The Sunday Mercury yesterday published a front-page story, continued on pages 8 & 9, that included the following headline: "FREE TO ROAM - THE ARMED ROBBERS AND SEX FIENDS AT KIDS CASTLE". The paper stated: "The Sunday Mercury has discovered that dangerous prisoners said to include sex offenders, armed robbers and drug dealers are working unsupervised at the castle." Archbishop Vincent Nichols has responded with the following statement: "I am asking the Management Committee of Alton Castle Retreat Centre, run by the Archdiocese of Birmingham, in co-operation with Sudbury Open Prison and the Probation Service, to review all aspects of the scheme to provide opportunities for work for prisoners who are nearing the end of custodial sentences. "I want to ensure that every care is taken and that all safeguards regarding the protection of children are rigourously observed at all times. "In this way I want to reassure parents that everything possible is being done and that their children will continue to have an enjoyable time at Alton Castle." Archbishop Nichols added: "The safety of children is always of paramount importance." Peter Jennings, Press Secretary to the Archdiocese of Birmingham, said in a statement to the Sunday Mercury: "Alton Castle works in co-operation with the Governor of Sudbury Open Prison and the Probation Service to provide opportunities for work for prisoners who are nearing the end of custodial sentences. This is one of the ways in which prisoners are enabled to return to society. "Their presence and work is supervised by the maintenance staff of Alton Castle, as is normal for such schemes. The Governor of the prison and the Probation Service have taken into consideration all the circumstances of Alton Castle, especially its activities with young people, before agreeing to these arrangements which have been in place since August 2004. "Their work and behaviour has been more than satisfactory and the Archdiocese is proud to help in this way." Meanwhile, today, Fr Marcus Stock, Director of Schools, Diocesan Schools Commission, has sent a letter to all Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Birmingham. The letter reads: "An article was published in the Sunday Mercury newspaper on 28 November concerning Alton Castle Retreat Centre. The article focused on the fact that, in cooperation with Governor of Sudbury Open Prison and the Probation Service, the Centre provides work for prisoners who are nearing the end of their custodial sentences. "The article alleged that children visiting the Castle were at risk because dangerous prisoners, including sex offenders, were present and not monitored. This is incorrect. As early as Saturday afternoon, 27 November, the Home Office verified that: 'There are no people with sex offence history working at the Alton Castle Retreat'. It appears that the Sunday Mercury chose to ignore this. "Moreover, the presence and work of prisoners is supervised by the maintenance staff of Alton Castle, as is normal for such schemes. In respect of this a Home Office spokeswoman has confirmed: "All prisoners are thoroughly risk-assessed and it is normal for no prison officials to accompany day-release work. The prisoners who work at Alton Castle do not pose a risk." A review of all aspects of the work experience scheme began today, carried out co-operation with Sudbury Open Prison and the Probation Service. No prisoners will be working at Alton Castle while the review is taking place.
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