IN AN ATTEMPT to halt "the terrible evil" of child abuse, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales have agreed to adopt the 50 draft recommendations of the Lord Nolan committee's review of child protection procedures in the Church "with immediate effect". Given that Lord Nolan has not yet completed his report, and given the complexity of the issues involved, it may be legitimate to ask whether the bishops are not opening themselves to accusations of indecent haste in proceeding to implement, as they now stand, Lord Nolan's provisional recommendations. The incompleteness of the report is not simply a matter of a few finishing touches: the committee has not yet finished receiving evidence which could add crucial balance to its findings. For instance, it will meet a delegation from the campaign group, Falsely Accused Carers and Teachers, only on May 23.
Above all, it is vital that the understandable impulse to neutralise media criticism of the Church as soon as possible should not be given its head. We need to get the final report right. That means that though the protection of our children has to come before all else, truth and justice must not be sacrificed in the process: otherwise, in the end, the cause of child protection will suffer too.
The bishops, it has to be said again, are right to attempt to establish the Church as a model of excellence in child protection: there must be no lack of rigour. But there are dangers in Lord Nolan's incomplete proposals which need to be addressed between now and the summer. The proposals envisage the establishment of a network of national and diocesan child protection agencies: it is vital that this should not develop into a vast bureaucracy, with the inherent tendency of all bureaucracies to justify their own existence by getting results. There will continue to be in the future, as there has been in the past, a substantial number of false accusations. It would be a tragedy if the Church's new structures were to encourage rather than discouraging this tendency, making it ever more difficult to discover the truth.
WORSE STILL, it would be wrong to over-react to excessively harsh criticism from some sections of the secular media which have, with cynical delight, seized on the issue of child abuse as a convenient weapon with which to beat a Church it loathes for a variety of ideological reasons. Muriel Gray for example, writing in The Guardian (of course), used the occasion of the Nolan Report's publication to describe the Church as a "corrupt, hypocritical and decadent institution" run by a "bunch of perverts". Earlier in the week, the same newspaper, under the headline "Sex Attacks", listed cases to demonstrate a huge scale of child abuse within the Church. They included references to anonymous allegations made against the late Fr David Martin, a former chaplain to the London Oratory School, and to allegations against De La Salle Brothers at St Ninian's Approved School, Stirlingshire, Scotland. The Guardian chose to omit the truth about these allegations which is that in the case of Fr Martin they have been clearly shown to be false and that in the case of the De La Salle Brothers no evidence for them has been found after three years of rigorous inquiries. Here, we come to the crux of the issue. The Church does not have a disproportionate problem with paedophiles, though a small number of such sick individuals have infiltrated its ranks. This is no reason for not taking the problem very seriously indeed. But at the same time we need to address another problem, inseparable from it. Like so many other professions and sections of society, the Church increasingly has a real problem with false allegations of abuse, made for reasons which range from psychological problems to a desire for revenge or for financial "compensation". The Church must of course make the welfare of children paramount, but how does it do so while protecting the reputations of those people who might have been (as not a few already have been) falsely accused? This question is not being seriously addressed: indeed it is being avoided, with bizarre results. To suggest, for instance — as one bishop recently did — that it may be necessary that people wrongly accused of abuse should suffer injustice in order to protect children, is almost as perverse as saying that it would be acceptable for a small number of children to suffer in order to maintain relationships based on trust. The Church must strive to strike the right balance and the Nolan recommendations, as they stand today, are unlikely to achieve that.
DURING THE PRESS conference at the end of the bishops' low week meeting, Bishop Peter Smith of East Anglia said: "Where you have a situation where there is suspicion, but no proof, we must apply the old reasoning where people are innocent until proven guilty." It is vital that his brother bishops should take his words to heart. If, for example, the Church is to suspend any cleric, including a bishop, who has been accused, then justice demands that the bishops should also work towards a change in the law to protect the anonymity of such people until either the day their trial commences or until such people have been convicted by a jury. In the past it was certainly true, in the words of one senior bishop, that there was a "problem of voices that lack credibility or are suspected of special pleading". Soon it will be time for the Church to speak out fearlessly on behalf not only of its children but also of its priests, its parents and the growing number of lay workers who have been retrospectively — and often falsely — accused of abuse.
In the North West, for example, the residents of six former care homes run by the Church have been the subject of dangerously flawed police trawls. At one institution, more than 90 former workers have been accused. Among them was David Jones, the former Southampton football manager, whose case collapsed in Liverpool Crown Court in December last year. Afterwards, Judge David Clarke felt compelled to say: "This man leaves court as he entered it, as an innocent man. No doubt there will be some people who will be tempted to think there is smoke without fire. I can do nothing about that, except to say clearly, in open court, that such an attitude would be clearly wrong." Mike Lawson, Basil Williams-Rigby, John Hesdon and Terry Hoskin are among those who were not so lucky. The bishops have a pastoral responsibility towards them, too.