Cardinal Vincent Nichols filed formal complaint over 2003 programme, documents show

Harriet Sherwood Religion Correspondent The Guardian.

The most senior Catholic leader in England and Wales went to extraordinary lengths to try to discredit a BBC documentary on child sexual abuse and its cover-up by the church, the Guardian can disclose.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster, publicly accused the BBC of bias and malice before the documentary was aired in 2003. Documents seen by the Guardian show he also lobbied the BBC’s director of news, wrote to all priests in his archdiocese urging them not to speak to BBC journalists, and lodged a formal complaint against the programme’s makers.

The BBC’s programme complaints unit (PCU) rejected the complaint, and the BBC governors’ programme complaints committee dismissed his appeal against that decision. Nichols refused to apologise to the programme-makers.

Last month the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse (IICSA) criticised Nichols for putting the church’s reputation before the welfare of abuse survivors. In a report, IICSA said Nichols’s response to the BBC programme was “misplaced and missed the point”.


The documentary, part of the investigative series Kenyon Confronts on BBC One, included interviews with survivors who claimed the church covered up cases of sexual abuse. It tracked down Father James Robinson, a Catholic priest who fled to the US after being accused of sexual abuse and who received financial support from the Catholic archdiocese of Birmingham for seven years before he was extradited, convicted and jailed.

At the time of the documentary, Nichols was archbishop of Birmingham and chair of the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults.

At a press conference before the programme was broadcast, Nichols accused the BBC of “using the licence fee to pay unscrupulous reporters trying to recirculate old news and to broadcast programmes that are biased and hostile”.

He added: “That this programme has been allowed to progress this far shows either malice towards the church or a total lack of judgment or of managerial responsibility.” He demanded the BBC justify the renewal of the licence fee.

While the documentary was being made, Nichols wrote to priests in his archdiocese urging them not to speak to BBC reporters working on it. “If you are approached please remember you are not advised to be cooperative. You may, quite properly, refuse to take part in any questioning or interview. This is my advice,” he wrote.

Before broadcast, Nichols wrote to Richard Sambrook, then the BBC’s director of news, saying a re-examination of historic sexual abuse cases was not in the public interest. He claimed reporters had telephoned a priest at 2am, acted discourteously and inconsiderately to a priest who had just undergone major surgery, and “cornered” a priest in a residential care home to question him.

Sambrook told the Guardian: “My recollection of the difficult meeting and correspondence with Cardinal Nichols is that he was entirely focused on trying to discredit the BBC’s journalism in the hope of diverting criticism of the church. Fortunately the BBC’s journalism was sufficiently robust to see off such attempts. He showed little interest in wider questions about uncovering abuse or the welfare of the survivors.”

After the programme was broadcast on 15 October 2003, Nichols lodged a formal complaint with the PCU, claiming BBC reporters used underhand methods to gain access to elderly and infirm priests.

The PCU rejected Nichols’ complaint, saying there were no grounds for his claim that the Kenyon Confronts team behaved inappropriately. It said the investigation was “conducted properly and in line with BBC producers’ guidelines” and there was no evidence of serious breaches of editorial standards.

Some of the 11 sworn witness statements from nuns and priests provided by Nichols to the PCU contradicted his allegations that reporters had not properly identified themselves. Evidence from recordings of some encounters also showed his claims to be false.

Nichols claimed one priest had been left distressed by a visit from two members of the Kenyon Confronts team, who were alleged to be hectoring and intimidating. However, the priest’s statement said the pair were “well-mannered, polite and had respect for my office, although I was glad when I had finished speaking to them. They were not unpleasant or malicious in the way they spoke to me.”

Nichols appealed to the BBC governors’ programme complaints committee against the PCU’s adjudication, and in May 2005 the committee rejected the appeal.

After the decision, Paul Kenyon, the programme’s presenter, and Paul Woolwich, its executive producer, wrote to Nichols saying the archbishop had tarnished the reputation of those who worked on the documentary. “We believe an apology to set the record straight would now be appropriate.”

Nichols replied: “I see no need for me to offer an apology.”

Last month IICSA said Nichols’ response to the programme should have focused on “recognising the harm caused to the complainants and victims. Instead, [it] led many to think that the church was still more concerned with protecting itself than the protection of children.”

After the report was published, the Tablet, a respected Catholic weekly, said the inquiry’s criticisms raised questions about Nichols’s fitness for office.

