BY CHRISTINA WHITE
THE CHURCH has appointed a non-Catholic to oversee its strategy for child protection in England and Wales.
Eileen Shearer, 50, who has 25 years' experience working in children's services, most recently as NSPCC director for the South West Region, will be the first director of the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults (COPCA). Her appointment follows the recommendations of the Nolan Report on child protection in the Church, published last year Ms Shearer, the mother of a 16-year-old daughter, said she had been "impressed" by the Church's response to child protection and was honoured to have been chosen from a "demanding" selection process.
"The Roman Catholic Church has listened to Lord Nolan's recommendations and intends to implement them," she said.
"The Church takes these measures extremely seriously. My job is to work with the existing professionals within the Church to take action to ensure that children are safe within the Church and to give families that confidence."
Ms Shearer's salary, estimated to be £80,000, will be paid by the Church.
COPCA was established as part of Lord Nolan's review of child protection procedures in the Church. The Nolan Report was published in September 2001, but was earlier approved by the bishops of England and Wales at their low week meeting. The Church is sensitive to media accusations of bias and cover-up and is keen to distance COPCA from any hint of complicity.
Ms Shearer is not a practising Christian and, according to The Times, stated that she is ready to overrule the hierarchy when making decisions on child protection.
As head of COPCA she will be responsible for dealing with allegations of abuse and formulating best practice for the Church on child protection. She will report annually to the bishops' conference. Her role has been described as independent.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham, chairman of the COPCA management board, described Ms Shearer as a leading professional in her field who would bring "valuable experience" to the job. He also paid tribute to the many people in Catholic parishes and communities who "already work tirelessly to provide a healthy and caring environment for young people and their families".
His words were endorsed by Cardinal Cormac MurphyO'Connor who said Eileen Shearer's leadership would "enhance" the work of child protection professionals in the Church.
But efforts to make Church procedure more open have been confused by the latest directive from the Vatican which demands that sex abuse cases involving priests should now be referred to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for trial by a secret all clerical court. Until now, dioceses have been allowed to deal with such cases at a local level.
An apostolic letter Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela (protection of the holiness of the sacraments), which details the new norms for dealing with clergy sex abuse, was published at the end of December in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis — the Vatican's official registry. The document has been sent to bishops' conferences and heads of religious orders but has not been made public.
Vatican sources confirmed that the directive defined sex abuse against children as one of several "graver offences" against Church law. It does not state whether a bishop should refer a case to the civil authorities.
The directive relates purely to ecclesiastical law and will not affect civil or criminal proceedings.