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British Catholics Report Child Abuse - 2001-04-17

Roman Catholic leaders in England have published a report outlining measures aimed at protecting children from abuse by priests.

In the past five years, 21 of more than 5,000 Catholic priests in England and Wales have been convicted of child abuse. Human rights groups say many more have gone unpunished.

A special commission, headed by former appeals court judge Michael Nolan, outlines 50 measures to weed out and punish priests who sexually abuse children. Mr. Nolan says the recommendations aim to protect children and restore confidence in the church. "I think that one of the great evils that pedophilia has done has been, apart from the prime wickedness of damage to the victims, has been to damage the church and other churches, to damage the good names of men and women who have proved on examination to be innocent," said Judge Nolan.

The report recommends that police carefully check priests, staff, and volunteers in a bid to end sexual abuse of children under their supervision.

The committee also proposes setting up a national database and defrocking priests convicted of serious sex crimes. The committee also calls for the church to set up a national child-protection unit.

"The theme always is to protect the child," said Mr. Nolan. "That is the paramount consideration. I hope in doing so we can also encourage the church, as is our hope, and its members, and in particular its priests and bishops to take the leading role, which they should, or one of the leading roles in protecting children and setting out the means for doing so," he said.

The committee used a 1994 report on child abuse as the basis for its research, but added dozens of recommendations to toughen the church's approach.

Michael Nolan says England's Catholic leaders are no longer avoiding the sensitive issue. "The best evidence of changes having taken place is the existence of this committee. We were set up very firmly by the bishops as an independent review. I can not believe they would have done that if they did not want to hear what we had to say," he said.

The archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, called for the review last September after acknowledging inadequate efforts to stop such abuses in the past.

He was sharply criticized for assigning a priest to a parish near London, even after parents raised concerns about his behavior. The committee's report recommends double-checking a priest's fitness and behavior before any reassignment.

The Catholic bishops of England and Wales will review the report next week at their annual conference.