In a statement to the Guardian, Nichols apologised for at the time failing to sufficiently acknowledge two positive elements of the programme: giving a platform to abuse survivors and locating Fr Robinson.

He pointed out he had offered to give a live interview to the BBC at the time of the broadcast. Woolwich said it had not been possible to broadcast a live interview immediately after the broadcast of a pre-recorded programme, and Nichols had rejected an offer to appear live on Newsnight the same night or the Today programme the following morning.

Nichols’s statement said: “I was annoyed at the approach of the programme-makers who gave a slanted presentation of the real problems we were seeking to address … I accept that my frustration at the approach of the programme-makers led me not to give sufficient attention to the suffering of the victims of abuse perpetrated by the priest in question, although I had already met with all but one of them.

“A more thorough listening to the experiences of victims and survivors has now become central to the church’s approach and we will continue to adjust our work in safeguarding in light of this victim-centred approach.”


Auld Elsie Nicholls is indeed unfit for office after we read the above account of his bullying misbehaviour.

Here we see an excuse for a man – full of his own importance – with absolute power in his diocese – and believing himself to speak for Almighty God in England and Wales.

He is now IN TOTAL DISGRACE and if there were any decency, morality and manliness in him he would resign immediately.

This is the kind of man the RCC creates.

“It is by their fruits that ye shall know them”.

The tree that produced Fruit Nicholls is a totally corrupt tree and needs to be cut down and thrown on a great big fire.


The ocean of God’s anger and justice awaits them.

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I read both the article in “The Guardian” and the article in “The Tablet”, presumably from which the Guardian article was drawn. Sometimes TV journalistic exposure programmes can appear aggressive, perhaps to add drama or to heighten indignation amongst those watching. I remember this programme well and I found its contents shocking.
Cardinal Nichols talks about not listening to the voice of the victims enough, whilst emphasising that he had met all but one of them. He is still apparently missing the point, I suspect deliberately, wishing to seem now more warm and human rather than someone presiding over an organisation focused on its own power, status and reputation. Cardinal Nichols still seeks to brush over the fact that those involved in serious misconduct had not been handed over to the Police for investigation, trial and (if guilty) punishment. The Church and his Diocese had (at best) acquiesced in this and at worst connived and encouraged it. I could be wrong, but I have never heard the words, “As soon as we were told of what Fr X had allegedly done, we should have gone to another room and called the Police/social services. We got it totally wrong.”
From reading the article in The Tablet, it appears the producer of this programme was dying of cancer and was determined to make a difference with his final documentary. He was also very careful to keep very accurate records, including recordings of interviews and encounters not of broadcast quality, to show his staff’s methodology and demonstrate the integrity of what was done.
Cardinal Nichols showed very bad judgement in taking the course he did. Amidst the apologies for failing to listen to victims enough or protestations that things were different then (and they were – but by 2003 not as much as he’d like to suggest), perhaps he should pause and be honest. He should say too often we put the welfare and success of our church and its leaders before the welfare, well-being and safety of its members and in our dealings with the press and others, we got things totally wrong as has been rightly shown on very many occasions and in many different forums. I apologise totally for everything and though I am not personally responsible for every decision, as a leader I take responsibility for the culture under which the organisation worked and resign.


Thank you for loud-pedalling this article, Pat.
Elsie you are a bully pure and simple and the absolute bare minimum any decent person would do in the circumstances is a public apology when it is expected.
What a monster.


Pat, Cardinal Nichols made serious misjudgment about accepting responsibility for his actions. He made very wrong decisions, responded purely out of concern for the Church’s reputation than care for victims and survivors. That alone should make him rethink his position but be careful about quoting scripture….all words from scripture apply to all of us….they should urge us to reflect about our own behaviour in the light of God’s expectation of us. Your behaviour at times may not be as honourable to God as you imagine….Just a thought – there may well be many heads with millstones, including yours!!!


