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Saturday, October 29, 2016
Text: statement by Archbishop Nichols on BBC programme
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 The following statement was given by the Archbishop of Birmingham, Most Rev Vincent Nichols at a press conference at the RUSI (The Royal United Services Institute) in London, in Whitehall, this morning. I come today with a protest, on my own behalf and on behalf of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. For more than twenty years I have worked with the BBC in a wide range of programmes. I have worked with outside broadcast teams, with the World Service, with religious affairs, with current affairs and with news programmes. I have given countless interviews. I have enjoyed my co-operation with the BBC and always held those with whom I have worked with in high regard. But today I have come to protest. 2. Over the last nine months, I have received various reports from priests of the Archdiocese of Birmingham of unsolicited and strange approaches from people saying they were working for the BBC. Their questions were about events long ago and their manner was often troubling. However, I assured my priests that approaches from the BBC would not be conducted in such a manner. I was wrong. 3. On 4 September I received a letter from a BBC producer working on a programme called 'Kenyon Confronts' seeking to interview me on questions of child abuse and the Catholic Church. With subsequent telephone conversations I was told that the programme was 'aggressive and confrontational' and that a team of investigators had been working in the Archdiocese of Birmingham on its contents for a number of months. Let me detail some of the behaviour of those 'researchers': On 28 January a Birmingham priest was rung at 2am by a reporter from the BBC and asked a long series of questions concerning events in the past. In late August a seventy-nine year old priest of the diocese, living in retirement, was telephoned by a reporter acting on behalf of the BBC, on the day in which he was discharged from hospital after major surgery. The nature of the call upset this priest very deeply and under no circumstances could be described as either courteous or considerate of his well-being. A reporter acting on behalf of the BBC, although not admitting as such, gained entrance as 'a Catholic and friend' into a Catholic residential care home. There he confronted another priest of the diocese who is living in the care of that home. This priest is also in his late seventies, has suffered a stroke and cannot walk easily without assistance and, quite evidently, tires quickly and readily becomes confused. Nonetheless this reporter cornered the priest in his room and continued to question him for sensitive information. Later the same day, when he had been traced, he was asked to make proper and formal enquiries through the Archdiocese. Yet he again attempted to enter the home for a second time later the same day. On that occasion he was turned away. On September 11 another reporter approached a presbytery in the diocese and requested personal information about parishioners who used to live there sometime ago. He did not declare his interest but was persistent in his requests. He refused to reveal his role in the programme even when my Press Secretary, Peter Jennings, telephoned him on Monday 15 September. A short time later, the Producer of the programme reluctantly confirmed that this man was, in fact, the Associate Producer of the programme. During August another priest was approached by one of these reporters with a barrage of questions of a deeply personal and intrusive nature, and nothing to do with issues of child abuse or child protection. They gave the impression of a personal vendetta. He was 'digging for dirt'. This, I believe, is totally unacceptable behaviour. It callously takes advantage of people's vulnerability at night and their need for sleep, it disregards a right to privacy, and it exploits a person's illness and infirmity. The actions of these reporters brings discredit to the good name and reputation of the BBC. I wrote to Mr Greg Dyke, Director-General of the BBC, and to Mr Richard Sambrook, Director of News at the BBC, asking for their comments on four of these matters, over a week ago, but I have had no more than a holding acknowledgement. I had not heard of 'Kenyon Confronts' but I have since found out about some of its recent investigative programmes. They have been into fraudsters who fake their own deaths, dog fixing and doping, therapy fraudsters, drug dealers and dealers in bogus marriages. That this programme is considered, by the BBC managers, as a suitable way to engage with the Catholic Church is absolutely offensive. It is offensive to every Catholic in this country, and I believe to many other people too. Mr Kenyon, apparently, likes to confront his victims as they normally refuse to be interviewed. In twenty years I don't think I have ever refused a responsible request for an interview. Nor have I this time. I have offered to give an interview for the programme as long as it is live and broadcast at the same time as the film they have made for the programme. These conditions were unacceptable to the programme, for 'technical reasons'. But I am unwilling to prerecord an interview with a team that has acted in this way, despite the fact that in the latest letter I am given assurances that the programme will be fair and balanced and that the interview, in a programme called 'Kenyon Confronts' is, in fact, not confrontational! That is simply not credible. My offer of a live interview, which still stands, is effectively turned down. That this programme has been allowed to progress this far shows either malice towards the Church or a total lack of judgement, or of managerial responsibility, within the BBC News and Current Affairs Department. 