The Times ranks Jonathan Wheeler among the leading lawyers calling for a public enquiry into child abuse by clergy

January 17, 2012

The Times newspaper today published a major feature looking at child abuse in the Catholic Church. And the catalyst for the reportage was a letter sent by leading child abuse lawyers, including Jonathan Wheeler, head of the child abuse team here at Bolt Burdon Kemp, urging the Government to launch a public enquiry into the scandal. The feature article appears on The Times’ front page.

Jonathan was one of the eight signatories to the letter, published in today’s Times. Jonathan comments “through our combined experience of representing survivors of clerical abuse, all eight of us are aware that canon law requires Catholic bishops to maintain a secret archive for documents which refer to “matters of morals” and “criminal cases”. Every diocese in England will have one and it is kept under lock and key, with only the Bishop authorised to open it. But even in cases which come to the attention of the criminal or civil courts, this archive is rarely if ever subject to scrutiny. If it were, we would guess that many more reports of abuse would be identified, as well as further evidence of cover up and false denial by the Catholic authorities”. He continues “Only about 10% of sex offenders are ever brought to justice, and we know from experience that priests and clergy are often multiple offenders.” As one of the signatories to the letter, Jonathan calls for a public enquiry to address the increasing reports of physical and sexual molestation of children by Catholic priests and clergy from other denominations.

The Times has identified 31 priests and Catholic clergy convicted of sexual offences in the decade since 2001. The Catholic Church’s own figures show only 11 such cases. In a response to The Times the Church said it was “reviewing its method of gathering statistics”. The Church refused to say whether it would co-operate with a public enquiry if one was ordered. In contrast, a spokesperson for the Church of England said it would co-operate, and that it “recognises the pain and hurt caused by abuse within a church context”.

The full text of the letter:

Sir, As lawyers working on behalf of children and vulnerable adults who have suffered sexual and physical abuse in institutional care, we write to call for a public inquiry into abuse within church organisations in England and Wales.

Officials of church organisations hold influential and highly respected roles within the community; historically they have enjoyed both the trust of the public and unquestioned access to children. This has undoubtedly created extensive opportunities for abuse. From cases we are handling currently, we are aware of some 41 Catholic priests who have been convicted of serious sexual offences in the recent past. Yet these very same organisations, particularly in the Catholic church, have persistently ignored and in many cases covered up complaints of abuse.

We have seen clear evidence of cover ups on some of our cases and we believe these are the tip of the iceberg. The culture of cover up has been embedded in the Catholic church for decades if not centuries. It will never be effectively challenged without full public scrutiny, something which only a public inquiry, with powers of access to documents, including each Catholic diocese’s secret archive, can achieve.

The Church of England has similarly been criticised for a lack of transparency. The available evidence shows that the practical implementation of new safeguarding policies in both the Catholic church and the Church of England (and indeed in other denominations) has been tentative, patchy and has met significant institutional resistance at senior levels in the church hierarchy.

There is now overwhelming evidence that religious organisations are too compromised by their own failings to police themselves effectively. The only way to address the scandal of sexual and physical abuse in these organisations is through a comprehensive public inquiry, and we urge ministers to order this without delay.

Richard Scorer, Partner, PANNONE LLP SOLICITORS; David Greenwood, Partner, JORDANS SOLICITORS; Tracey Storey, Partner, IRWIN MITCHELL SOLICITORS; Jonathan Wheeler, Partner, BOLT BURDON KEMP SOLICITORS; Malcolm Johnson, Principal, MALCOLM JOHNSON & CO SOLICITORS; Alan Collins, Director, VERISONA SOLICITORS AND ADVOCATES; Tracey Emmott, Partner, EMMOTT SNELL SOLICITORS; Peter Garsden, Partner, ABNEY GARSDEN MCDONALD SOLICITORS

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