How the Catholic Church in Britain is challenging child abuse

As incidents of child sexual abuse continue to damage the Catholic Church, Chloe Stothart speaks to the head of its safeguarding watchdog, Bill Kilgallon

 Bill Kilgallon: “We have made progress but the enemy of that progress is complacency”

As incidents of child sexual abuse continue to damage the Catholic Church, Chloe Stothart speaks to the head of its safeguarding watchdog, Bill Kilgallon (pictured)

For years the Catholic Church has been reeling from allegations of child abuse by clerics. This year a fresh wave of scandal has hit Europe and the US; and this month the church in Belgium attempted to draw a line under the issue by announcing it would set up a victims’ support centre. At least five bishops in Europe have stepped down since March: one admitted sexual abuse, another is being investigated and three admitted grave errors in their handling of abuse cases.

The Pope’s visit to the UK sparked avid interest in how the pontiff is handling the crisis. The head of the national safeguarding watchdog for the Catholic Church, Bill Kilgallon, thinks much can be learned from the approach taken in England and Wales after the high-profile series of child abuse allegations made in the 1990s and the subsequent convictions.

The scandals resulted in two reports being commissioned for the church on tightening its child protection procedures; the 2001 Nolan report and the 2007 Cumberlege Commission.

Kilgallon was a member of the Cumberlege Commission and now chairs the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission (NCSC), the body set up to create the church’s safeguarding policy and oversee the establishment and running of safeguarding committees in every diocese, responsible for ensuring there is a volunteer safeguarding representative in every parish.

An inquiry procedure for dealing with abuse allegations has also been set up. Every abuse allegation is referred to the statutory authorities for investigation. Then it will be examined by the diocesan committee, even if the statutory bodies do not take further action, because the accused could still pose a risk to children. Once the commission has made its recommendations, the accused can ask for another inquiry before the bishop decides what action to take.

Most of Cumberlege’s recommendations have been implemented but Kilgallon admits there is still work to do to strengthen some of them. For example, the NCSC wants to ensure the independence of the inquiries carried out by people outside the diocese, but it is proving difficult to do this in a timely way. The commission is also beginning a round of audits of dioceses to check they have proper safeguarding arrangements.

Despite these improvements the commission’s annual report showed 18 of 41 people who reported abuse in 2009 said they had been abused that year, compared with 20 who said the incident had taken place in the 1970s or earlier. The number of cases has only dropped slightly from 2008 when there were 50 allegations.

However, Kilgallon claims he would be worried if there were no current abuse allegations because it would mean victims were not coming forward. “There is no organisation and no system that will ever prevent abuse totally,” he says. Instead the church must do its utmost to prevent would-be abusers having the opportunity to abuse and ensuring that victims feel able to come forward.

The commission is pursuing meeting abuse victims but he agrees there is more to do following some victims’ claims they are being treated poorly by the church. Better training for people throughout the church should help change its culture, he says.

Although he is generally pleased with the progress made by the church on safeguarding, he is worried that society and the government are now “rowing back” on child protection. “This government is putting the vetting and barring scheme on ice and I would be anxious they do not undermine some of the really good work done there,” he says. “We [the Catholic Church] have made good progress but the enemy of that progress is complacency.”


Bill Kilgallon: A career in social care

1970-77 Assistant priest, St Anne’s Cathedral, Leeds

1971 Founded St Anne’s Shelter and Housing Action for homeless people and people with learning disabilities, mental health, alcohol and drug problems

1976-77 Social worker, Leeds Catholic Children’s Society

1978-2002 Chief executive, St Anne’s Shelter and Housing Action and also led inquiries into alleged child abuse in residential homes in Northumberland (1994-5) and the management of a Durham hospital for people with learning disabilities (1997-8)

2003 to 2007 Chief executive, Social Care Institute for Excellence

2007 to present Chief executive, St Gemma’s Hospice, Leeds

2008 to present Chair, National Catholic Safeguarding Commission


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This article is published in the 23 September 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “No system will stop child abuse entirely”

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