More than half of Catholic priests convicted for child abuse and sentenced to more than a year in prison, in England and Wales since 2001, remain in the priesthood, Channel 4 News reveals.
The findings will test the reputation of the Catholic church here, on the eve of Pope Benedict XVI’s first visit to the UK.
The disclosures raise questions about whether the Catholic church have followed recommendations made nine years ago to rid the church of child-abusing priests, our investigation has found.
In 2001 one of Britain’s most senior judges, the late Lord Nolan, recommended that any priest sentenced to a year or more in jail for sexual abuse should normally face “laicisation” – the stripping of their priesthood and privileges related to the post. The UK Catholic church agreed.
Catholic abuse in England and Wales revealed
Channel 4 News has compiled the first map of Catholic abuse detailing some 37 cases across England and Wales where Catholic priests have committed sexual offences against children.
Over the last few months more evidence has emerged of systematic child abuse within the Catholic church from around the world, writes investigative reporter Antony Barnett.
Click here to see the interactive map
Yet at least 14 of the 22 priests convicted since then remain members of the clergy today.
Channel 4 News has also discovered that Lord Nolan’s rules appear to have been quietly watered down. The recommendation was that for those convicted of the most serious sexual abuse “laicisation” would be the norm – it now appears that “laicisation” only needs to be considered in these cases.
Channel 4 News discovered that at least nine of the 22 convicted priests are still listed in the 2010 Catholic directory as members of the clergy. Only eight of them have been dismissed from the church.
The church can’t just wash its hands of these people and say we’ve taken them to court and we’ve sacked them as priests. Bill Kilgallon, National Catholic Safeguarding Commission
We tracked down Father John Coghlan, who was sentenced to jail in 2005. He no longer takes part in active ministry but remains listed as a priest and is living in church-owned property in the Diocese of Westminster.
In the wake of Lord Nolan’s report, the current Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, was put in charge of the body responsible for implementing the recommendations.
At the time, he said: “To those who have suffered abuse, those who have felt ignored, disbelieved or betrayed. There can be no excuses.”
Words ring hollow for victims
These words ring hollow however for Father Coghlan’s victim Luke Holland, who was abused as an altar boy in West London.
He said: “It’s absolutely outrageous. It’s outrageous. It’s a kick in the teeth for me, isn’t it? You know, why did I bother exposing him for what he is?”
Mr Holland told Channel 4 News the abuse first started when he was ten years old, when Father Coghlan made Mr Holland perform a sex act on him. The abuse continued for four years – and today it is the thing in Mr Holland’s mind “that never goes away”.
Still taking anti-depressants daily, he said: “I was ten when it started. My parents couldn’t deal with me. I became unruly. I started getting into drink and drugs at a really early age just to blot stuff out, I suppose.”
Dr Margaret Kennedy, who campaigns for victims of clerical abuse, told Channel 4 News that dismissing paedophile priests from the church sends a vital message both to the victims – and to the abusers.
“Imprisonment is the secular world’s punishment. Laicisation is the spiritual world’s punishment and they’ve got to have both,” she added.
Dr Kennedy said it was crucially important for a victim to know that his or her abuser is no longer a priest.
“The victim then knows that he doesn’t have status or power. And for the victim the fact that the priest has been laicised means that the church is taking it very seriously.”
Father Coghlan ‘s case is not unique. Of the 14 convicted priests that remain listed, six applications for dismissal are underway; one further decision to pursue dismissal has been made; three dismissals have either been rejected by Rome or not pursued for health reasons, and finally in four cases no application has been made but the priests are subject to risk management in the community.
The church told Channel 4 News that the process of dismissal can take time. “A Bishop has to apply to Rome for a priest to be laicised and neither the duration nor the outcome of the application is in the Bishop’s control.”
Meanwhile the academic Phillip Gilligan has been researching the church’s response to convicted priests. He said the delay in dealing with them is unacceptable, and he was angry that Lord Nolan’s rules have been “watered down without any public announcement, without any clear justification”.
“I’ve asked specifically when they were changed and what discussion took place in order to change them and I can’t get an answer. I’m told that these are not changes. These are translation and finessing,” he said.
The UK’s Catholic church is said to lead the way in taking action against paedophile priests, claiming it has cracked down hard on the abuse.
Victims such as Mr Holland however, may disagree. He said: “Well, it’s not dealing with it, is it? It’s still looking after the perpetrators of the abuse, isn’t it?”
“They say one thing in public and do whatever they please in private and they’ve always done that and they always will do that until someone gets grip of them.”
In response the church referred us to its record on taking action against priests and reiterated that its policy was entirely within the spirit of the Nolan Recommendations.
On continued support for some convicted priests the church said “successful minimisation of future risk can be assisted by individuals having access to appropriate accommodation and acceptance of supervision and monitoring within a church context.”
Bill Kilgallon, chair of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission, told Channel 4 News the church cannot just wash its hands of abusers.
He said: “I think that’s particularly galling for victims [that the priests remain priests] because it could appear that that person has not been dealt with. But the judgement is taken, and it has to be exceptional circumstances, that because of the particular situation of that individual, it would be safer to monitor and control him in the community.
“In some cases it was judged that we have more control if they are retained in the clergy. The decision is taken not by the church on its own but in communication with police and probation…The important thing is to make sure that these people will not offend again.
“The church can’t just wash its hands of these people and say we’ve taken them to court and we’ve sacked them as priests.”
He said these cases were very specific, stressed the church does “get it” on child abuse and added that laicisation remained the general rule for convicted abusive priests.