One of the successes of the Met Police investigation into the notorious Elm Guest House in Barnes was the arrest and conviction of a Roman Catholic priest Anthony McSweeney who was jailed for three years in 2015 for sexually abusing a teenager and making indecent images of children.
The inquiry into Elm Guest House led the police to focus on a Richmond Council children’s home – long since closed – called Grafton Close which at the time was run by a friend of the priest, John Stingemore, who would have been tried alongside him at Southwark Crown Court if he had not died just before the trial.
The allegation that boys were taken by Stingemore to Elm Guest House were never tested in court – though the CPS agreed a charge should be made – because of Stingemore’s death.
But the court heard that McSweeney and Stingemore did take boys away to a flat in Bexhill on sea where they were sexually assaulted. And when McSweeney was arrested pornographic pictures of children were found on his computer.
Until then Anthony McSweeney had escaped his crimes that took place between 1979 to 1981 and if it had not been for Operation Fernbridge he would still be a popular priest working in a Catholic school in Norwich, helping with Norwich City football youth team and local boxing clubs.
He was held in high esteem and mixed with some of the great and good. He married the boxer, Frank Bruno and Delia Smith, the celebrity cook and supporter of Norwich City, once asked to arrange a special football service for the club.
But his secret activities could have been stopped nearly 20 years earlier when it was discovered while he was working as a priest in Harlow and Leigh on Sea, Essex, that had a stash of pornographic videos. His cleaner discovered his stash of sex toys, truncheons and pornographic videos at St Peter’s Catholic Church in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. Instead in 1998 the Roman Catholic Church quietly transfered him to another parish, St George’s church in Norwich.
Now an independent review undertaken by the Dioceses of East Anglia and Brentwood in the wake of his conviction has revealed serious lapses in the whole way the Church handled the discovery in 1998.
In a statement the two dioceses say:
The Church should have taken more robust action following the discovery of video tapes in 1998, later referred to in Anthony McSweeney’s trial, and should have ensured that the matter was reported to the police so that a full investigation could have taken place.
Local priests and parishioners were not adequately supported, their concerns were not taken sufficiently seriously, nor acted upon diligently;
Anthony McSweeney’s subsequent transfer to East Anglia, as outlined above, was poorly managed, lacked insight and was not adequately documented.
The Church defends it behaviour by saying:
“At the time of these events awareness of the need for child protection was in its infancy. The national safeguarding procedures and processes put in place since 2001 would now ensure that such a matter would immediately be passed on to the police, via the Safeguarding Coordinator. Now over 95% of parishes have at least one Safeguarding Representative whose task it is to ensure that the concerns of the local clergy and parishioners are taken seriously, and to refer those concerns to the Diocesan Safeguarding Coordinator.”
However it is clear that the review is not satisfied even today as it recommends the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service, and the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission:
To review and clarify the existing policy about priests transferring from one diocese to another to ensure consistency and transparency in the process in all the dioceses in England and Wales, and in particular, to ensure that any issues to do with safeguarding are resolved before any such move can take place;
To issue clear guidelines for managing cases potentially involving indecent images;
To review the existing “whistleblowing” policy
The Church is refusing to publish the report or even name the author who prepared it on the grounds it was an ” internal report”.
Yet it highlights one of the major perennial problems in tackling child sexual abuse – the decision by authorities to sweep scandals under the carpet – and quietly transfer the person to a new post elsewhere. Not only is this irresponsible but its is dangerous as it puts more children at risk just to preserve the reputation of the organisation.
This is a good case to be referred to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse – either under its Roman Catholic investigation – or the part of the inquiry that will examine safeguarding. Alexis Jay, the chair, should seek out this report as it will help explain in detail what went wrong here and how it can be tackled in future. Otherwise valuable lessons could be missed and the Roman Catholic church will once again have to be taken on trust that it doing the right thing.