Two survivors of clerical abuse in the Catholic Church in Britain have called for a “one church” approach to safeguarding dioceses and religious orders and all religious organisations.
A witness to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in England and Wales, known as A711, spoke to former priest Brian Devlin, a victim of unwanted sexual advances as Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s seminarian in Scotland, at a meeting called ‘Stolen Lives’, organized by the Root and Branch reform movement and the Scottish Laity Network.
A711, who was abused by a priest from a religious order, said that although there were new structures such as the Catholic Standards Safeguarding Agency (CSSA), key decisions were still in the hands of chiefs religious. This meant that a provincial of a religious order always saw himself as autonomous and making his own decisions.
“It’s a worrying concern that there isn’t a one church approach, there isn’t a set of standards that they are obligated to follow. It’s something we have to watch out for,” the woman, who is now in her 50s, warned.
Referring to the appointment last year of Nazir Afzal as SCSA Chair by the Bishops of England and Wales, she said: “Are they going to have powers that will make a difference? At the moment, the jury is still out on this from the survivors’ perspective.
Brian Devlin called for a culture change within the Church in its response to victims of abuse and for more centralized control through a one-church approach.
He also denounced the Church’s internal processes for dealing with allegations of abuse that he and three other complaining priests had used to highlight concerns about Cardinal O’Brien. The Church had behaved “like a criminal organization” or “a crime family” with “a very strong sense of omerta or organized silence”, he said.
He wrote of his experiences at Drygrange Seminary in cardinal sin, which was released in 2021 and shows how their attempts to seek due process were thwarted.
The former priest warned that the abuses of power learned in the seminary contributed to the culture of silence and clericalism in the Church.
“I believe it’s the seminary that teaches priests how to abuse power, and it teaches prospective bishops how to abuse power. It is the seminary that is the nursery—the seedbed—for these behaviors to manifest in the kind of clerical power and hierarchical power that we see within the Church.
He also said there is a culture of bullying and intimidation today that targets “good priests and good lay people throughout the church.”
“One form of power abuse, based on sexual predation, has been replaced by another form of power abuse, which is ‘I am your superior, you will obey me’.”
Calling for a reform of the process for selecting bishops, Brian Devlin said the process must become more transparent.
“We have a problem with narcissistic leadership within the Catholic Church and if you have a narcissist in charge then the Church will not get very far. Church. It’s their job to stand up and not accept the garbage and the sheer arrogance that we hear from the bishops; to say, ‘No, this is our church.’”