Cardinal Nichols to face questions about British abuse case

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Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England at a Vatican press conference in 2015. Credit: CNA

Amid a British investigation into sexual abuse, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster is expected to face questions regarding the way his archdiocese handled allegations of misconduct made against his predecessor, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor.

Nichols is scheduled to testify in November before the Independent Inquiry in Child Sexual Abuse, a panel established by the British government in 2014, charged with reviewing sexual abuse and institutional response in the country’s Catholic dioceses, the Anglican Church, and other British institutions. 

In his most recent letter, released to media on 27 Sept., former papal nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano alleged that Pope Francis was responsible for halting “the investigation of sex abuse allegations against Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor.”

Sources close to the case have told CNA the investigation was marked by procedural irregularities long before it reached Rome, and before the election of Pope Francis.

“It was deference, plain and simple,” one Church official in Britain told CNA, alleging that the matter was not handled according to established Church procedures because it involved a senior Church figure.

A source familiar with the case told CNA that the government inquiry might also solicit files from British dioceses in order to get clarity on that charge.

“If IICSA wanted to go into the matter properly and see who did what when,” a source familiar with the case told CNA, “they could do worse than ask for the files from all the dioceses involved. I suspect they would find a pretty clear picture of who was asking Westminster to act, and how little was done in response.”

Those files would most likely be solicited from the Diocese of Westminster and the Diocese of Portsmouth, which are reportedly most connected to the case.

Murphy-O’Connor was Archbishop of Westminster, the diocese that ecompasses most of London and its metropolitan area, from 2000-2009. He died in September 2017, at the age of 85.

The cardinal was accused of child sexual abuse in December 2008, while he was still Westminster’s archbishop. Sources with immediate knowledge of the allegations told CNA that it was alleged that, decades earlier, the cardinal had sexually abused a girl when she was between 13 and 14 years old.

Sources familiar with the case told CNA that the alleged victim first presented her allegation against Murphy-O’Connor to Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton. Before he became a bishop, Doyle was a priest in the Diocese of Portsmouth, where the alleged victim lived, and he offered pastoral support to her as a parish priest. Doyle had continued to provide pastoral support to the woman after he was named bishop, sources told CNA.

Because the complaint concerned the Archbishop of Westminster and a resident of the Diocese of Portsmouth, Doyle’s diocese immediately forwarded the allegations to those dioceses.

Murphy-O’Connor’s alleged victim had previously reported being sexually abused by another English priest, Fr. Michael Hill. Those accusations were found to be substantiated. Hill was eventually imprisoned after pleading guilty to several counts of child sexual abuse.

Murphy-O’Connor was bishop of Hill’s diocese, Arundel and Brighton when allegations against the priest were made, and the cardinal has been heavily criticized for his handling of the Hill case. The priest was removed from ministry and sent for psychiatric treatment in the early 1980s, but Murphy-O’Connor subsequently reinstated him to ministry, making him in 1985 the chaplain to Gatwick Airport, where he went on to abuse again.

A source with knowledge of the event told CNA that in April of 2009, after his resignation as Archbishop of Westminster was accepted but before the arrival of his successor Vincent Nichols, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor was interviewed by Kent Police. Also present at this meeting, the source told CNA, was Westminster auxiliary Bishop John Arnold.

The policy interview was reportedly conducted “under caution,” a term which means that there grounds to suspect the subject of a crime, and his testimony could be used in court. A subject is informed of his rights before such an interview is conducted.

Spokesmen for Kent Police declined to comment further on the matter.

Despite the police investigation, the Westminster diocese reportedly did not progress with an internal Church investigation of the matter.

According to British Church procedures concerning sexual abuse allegations, an allegation against a diocesan bishop is to be referred to a different diocese which must determine if the accused bishop should be temporarily removed from public ministry. Vatican authorities are also to be informed, along with the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service (CSAS) and the chair of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission.

According to the policy, those initial steps are to be completed within one working day.

Canon law requires that a diocesan investigation of a sexual abuse allegation must determine if there is a “semblance of truth” to the claim. This process, canon lawyers say, is not a trial, and rules out only those cases judged to be “manifestly false or frivolous.”

All other cases must be sent to Rome for further consideration at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which determines how the canonical process should proceed.

According to sources with direct knowledge of the case, the Archdiocese of Westminster did not hand the allegation over to another diocese for a preliminary investigation or inform the Vatican.

Sources close to the case have told CNA that they did not find the claim mage against Murphy-O’Connor to be immediately compelling- one source called the allegation “fantastical,” adding that it was “hard to believe, even incredible.” At issue, the source said, is not whether the allegation would be proven true, but whether the Church would make good on its promise to treat every allegation according to the processes it claims are normative.

“Had it been anyone but the cardinal, they would have been removed from ministry immediately and the matter given the full business. It is a straightforward case of one rule for the cardinal, and one rule for everybody else,” a Church official told CNA.

A source familiar with the timeline of events told CNA that in November 2009, Murphy-O’Connor and Bishop Arnold met with the accuser. Bishop Doyle, who was himself concerned that the accusations be taken seriously and handled according to the proper procedure, reportedly attended that meeting as well. But sources say the meeting did not lead to any formal process of investigation.

