or religious leader will then issue a decree (ie a decision) providing the reasons for the decision.

16. Where the decree states that there is ‘something to investigate’, the matter is referred to the CDF. The CDF instructs the bishop or religious leader how to proceed. In practice, the CDF usually advises that an ‘administrative process’ be followed whereby the bishop or religious leader and two assessors oversee the substantive investigation and the bishop or religious leader decides whether a canonical crime has been proven to the standard of “moral certitude”.[6] The CDF retains the right to impose any penalty at the end of this process, including a recommendation that the priest be laicised (see below).


17. Laicisation is the process by which a member of the clergy is ‘returned to the lay state’. The CDF is the department responsible for ensuring that laicisation procedures are followed and that the correct paperwork has been submitted before the Pope grants the petition dispensing the priest from the obligations of ordination.

18. In both case studies, the Inquiry heard that priests convicted of child sexual abuse were laicised, but the length of time taken to do so often varied. For example, Laurence Soper was laicised within 18 months of his convictions for child sexual abuse offences.[7] By contrast it took nearly seven years for James Robinson to be laicised following his convictions.[8]

19. The Holy See declined to provide the Inquiry with any information about the length of time taken to laicise a priest or provide any information about the delay in laicising James Robinson.

20. We heard that the CDF had a small number of staff, between 10 and 20 people.[9] Adrian Child (director of the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service (CSAS) from 2007 to 2015) told us that:

The CDF are hugely understaffed and simply cannot deal with the deluge of referrals they receive. It is not unusual for a CDF response to take 2 or 3 years and in the context of safeguarding this is obviously unsatisfactory.[10]

It is unsurprising therefore that when Christopher Pearson (NCSC Chair) wrote to the CDF to ask for an assurance that personal and sensitive information about a survivor of child sexual abuse (RC-A711) was not leaked by them, he did not even receive a response. He was told there would be little point in chasing the letter due to the extremely slow” responses previously obtained from the CDF.[11]

21. The Inquiry’s rapid evidence assessment (REA) Child sexual abuse within the Catholic and Anglican Churches reported that, in 2010, the Catholic Church “revealed that between 2001 and 2010 the Congregation [for the Doctrine of the Faith] had discussed allegations regarding improper sexual conduct relating to about 3000 priests”.[12] No definition of the term ‘improper sexual conduct’ is provided. The REA suggests the figure of 3,000 is an underestimate when compared with other evidence about the numbers of allegations against priests. The absence of published data about the number of priests laicised for child sexual abuse offences (whether in crimes in civil or canonical law) diminishes confidence in the Church’s handling of such cases.

Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors

22. In 2014, Pope Francis established the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (PCPM) to advise him on “effective policies for the protection of minors and vulnerable adults and educational programmes for all who are involved in this work”.[13]

23. The PCPM, a department of the Holy See, is made up of experts who act as an advisory body to the Pope. Baroness Sheila Hollins, one of the eight founding members, told us that the remit of the PCPM was “very broad”.[14] Where the PCPM identifies best practice, it makes recommendations to the Pope to adopt such practice; where weaknesses are identified, it proposes initiatives to address any shortcomings.[15] In 2016, Pope Francis approved the PCPM’s guidelines template.[16] The template was intended to be a model set of guidelines with which each country’s own guidelines complied.[17] It was sent to each Bishops’ Conference and all major religious institutes. However, as Baroness Hollins accepted, the guidelines were “advisory[18] and ultimately it was for bishops to decide how to act.

24. Baroness Hollins told us that by 2017 (when her time as a member of the PCPM came to an end) it “became increasingly apparent” to her that “advice would not be enough unless methods were found to support church leaders to implement the guideline recommendations in different regions and countries”.[19] Sister Jane Bertelsen, a PCPM member since 2018, also expressed her concern that the advisory nature of the PCPM meant its “capacity to influence the global church in this area” was “limited”.[20]

25. Baroness Hollins said she “sensed resistance in some quarters because although people within the Church understood the legal requirements and procedures, they did not “truly understand” the subject of child abuse.[21] She felt that the PCPM had “recommended the best policies but said that:

unless they were implemented, and implemented really with the heart that’s required to carry this through and to understand that this is going to be an essential and ongoing commitment, then the guidelines on their own wouldn’t work”.[22]

26. For example, in 2016 the PCPM advised that the CDF should respond to letters received from victims and survivors rather than referring the inquirer back to the bishop in the inquirer’s diocese.[23] Baroness Hollins said that:

Whilst the CDF did not directly refuse to follow that advice, it did not do so.[24]

As a result, Ms Marie Collins, a PCPM member, survivor of child sexual abuse and prominent campaigner, resigned from the PCPM. An article published in the Catholic Herald stated that Ms Collins criticised the CDF:

citing what she called ‘unacceptable’ resistance to the commission’s proposals from the Vatican’s doctrine office … Collins mentioned in particular the alleged refusal by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to implement proposals approved by the Pope and to collaborate with the commission.[25]

27. This incident led Baroness Hollins to comment “some church leaders get it and some church leaders don’t”.[26]

28. Sister Bertelsen thought it would “take time” for the PCPM to be seen as “a vital force in the church” and thought there needed to be a central office in Rome with authority to coordinate efforts across the Church.[27] She thought this office should have “functional independence, be well resourced and remain directly accountable to the Pope”.[28] She explained that Pope Francis had embarked on a process of an entire reform of the Roman Curia (government departments of the Vatican), which she described as “like cleaning the sphinx with a toothbrush”. She hoped the PCPM would “have a significant voice” in that reform.[29]

29. In December 2013, safeguarding was identified by the College of Cardinals as an “urgent” priority.[30] It was not until September 2019 that the PCPM gathered together 11 departments of the Vatican to discuss the Church’s response to safeguarding.[31] While Sister Bertelsen described this as being a “very significant step forward”, she could not explain the delay of almost six years.[32]

30. The PCPM plays an important advisory role but its value depends on the extent to which other departments in the Holy See heed its advice and engage with it. It remains to be seen whether it will provide the Roman Catholic Church with effective policies or is simply another well-meaning body that fails to effect any real change to the way the Church approaches the issue of child sexual abuse.


Back to top