5. Let me tell you about the proposed content of this programme. The intention is to include a discussion of a recent opinion poll circulated among Catholic priests on behalf of the BBC. There might indeed be some interest in this, despite serious reservations about its objectivity, its 'anonymity' and the fact that only 480 responses were received. In November this year, when the first annual report of COPCA (the national 'Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults' established in 2002) is to be published, there could well be an appropriate opportunity to discuss this survey, in a sensible context. But the bulk of the programme, as far as I can tell, is about past cases of child abuse, or allegations of child abuse by priests of the Archdiocese of Birmingham. Indeed I have assurances that it has no 'new cases' to report. All the cases to be dealt with in the programme happened many years ago, and all have already been given considerable media coverage both nationally and in the Midlands. I doubt if this programme will have come up with anything new. I believe that the likely claim that the programme is in the public interest is dubious and I am sure, from my own experience, that most people who have suffered the effects of child abuse are not helped, in the least, by this kind of sensationalist publicity. I do not underestimate for one moment the damage done by childhood abuse. I acknowledge that hurt, and I deeply regret every single incident that has occurred in our Catholic community. The cases or allegations being raised by the programme makers come from the following dates: The first concerns allegations made in 1993 of events in 1954. A book has already been published on all these matters. The second concerns allegations made against Fr Christopher Clonan in 1992 relating to the 1970's. Fr Clonan left the country without our knowledge or consent before he could be arrested. The third takes up allegations made in 1991, against Sam Penney who pleaded guilty in court in 1993. The fourth concerns allegations made in 1985 of events in 1979. The fifth concerns allegations made in 1998 concerning events in 1979. Thaddeus O'Malley pleaded guilty in court in 1999. Every one of these cases has been, or is being, investigated by the police with my full co-operation. In two of them a prison sentence has been served. In one the priest is dead, and maintained his innocence to the end. In the other two, the priests are currently being sought so that they can be brought to face the allegations that stand against them. In some of these cases there are also on-going civil claims for damages at present being handled by reputable firms of awyers acting properly and professionally. These facts actually make it difficult for me to give detailed answers to some of the questions put to me by the producers. The matters are still before the courts. But I can answer some of them: One case concerns a claim against the diocese. The questions suggest that it is wrong for the details of that claim to be looked into. Would any organisations simply pay out very large sums simply on the basis of a claim without investigating its grounds most carefully? Would the BBC? It has been suggested, in this case, that attempts have been made to enlist members of the claimant's family to give evidence against him. The truth is that I was initially approached by one such person with such an offer. In another case the lead question is about the way the diocese responded to a family in the early 90's, some of whom had certainly been abused by a priest. This is the case of Sam Penney. Mistakes were made. I readily acknowledge this. I have personally apologised to those concerned. But then the questions attempt to distort an act of help by the diocese to the family into some sort of manipulation of them. An Everyman programme was made of this case back in 1993. The programme fully explored the horror of the abuse that had taken place and the mistakes we made. But as news this 'story' is certainly not new. In the fourth case, in which the priest under suspicion, Fr Robinson, is in America, the lead question asks about my recent approach to Fr Robinson, appealing to him to return home. I am asked if I received a reply. I did. In the reply, the priest flatly refused my appeal and protested his innocence. The reply I received is being passed to the police. There is nothing for me to hide and in August I offered to meet with the family concerned. In fact I would be grateful if my appeal to Fr Robinson could be given widespread publicity as I would imagine that he still reads English newspapers. 6. Please do not misunderstand me this morning. I do not object to the Church being criticised. Indeed such criticism, in recent years has been salutary and has helped us to look again at the child protection measures which were put in place in 1994 and in the radical changes taking place in the Church following the independent report of Lord Nolan in 2001. But in the last year it was widely acknowledged that the treatment of Cardinal Murphy O'Connor was biased and unfair. Indeed the BBC issued one apology in that regard, but never to the Cardinal himself. Nor do I wish to suggest that our handling of these cases has always been correct. It has not. One priest was not removed from his duties into retirement as quickly as would be required by today's standards. References for another priest, given back in the 1980's, were not sufficiently explicit. But that was almost 20 years ago. These matters were put right in 1993 and again in a professional review of the case in 1996. Lessons have been learned from past mistakes and will continue to be learned. New practices are in place. I am happy to admit and discuss these matters. But the style and approach of this proposed programme is simply unacceptable. Investigative journalism of this sort may have its place. But with regard to these issues and the Catholic community, enough is enough. I am not trying to avoid the message by attacking the messenger. But I am not prepared to respond to a messenger who throws bricks through my back windows instead of coming and ringing at the front door. 7. I also want to bring another question into the public forum. As far as I can ascertain, the plans of the BBC for the time of the celebration of the Silver Jubilee of Pope John Paul II and the Beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta consist of the screening of a Panorama Programme called 'Sex and the Holy City.' The fact that so many people of all faiths hold both the Pope and Mother Teresa in high regard, and that most people recognise the emotional and historical significance of these moments, seem to escape the programme planners of the BBC. Their satirical sketch based on the person of the Holy Father, 'Popetown' is also due for broadcasting soon. These are offensive initiatives. I do not believe they have wide support. Certainly the Catholic community is fed up seeing a public service broadcaster using the licence fee to pay unscrupulous reporters trying to re-circulate old news and to broadcast programmes that are so biased and hostile. Enough is enough. Source: Archdiocese of Birmingham
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