A Church official familiar with the case told CNA that the safeguarding office at the Diocese of Portsmouth repeatedly asked the the Diocese of Westminster to apply the national safeguarding procedures to the Murphy-O’Connor allegation. Instead, Westminster continued to handle the matter internally.

“Proper process only means something if you follow it every time,” a senior figure involved in safeguarding policy for the Church in England and Wales told CNA.

“If it is ignored when it touches the people at the top, everything after that becomes mere arbitrary application.”

All sources CNA spoke with stressed that they did not believe the allegations against Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor to be true. They said their concern was the apparent decision to forego recently established Church procedures for an allegation serious enough to merit police investigation and involving the most senior churchman in the country.

Shortly after his retirement, Murphy-O’Connor was appointed a “visitor,” or investigator, for an apostolic visitation to Ireland, charged in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI with investigating the sexual abuse crisis in that country. At the time of his appointment, the Vatican had reportedly not been informed of the allegation against the cardinal.

Before the apostolic visitation to Ireland got underway in 2011, a decision was made jointly by the bishops of Portsmouth and Northampton to contact Rome directly, in hopes that Westminster would be compelled to act. The bishops were reportedly concerned that the accuser might take her allegations to the media, something which could severely damage the credibility of the Ireland investigation.

CNA has learned that Charles Scicluna, then a Monsignor and Promoter of Justice at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was contacted directly and informed about the case, which had not previously been brought to Rome’s attention, despite more than a year passing since the allegation was initially reported.

A file about the case was hand-delivered to Scicluna – at his request – in Rome. According to sources familiar with its contents, the file contained canonical vota (legal opinions) from both Bishop Doyle and Bishop Crispian Hollis, then the Bishop of Portsmouth.

Both bishops underscored the sensitivity of the matter, and noted that while the accusations themselves seemed “extraordinary,” the accuser was herself an otherwise credible person. The bishops also asked the CDF to ensure that a proper investigation was carried out and that the national safeguarding policies were applied.

The CDF did open a file on the matter, and in 2011 Archbishop Nichols hired a retired police officer to examine the allegations and report back to the archdiocese.

While it is unknown how that report concluded, a source familiar with the investigation told CNA that the investigator did not meet with or speak to the alleged victim and characterized the process as “severely deficient.”

By the end of 2012, the CDF had seen significant changes in personnel. Cardinal Levada was succeeded as prefect by Archbishop Gerhardt Müller, and Scicluna was replaced as Promoter of Justice by Msgr. Robert Oliver.

According to sources close to the CDF, Oliver noted that proper procedure had not been followed in the case. He contacted both the Archdiocese of Westminster and the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission, saying that the Vatican’s file on the accusation had not been closed.

The case could not be formally “resolved” until proper canonical procedures had been observed, including a credible preliminary investigation that could determine whether the allegations could be dismissed, sources told CNA.

One British Church official who was contacted by the CDF’s Promoter of Justice recalled that Msgr. Oliver was “surprised” the matter had not been dealt with properly, and wanted to see it resolved quickly.

While no further action was taken in Westminster, two separate sources in the UK told CNA that they had been left with the impression that Oliver went on to close the case. Both expressed surprise at recent reports, including Archbishop Vigano’s latest statement, that the file was still open as late as 2013, when Pope Francis is alleged to have intervened by ordering Cardinal Müller to drop the CDF’s enquiries into the matter.

On Oct. 3, Cardinal Müller said that ongoing attempts to close the case had been halted by Pope Francis, according to at least one report. It is unclear what stage the process had reached by that point, or if a preliminary investigation had been concluded.

The CDF is not authorized to proceed with any case against a bishop or cardinal without papal authorization. A source close to Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor told CNA that it was possible Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor had himself asked the pope to intervene, likely at the time when the pope’s approval for a CDF investigation was sought.

“[Cardinal] Cormac was, I’m sure, thoroughly fed up with the whole affair. As far as he was concerned the allegations were clearly false and the whole thing had dragged on in one form or another for years. He knew he was innocent, he was certainly friendly with the Holy Father and would probably have seen nothing wrong with asking him to draw a line under it,” the source said.

A source familiar with Westminster’s handling of the case noted that it was the failure to follow the established protocols which resulted in the current publicity surrounding the case.

“The great irony is, of course, that if Cardinal Cormac had just handed the whole thing off to another diocese like he was supposed to in 2008, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“The accusation was frankly incredible, the police found nothing to move forward with. If another diocese had been given the chance to do an investigation and meet with the woman this could all have been credibly resolved quite quickly,” the source added.

“All I can say is if the case was still a going concern in 2013 and that is how it ended [with the pope’s intervention] it’s a vindication of how it was handled from the go – the law is for the little people.”

Last month, the bishops of England and Wales released a statement ahead of their ad limina visit to Rome in which they expressed “shame and sorrow” in the face of recent sex abuse scandals to hit the Church.

The statement promised an independent review of national and diocesan safeguarding procedures, but noted that national policies had been in place since 2001 and highlighted that they specifically included “the steps to be taken if allegations of abusive behavior were to be made against a bishop.”

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