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


L.1: Conclusions

1. Lord Nolan’s first recommendation in 2001 was that the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales should be “an example of best practice in the prevention of child abuse and in responding to it”.[1] This remains an aspiration.

The scale and impact of abuse

2. Between 1970 and 2015, there were 931 allegations or concerns of child sexual abuse made by 1,753 individuals against clergy, members of religious institutes and lay workers (paid and voluntary).[2] These complaints involved more than 3,000 instances of alleged abuse made against 936 alleged perpetrators.

3. As shown in the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission’s (NCSC) annual reports from 2016 to 2018, the Church still receives, on average, over 100 allegations of child sexual abuse per year.

4. As a result of likely under-reporting and delays in reporting, the precise number of victims of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in England and Wales cannot be ascertained. The true scale of offending and the number of victims of child sexual abuse is likely to be far higher.

5. As shocking as the figures are, they tell only part of the story. Child sexual abuse has a devastating and often lifelong impact on the victims and survivors. Over the course of the case studies, the Inquiry heard accounts of lives blighted by child sexual abuse, compounded by cover-ups and failures by the Catholic Church to take action against perpetrators.

The historical response of the Church to allegations

6. The response of the Catholic Church in England and Wales to allegations of child sexual abuse focussed too often on the protection of the clergy and the Church’s reputation. Some institutions and individuals in the Church failed to report allegations and concerns to police and statutory authorities as required. In some cases, members of the dioceses and religious institutes actively took steps to shelter and shield those accused of child sexual abuse.

7. This was done at the expense of protection of children. There were failures to consider the risks posed to children by perpetrators who were seen as colleagues, brethren and friends and not as sexual abusers of children. In some cases, suspects were moved from one institution to another – from parish to parish, abbey to abbey – with the receiving body not informed of the dangers posed by the individual being sent to them.

8. As set out in our case studies into the institutional responses of the English Benedictine Congregation (EBC) and the Archdiocese of Birmingham, some children would not have been sexually abused had these failings not occurred.[3]

The Church’s safeguarding reviews

The 2001 Nolan report

9. The 2001 Nolan report brought about significant changes to child protection structures at parish, diocesan and national levels of the Catholic Church. The Church established the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults (COPCA) as its national unit for child protection and set up formal child protection commissions and recruited child protection coordinators and parish representatives. Policies and procedures were developed to create a safe environment for children (and those who work with children) and to respond appropriately to allegations of abuse. The Church took a number of positive steps to adopt safer recruitment practices such that safeguarding training is now a component part of training for the clergy or religious life.

10. The number and diversity of religious institutes made implementation of the Nolan recommendations difficult within the religious institutes. Some within the Church – bishops, religious leaders as well as other members of the clergy – were reluctant to accept the Nolan recommendations and in particular were actively resistant to the involvement of COPCA and statutory agencies.

The 2007 Cumberlege review

11. The Cumberlege review in 2007 acknowledged COPCA’s “considerable” achievements in formulating policies (especially at national and diocesan level). It also brought about further changes to the Church’s child protection structures.

12. The National Catholic Safeguarding Commission (NCSC) was created in 2008 with responsibility for setting the strategic direction of safeguarding policy and for monitoring compliance with the national policies and procedures. The Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service (CSAS) replaced COPCA and the language of child protection was changed to that of safeguarding. The Church sought to adopt a more consistent approach to safeguarding with the alignment of the majority of religious institutes with the diocesan safeguarding commissions.

The Elliott review

13. In autumn 2018, the Bishops’ Conference asked the NCSC to commission an independent review of the Church’s safeguarding structures. In July 2019, Ian Elliott was appointed to chair the review. The Elliott review has a broad remit including reviewing the safeguarding infrastructure, organisations, arrangements, policies and procedures, alignment of diocese and religious congregations, accountability and training. The final report is due in October 2020, but a summary of the interim report suggests that the Catholic Church is yet again contemplating restructuring its approach to safeguarding.

The ‘One Church’ approach

14. The Nolan report recommended the introduction of the ‘One Church’ approach, namely “a single set of policies, principles and practices based on the Paramountcy Principle” which required the child’s welfare to be the paramount consideration.[4] The Cumberlege review called on the Bishops’ Conference and Conference of Religious (CoR) to “publicly declare and renew their affirmation of the One Church approach”.[5]

15. The ‘One Church’ approach continues to underpin the Church’s response to child protection. The national policies and procedures set out how the Church should respond to a child sexual abuse allegation. Those policies and procedures are available on the CSAS website. While we heard no evidence to suggest that the policies themselves were deficient or inadequate, two different problems emerged.

15.1. The CSAS website and the wording of the policies and procedures themselves are sometimes difficult to follow. There is a clear need for the website to be reviewed to make it more accessible and comprehensible.

