Thousand hands of Avalokiteshvara

Learning from the Catholic Church

On Mon, 14 December, 2020 - 14:35
ECA Safeguarding's picture
ECA Safeguarding

Following October’s release of a report on failures in preventing addressing child sexual abuse in the Anglican Church in England and Wales, November saw the publication of a 123-page report on similar failures in the Catholic Church in England and Wales.

NB: ‘Child sexual abuse’ includes the ‘non-contact’ offences of viewing, possessing or producing indecent images of children.

Whenever such reports are published,  we at the ECA’s Safeguarding team look carefully to see what we can learn. We’ll list below some points that which stood out for us.

These reports are part of a continuing public inquiry, The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), which has for several years been conducting hearings about child sexual abuse in the institutions of public life in England and Wales. Having looked at the major Churches, in 2020 they looked at child protection in minority faiths, including Buddhism. Triratna’s ECA Safeguarding officer Munisha was called to testify last May.

NBIICSA is not investigating cases of child sexual abuse but inquiring into the conditions which enabled it and what changes to law, regulation and Safeguarding measures are needed to make it less likely in future.

Watch Munisha’s testimony.

Now let’s look at some points made in this report, described as an inquiry “into the extent of any institutional failures to protect children from sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales”.

Continuing lack of focus on victims
First and foremost the report says the Inquiry ”heard appalling accounts of sexual abuse of children perpetrated by clergy and others associated with the Roman Catholic Church, who were treated very badly by the Church when they reported what had happened. The Church’s leadership failed to address complaints, acknowledge responsibility, hold individuals to account or to make sincere apologies.

There remains a lack of focus on the needs of the victims; often more care and concern has been shown for the perpetrators than for those they harmed.

In some cases, steps were taken to shelter and shield those accused of child sexual abuse.

There was a failure to report allegations and concerns to police and statutory authorities.

There were failures to consider the risks posed to children by perpetrators. Formal professional risk assessments were not carried out for people accused of serious harm, who were often seen as colleagues, brethren and friends rather than as sexual abusers of children.

The Inquiry heard that there was a perception by some that Church law was “diametrically opposed” to the legal principle that the welfare of the child always takes precedence over any other consideration (as established in the Children Acts 1989 and 2004).

Safeguarding training for clergy and bishops
The Catholic Church already requires that

  • candidates for ordination must undergo a psychological assessment before they can begin training.
  • Training for ordination includes a three-day course on Safeguarding and clergy must have Safeguarding training every three years. However, the bishops had had just one training session and nothing further was planned.

The seal of the confessional
Where criminal actions are disclosed in the context of formal confession there is an absolute seal of confidentiality but current guidance is that the priest should ‘encourage’ the victim ‘to pass on the information to an appropriate person’. However, unlike in the Anglican church, a Catholic priest cannot require that a perpetrator report to the police as a condition of giving absolution from sins.

If the same information is disclosed outside of formal confession the priest may report to statutory authorities. Current Church law requires that that child sexual abuse allegations should be reported internally within the Church and externally to the statutory authorities; however this is not widely complied with.

Failures of leadership
The Inquiry say that throughout the investigation, they noted many failures on the part of the leadership to lead on Safeguarding standards and were concerned to note in leaders

  • a lack of empathy and understanding towards many victims and survivors
  • uncertainty as to whether a culture of safeguarding was fully embedded across the entire Church.

Matters the Inquiry will be returning to
The question of whether the law should be changed to make it mandatory to report allegations and confessions of child sexual abuse to the police has arisen again and again in a number of the Inquiry’s investigations. They will return to this in their final report in the next year or so.

Questions? Comments?
Email the ECA Safeguarding team at safeguarding [at]