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LONDON (ChurchMilitant.com) - The United Kingdom's leading cleric is denying that he covered for an alleged predator priest.
In testimony to a government panel on Thursday, Westminster Cdl. Vincent Nichols countered claims he was complicit in covering up sex abuse as archbishop of Birmingham from 2000–2009.
Cardinal Nichols, head of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, told investigators with Britain's Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA) that he was "still learning" how to handle the "terrible evil" of clerical sex abuse, but insisted he was innocent of whitewash.
Nichols has been blasted for mishandling allegations involving Fr. John Tolkien, son of famed British writer J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
In 1968, Fr. Tolkien, a priest in the archdiocese of Birmingham, was accused of forcing a group of Boy Scouts to strip naked. He was sent away for treatment after the alleged incident and later returned to ministry.
In 1994, sex abuse allegations were made against four archdiocesan priests, including Fr. Tolkien. An inquiry was launched in 2001, but owing to ill health, Tolkien was never brought to trial. He died in 2003, and soon after, Nichols settled the claims against him.
Recently, IICSA investigators discovered that though Nichols was fully aware of Tolkien's history during the settlement talks, he failed to disclose documents confirming the priest was sent away for treatment after the 1968 allegations.
The cardinal asserted that because Tolkien's record was known to police, he saw no reason to reveal it to the complainants.
"In the context of the claim and the discussions with the solicitors, my priority was always to get that matter settled, and when that matter was settled, I simply didn't give the matter further thought for which I'm sorry," Nichols told the commission.
Birmingham, Britain's second-largest city, has been especially hard hit by clerical sex abuse. Since the 1950s, at least 13 archdiocese priests have been credibly accused of sexually assaulting minors and vulnerable adults.
In the course of its investigation, the IICSA has uncovered additional wrongdoing at the hands of Church officials.
The inquiry has revealed that a former archdiocesan vicar general worked to funnel a credibly accused predator to the United States to escape prosecution by U.K. authorities.
In 1985, a man reported to police that he had been abused as a minor by Fr. James Robinson. Days later, Robinson fled Britain for California. Shortly after, Msgr. Daniel Leonard provided Robinson a letter of recommendation so he could incardinate in the archdiocese of Los Angeles.
"Father Robinson's work as a priest has been highly regarded ever since his ordination fourteen years ago," Msgr. Leonard wrote. "He has shown considerable talent in recruiting groups of lay workers to assist in various capacities."
"For some reason he has always been interested in being a priest in the United States," Leonard added.
The Los Angeles archdiocese revoked Fr. Robinson's faculties in 1993 after officials in Birmingham disclosed his background. The predator priest disappeared, resurfacing a decade later as manager of a California trailer park. He was extradited to Britain where, in 2010, he was sentenced to 21 years in prison.
"This comes as a shock to me that such a course of action could have been in the mind of the then vicar general," Cdl. Nichols responded when presented IICSA's findings. "It is shocking."
Victims advocates dismissed Nichols' expressions of regret as hollow.
Said attorney Iain O'Donnell, "In reality, those in power in the Church are as interested in prioritizing the reputation of the Church over the interests of survivors as much now as ever."