15.2. Evidence in the case studies and the results of CSAS audits suggest compliance with national policies and procedures is inconsistent. While the NCSC is tasked to monitor compliance, it has no enforcement powers to ensure compliance.

Audits and compliance

16. Auditing of the diocesan safeguarding commissions was introduced in 2006 and 2007. Since then CSAS has conducted three further rounds of audits and the audits themselves have evolved from a ‘tick-box exercise’ to a more comprehensive review of safeguarding practice.

17. The most recent round of CSAS audits in 2019 involved a quality assurance exercise of safeguarding practice. An overview of these audits found “good evidence of cooperation” between the diocesan and independent religious safeguarding commissions and the statutory agencies.[6] However, the audits also identified that a number of diocesan and religious safeguarding commissions did not review safeguarding plans in accordance with national policy and procedure – a concern also identified in Mrs Edina Carmi’s review of recent safeguarding files.[7] As the need to review safeguarding plans is not a new requirement, it is difficult to understand why this remains an area of poor practice.

18. Mrs Carmi’s review also revealed a number of other areas of concern, including insufficient evidence of liaison with safeguarding commissions and a wide variation in standards of recording. Inadequate and insufficient recording was particularly apparent in her review of files from the religious institutes.

19. External audits carried out during the case studies in this investigation revealed areas of concern for the institutions to address. There were acute problems in the Archdiocese of Birmingham, where the external audit found failures to adhere to CSAS policies and adequately record work on case files. It highlighted the recurring problem of safeguarding files that had not been reviewed. The external audit concluded that “a radical culture change” was needed and led to an overhaul of the Archdiocese’s safeguarding practices.[8]

20. The external audits exposed deficiencies in the Church’s response at a time when CSAS was not conducting any audits. The Church needs to assure itself that its safeguarding commissions are complying with safeguarding policies and procedures, in order to take its own action to remedy any deficiencies. There is currently no independent assessment or evaluation of the CSAS quality assurance framework.

Lack of enforcement powers

21. Where a CSAS audit identifies an area of concern or a working practice that requires improvement, an action plan is drawn up by the diocese or religious institute. It is for the relevant safeguarding commission to ensure the action plan is implemented. While CSAS monitors implementation of these action plans on behalf of the NCSC, the NCSC has no power to enforce compliance.

22. This lack of enforcement powers is compounded by delay in the Bishops’ Conference seeking a general decree (‘recognitio’) from the Holy See to make adherence to CSAS policies and procedures obligatory in canon law throughout England and Wales. The decree will provide the Holy See with the ability to sanction bishops and religious leaders for non-compliance, although it will not give the NCSC power to enforce compliance by the Church.

23. The Cumberlege report recommended that this decree be sought within 12 months. Notwithstanding the fact that the NCSC said its first priority was to implement the Cumberlege recommendations, it took 12 years (until June 2019) for the decree to be sent to the Vatican. As at mid October 2020, recognitio has still not been granted.


24. The delay in seeking the general decree is not the only example of the Church’s slow response to matters of safeguarding.

24.1. The Cumberlege review (2007) recommended that the Bishops’ Conference and CoR should develop a Code of Conduct for those who work “in the service of the Church, including volunteers”.[9] The CoR took eight years to publish its code for members of religious institutes. At our final public hearing in October 2019, the Bishops’ Conference had still not published its code for the diocese – it was finally circulated to the bishops in July 2020.

24.2. In 2015, the Catholic Church established the ‘Safe Spaces’ joint project with the Anglican Church, designed to enable victims and survivors to obtain pastoral support. Safe Spaces did not commence however until late September 2020.

25. The overall impression created by these delays is that the Catholic Church still does not give sufficient urgency and priority to implementing all safeguarding recommendations and practices.

Engaging with and supporting victims and survivors

26. The experiences of some victims and survivors demonstrate ongoing failings by parts of the Church to respond promptly and properly to their inquiries, concerns and complaints. That evidence also suggests that on too many occasions the response to victims and survivors had insufficient focus on their needs.

26.1. RC-A711: In her case, members of the Diocese of Westminster safeguarding team sent emails in 2016 and 2017 suggesting that the team needed to play the “good practice card” and described her as “needy” and “deeply manipulative”.[10] The language used by those involved in her case was disrespectful and conveyed a worrying underlying attitude. RC-A711’s experience highlights the obvious need for the Church to put in place a complaints procedure for complaints related to the service provided by the safeguarding teams.

26.2. RC-A710: In 2018, private and confidential information about RC-A710’s case was leaked to the press. The source of the leak remains unknown. RC-A710 was owed an apology for the distress caused by the leak; no witness has suggested otherwise. In her case, there was too much focus on protection of reputations to the detriment of RC-A710. It took over a year for Cardinal Vincent Nichols to meet with RC-A710 to discuss her experience.

