Temporally committed

Terry Philpot talks to Eileen Shearer about
her role in overseeing the protection of children and vulnerable
adults within the Catholic Church and how structures derived from
the secular world will fit with the requirements of canon law.

The Church may, as the saying goes, think in
terms of eternity. But on child protection it has acted in a
shorter timescale. Last spring, the Catholic bishops of England and
Wales accepted all 50 recommendations of the interim report of the
Nolan review of the Church and child protection.1 And
earlier this month the appointment was announced of Eileen Shearer,
former NSPCC regional director for the south west region and a
non-Catholic, as the Church’s first national co-ordinator for child

But however commendable the Catholic Church’s
recent actions may be, it has been a painful and very public
journey. In July 2000, the newly installed Archbishop of
Westminster, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, was found to have allowed
Father Michael Hill to continue to work despite the fact that he
had sexually abused young boys. Murphy-O’Connor had been the bishop
of Arundel & Brighton at the time.

The Church published guidelines on child abuse
in 1994.2 They were in advance of canon law3
– the legislation that governs the Church – but seem to have had
little impact. Critically, they relied on using the Church’s own
resources. For example, each diocese was to appoint a priest as the
“bishop’s representative on child protection”.

Then came the Hill scandal, and events in
Wales which led to the Pope sacking Archbishop Ward. The Archbishop
had failed to act in the case of two paedophile priests but, unlike
Murphy-O’Connor, seemed either unaware of, or unrepentant about,
his misjudgement.

Independence became the watchword. While an
eminent Catholic judge chaired the Nolan review, only four of its
10 members were Catholics. The new management board, to which
Eileen Shearer and her new Catholic Office for the Protection of
Children and Adults (Copca) will be accountable, also has a
non-Catholic majority. It cannot be wholly chance that the new
appointee is a non-Catholic.

Eileen Shearer comes from an Anglican
background but has not practised any religion since she was a
teenager. Her application was conditional on how committed to
change she felt the church to be “and the reason I am sitting here
now talking to you is that I became convinced of that”. She talked
to priests and Catholics she knew, and she was impressed by the
wholesale endorsement of Nolan by the bishops, and the rigour of
the assessment process for the job.

As a non-Catholic, she says: “I needed to know
whether my values and the values of the Catholic Church would fit.
I needed to talk to people to see if I would fit with them and they
would be comfortable with me.”

Working within a church and culture not her
own, and with people with whom she does not share those
affiliations might seem, at first sight, to offer difficulties.
Shearer cites her experience at the NSPCC of moving from
practitioner to holding three management posts and says that it is
never wise to make assumptions even when you are within an

Copca will be based in Birmingham with Shearer
and three professional staff to support the child protection
officers in each diocese and religious order. Her brief will also
include developing best practice, whistleblowing policies,
guidelines based on the government’s Working
,4 training, raising awareness among the
faithful, and maintaining the new database. The diocesan officers
remain responsible to their bishops and religious superiors, not to

The Vatican hailed the Nolan prescription as a
model, and Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor said that the church intended
to be “second to none” in protecting children. Such words, allied
with such a history, place a heavy burden on the new arrangements,
which look rather modest.

The Catholic Church has 4,153,000 members in
England and Wales, more than a million weekly mass-goers and 6,243
priests together with nuns and unordained monks. Each parish, of
which there are more than 2,000, is obliged to appoint a child
protection representative. Eileen Shearer doesn’t see the size of
Copca as a problem in implementing this and much else – it is a
matter of oversight by the bishops, self-audit by parishes and
dioceses, Copca audit, and the work of the diocesan co-ordinators.
There will also be a public annual report from the office. Mark
Morley, director of the Catholic Communications Service, stresses
the virtues of gradualness: “Nolan has to be implemented according
to priority.”

Catholic canon law prevents anyone being
barred from mass, but Nolan refers to “clear boundaries” to protect
children while ministering to abusers who are intent on not
re-offending and are present in the congregation but with no
position of responsibility.

As Shearer says, the problem may be less with
the known abuser: “There has been a lot of publicity about priests
who have abused [21 convictions between 1994 and 1999] but the
number of people convicted, priests or otherwise, is minuscule next
to the number of abusers. You may have a very ‘respectable’ person
coming to mass who returns to abuse his children.”

The church has to be careful that procedures
and awareness do not destroy trust, make people over-sensitive and
dissuade those who genuinely want to help. Here, Shearer says: “The
way you introduce an idea to people is what’s important. People
then have to choose if, for example, they want to undergo police
checks in the same way as, say, those who come forward to foster
and adopt. But it is also important not to get hung up about police
checks because they are so basic. It is partly a question of
sending out signals.” At the moment those signals dazzle – even the
management board and the director of communications underwent
police checks.

Nolan said that its recommendations did not
conflict with canon law – an important consideration for an
institution which cannot change its constitution by a majority vote
at a monthly, or even an annual meeting – but there are matters
which might be seen to be problematic. Bishops, for example, are
autonomous within their own diocese. However, they will be
deferring to Copca on child protection matters and they will also
no longer be able to overrule selection boards for ordinands (those
preparing for the priesthood).

Priests, too, enjoy a fairly unfettered power
in their parishes, which Shearer believes could be modified because
“the Church wants people to have a different view about making an
allegation – that it will not be seen to be disloyal to do so.”
Canon law does not provide any code of conduct – although Nolan
offers an example – nor anything that resembles a modern line
management structure or recognisable professional supervision for
priests. In time, too, child protection may be included in
seminarians’ curriculum.

What has been the effect on the Catholic
Church of these scandals? “As a non-Catholic, perhaps it is not for
me to say,” says Shearer, “but I have come to understand that the
dangers were greater than I thought they were. The morale of
priests has been undermined by things that happened in the past.
How many people now think twice about their children being involved
in Church activities?” Rebuilding morale and trust, as well as the
greater protection of children, will also be a marker of the
success of Eileen Shearer and her team.  

1 Nolan committee, A
Programme for Action: Final Report of the Independent Review on
Child Protection in the Catholic Church in England and Wales,

Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, 2000

2 Catholic Bishops
Conference of England and Wales, Child Abuse: Pastoral and
Procedural Guidelines
, 1994

3 “Documentation: Sex abuse
and canon law”, The Tablet, 29 July 2000

4 Department of Health,
Working Together to Safeguard Children, DoH,

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.