The most senior Catholic leader in England and Wales has been criticised in a damning inquiry for seemingly prioritising the church over victims of sexual abuse by priests.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster Diocese, “demonstrated a lack of understanding” of the impact of abuse on some victims and “seemingly put the reputation of the church first”, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) found.

The IICSA report into allegations involving the Roman Catholic Church found evidence of “repeated failures”, including a lack of adequate safeguarding and missing opportunities to stop abusers within the church.

It highlighted the case of Father James Robinson, a serial paedophile, who was moved to another parish within the Archdiocese of Birmingham after complaints were first made in the 1980s.

He later fled to the US but was extradited back to the UK where he was convicted in 2010 of 21 sexual offences against four boys and jailed for 21 years.

The report also said progress following reviews into the Catholic Church’s handling of allegations, in 2001 and 2007, had been “slow”.

Focusing on Cardinal Nichols, the report said: “In the cases of (two complainants), Cardinal Nichols demonstrated a lack of understanding of the impact of their abuse and experiences and seemingly put the reputation of the church first.

“As a senior leader and the figurehead for the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Catholics look to Cardinal Nichols to lead by example.

“It is difficult to exercise good leadership if you engage in bad practice.

“Cardinal Nichols’ acknowledgement that ‘there is much more we have to achieve’ applies as much to him and other senior leaders as it does to the rest of the Catholic Church.”

The report found Cardinal Nichols demonstrated “no acknowledgement of any personal responsibility to lead or influence change”.

It added: “The responses of Church leaders over time were marked by delay in implementing change as well as reluctance to acknowledge responsibility, to hold individuals to account or to make sincere apologies.

“They conveyed on occasions a grudging and unsympathetic attitude to victims.

“Failure in some of these areas contributed to more children experiencing actual abuse and many others being exposed to the risk of sexual abuse.”

The report makes a number of recommendations, including mandatory safeguarding training for all staff and volunteers, and for the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service to be externally audited.

It said the subject of mandatory reporting – the legal duty to report allegations of child sexual abuse to the appropriate authorities, something Catholic Church leaders have opposed due to the “sacred nature” of disclosure made during confession – will form part of the inquiry’s final, overarching report into abuse allegations across society.

This strand of the inquiry was held over two weeks in October and November 2019, during which evidence was heard of vulnerable women being ordered to strip naked by priests offering “counselling” sessions, who would then sexually assault them.

Time and again, the inquiry was told that attempts to complain were dismissed by senior Catholic priests.

In one case, the mother of an alleged victim was told to “go away and pray” for the abuser in question, and to “not bring any scandal on the church”.

Another woman described being “groomed” by her priest from the age of 15, who sexually abused her on church grounds, including in front of colleagues, who turned a blind eye.

The woman was later raped by the priest, the inquiry heard, but that her complaints to Cardinal Nichols were effectively dismissed.

She later discovered she was being described by the church behind the scenes as “deeply manipulative” and “a needy victim”.

In his evidence to the inquiry, Cardinal Nichols said: “I repeat, as I did last time, my sorrow and dismay and apology, unreserved apology, to those who have suffered the horror of child abuse within the context of the Catholic Church and those who have  subsequently been treated badly by us.”

Coronavirus – Tue May 19, 2020
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

Cardinal Nichols said he would defend the seal of confession “absolutely” when asked about the mandatory reporting duty.

He told the inquiry: “The history of the Catholic Church has a number of people who have been put to death in defence of the seal of the confession. It might come to that.”

A separate report by the IICSA last month found the Anglican Church failed to protect vulnerable children from sexual predators for decades, instead prioritising its own reputation.

It accused the Church of England of being “in direct conflict” with its moral purpose of providing “care and love for the innocent and the vulnerable” by failing to take abuse allegations seriously, neglecting the “physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing” of the young, and creating a culture where abusers were able to “hide”.

The IICSA was set up in 2015 following claims from a complainant known as “Nick” of a murderous paedophile ring linked to Parliament operating in and around Westminster.

Nick, real name Carl Beech, was later discredited and jailed for 18 years for what a judge called his “cruel and callous” lies.

The inquiry has investigated the actions of celebrities, politicians, police, religious groups and schools, among others.

The remaining avenues of the inquiry are due to hear evidence later this year, before a final report of overarching findings from all 15 sections of the investigation is laid before Parliament in 2022.