26.3. Mark Murray: In 1997, Mr Murray received an acknowledgement from the Comboni Order that his abuser, Father Romano Nardo, had acted “inappropriately” towards him as a child. In 2015, Father Nardo apologised in person to Mr Murray. Nonetheless, the Vice-Superior of the Comboni house in Italy accused Mr Murray of being a ‘money grabber’ and in 2019 the Comboni Order in the UK refused to meet with Mr Murray to discuss his case.

26.4. RC-A15: During the Archdiocese of Birmingham investigation, RC-A15 told us that he had been sexually assaulted by Samuel Penney in the 1980s, when he was under 13 years old.[11] His mother confronted Monsignor Daniel Leonard, the then Vicar General. When RC-A15’s mother described what had happened, Monsignor Leonard did not look surprised.[12] Penney was moved away from the parish to a friary. After spending several months there he was appointed to a different parish, where he sexually abused more children. Some years later, in 1992, RC-A15’s mother gave an interview to the BBC’s ‘Everyman’ programme about her experience. Archbishop Maurice Couve de Murville, the then Archbishop of Birmingham, also gave an interview, saying that RC-A15’s mother had only alleged “too close an association; she never complained about sexual abuse”.[13] When RC-A15’s mother’s account was put to him, the Archbishop said “That is not the truth as we see it”.[14] RC-A15’s mother said she was appalled that an Archbishop could twist the truth of what I had reported in such a way”.[15]

27. CSAS policies state that safeguarding coordinators are responsible for ensuring that the support needs of the victim or complainant are addressed. Bishops and religious leaders are responsible for providing pastoral support for an accused member of the clergy or religious institute. Despite this, Mrs Carmi’s review of recent diocesan and religious institutes’ safeguarding files found an imbalance in the support offered to perpetrators – described as “extremely comprehensive” – and the support offered to victims which was in some cases entirely absent or, in one case, “grudgingly offered”.[16] She told us that when reading the records she could feel “the compassion” for those accused of child sexual abuse.

When it came to the alleged victims, that was rarely visible in the reports. If there was consideration for their needs, it was rarely … with any sense of great compassion.[17]

28. There remains a lack of focus on the needs of the victims. Whether pastoral, emotional or financial, the Church’s response needs to be more compassionate and more understanding of the lifelong damage that child sexual abuse can cause.

29. In 2015, the NCSC established the Survivor Advisory Panel (SAP) to provide advice to the NCSC from the victim and survivor perspective. More recently, the SAP has been involved in providing training to some dioceses and some of its members attended the bishops’ safeguarding training in Valladolid in May 2019. The SAP is a positive addition to the NCSC’s structure and the Valladolid training in May 2019 proved highly beneficial for the bishops in furthering their understanding of the impact of abuse on victims and survivors. This kind of training needs to be on a more regular and ongoing basis and be more widely available.

Mandatory reporting and the seal of the confessional

30. The introduction of mandatory reporting (a legal duty requiring child sexual abuse to be reported if an individual or organisation knew or had reasonable cause to suspect it was taking place) could affect the Catholic Church in the context of the seal of the confessional.

31. Under the seal of the confessional, matters revealed to a priest during confession are private and must not be revealed by the priest. Were a perpetrator to admit to being an abuser during confession, the priest cannot report that abuse. While we heard accounts of victims reporting their abuse within the confessional, we heard no evidence of a perpetrator confessing to being an abuser. Although the tension between the seal and the paramountcy principle does not appear to be in dispute, the Catholic Church maintains that a law which required the clergy to break the seal would cause fundamental conflict with the sanctity of the confessional.

32. This issue has arisen in a number of the Inquiry’s investigations and we shall return to mandatory reporting in the Inquiry’s final report.

Leadership in the Roman Catholic Church

33. Cardinal Nichols, the bishops, religious leaders and the major Catholic safeguarding institutions (including the Bishops’ Conference and the NCSC) all play a role in providing leadership to the Catholic Church in England and Wales. That leadership is shaped and influenced by Pope Francis, who has made a number of public statements condemning the scourge of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church worldwide. Given this approach, the main canonical crime in child sexual abuse cases should not be expressed as crime of adultery but as a crime against the child.

34. The response of Church leaders, both individuals and the institutions, has too often focussed on child protection structures and processes. While this is important, there is insufficient focus at present on the substance of its response. The delays in implementing major change suggest that the Church leadership has not prioritised aspects of safeguarding. The absence of a dedicated safeguarding lead within the Bishops’ Conference and the CoR may be a contributing factor to this.

35. While there have undoubtedly been improvements in the Church’s response to child sexual abuse, based on the evidence we heard, Church leaders need to do more to encourage and embed a culture of safeguarding throughout the entire Catholic Church in England and Wales.

36. At its core, the ‘One Church’ approach requires the Church to engage ‘hearts and minds’ when it comes to matters of child protection. The Church still has work to do to achieve this aim.


Back to top