Mornin all hi. Organisations often tell employees not to speak to press but to go to HR. There is a difference between this and trying to control the world. The Roman empire caries no weight any more just because it thinks it owns God hi


+ Vin is a man of his time, and as has been shown his style, his modus operandi and his mindset are not suitable to addressing and facing the challenges that confront the Church. In this particular episode it is quite clear that his priority was to protect the image of the Church and to do everything he could to discredit those who had a different point of view. The IICSA judgement of him at that time is clear about that, as well as criticising him for failing to put the needs of the victims as a priority. + Vin has made some formulaic emollient mutterings about this in an attempt to gain a foothold of credibility, but his initial reaction really does betray his mindset and way of doing things and priorities. His way is out of date and redundant as a way forward for the Church. It will be interesting to see how he reacts to this latest iteration of this matter, and I bet that we will see a resurfacing of his petulant, frustrated, angry and above all arrogant attitude. He does not like to be criticised ! In view of all this, it is clear that + Vin has had his day, and by staying on relentlessly he is doing damage to the Church that he claims he wants to protect. His brother bishops should be quietly telling him that it is time to move on and out, and if he resists then he will simply be an obstacle in the way of any healing progress.

What really comes out of all this is a very unflattering view of + Vin and his character. There is little of gentleness or holiness that comes over, rather a man who is very full of himself, has an inflated image of his own importance and position, stands on his dignity, brooks no opposition, bridles at the slightest criticism, and goes on to the attack at any sign of opposition. He is a calculating, plotting and incredibly ambitious man. It is not a flattering character portrait, is it ? My intelligence is that he can be very nasty to his priests, and that there is not a great deal of love for him, and that priests make absolutely sure not to get on the wrong side of him.

So, + Vin, if you or any of your people read this blog, then get the message, which clearly says that those of us who love the Church really do think that you should move aside, and let us get on with trying to heal our Church without you raising your hackles when the Church, necessarily, has to humble itself and accept that we have got it so wrong and inflicted so much pain on the innocent and vulnerable.


+ Vin needs to be grateful that he’s not in the USA because he would have had the arse sued off him in that litigious society. He might have sat up and taken notice a bit earlier about the seriousness of what was happening, and his own position, if he and his Church were haemorrhaging money in lawsuits. Money talks and he would have wanted to do all in his power to protect that, I am sure ! Dioceses in the USA are regularly bankrupted.


Nicholls was fortunate or not in having the talented Peter Jennings at his side in Birmingham, though whether the political rather than the pastoral approach was appropriate is now in question. Furthermore Nicholls’s highly professional press office long contrived to give the erroneous impression that Nicholls was the man for the job after the disaster of Couve de Murville. Nicholls’s time is almost over, and it must be killing him that his stellar career will now be regarded as more of the same in a failing Church. We need to move on and think about what next, and it doesn’t look good. On the one hand you have delightful civilized and intelligent men such as Longley and Byrne, who would allow the ex-Anglicans – and all that they entail – to run rings round them in Westminster; then there are creatures from another planet such as Egan and Davies; finally cyphers and apparatchiks. Same in Scotland and Ireland, as far as I can see, though minus the charm of Bunny and Tubby. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!


1244 – are you sure that Tubby Byrne is intelligent ? Maybe civilized. He likes the opera. But intelligent ? In Birmingham when he was there he did very little, talked a lot, but did very little. Except get more and more lardy. Also, remember there is still the Cong Orat affiliation, and it would be a disaster to allow even a smidgen of that 19th century old fogey culture to lead the Church in this country. Nursey / Bunny / Bunty Longley would be a better bet, but he really has been tarnished by his failure to manage robustly safeguarding in his diocese, and was roundly and firmly criticized by IICSA. You simply couldn’t have the next Westminster man having been the subject of such negative criticism by such a body as IICSA. It would make the Church look as though it was thick or just putting up two fingers to the business of safeguarding.

Egan and Davies are dark characters, with rigid stormtrooper characteristics. They would just divide and alienate. No nuance or subtlety, just hard orthodoxy.

Watch the new man in Southwark, Wilson. I reckon he’s been catapulted there for a year or two, in readiness for the journey back across the Thames. Or it could be Stock from Leeds, who is very capable and intelligent and savvy, but oooohhhh so boring and serious. He’d drive us all nuts with his focussed seriousness.

And actually, Couve may have been elevated well beyond his abilities, but he was a kind man and a holy one in his own way, and I for one have fond memories of him. And he could be entertaining and a diversion. And we need that every now and again.


2.53pm I don’t think it would be fair for Southwark to only have Wilson for a couple of years. But I don’t think it impossible for him to be the next but one Westminster. After all he’s on 51.


Egan is very genuine, Davis is mad, he belives that soon it will be impossible to be a Christian because of the totalitarian regime of gay and gender rights sweeping England, in fact it’s the hypocrisy in the Church which is killing the faith off not what rubbish is being taught in the so called Catholic schools, his own schools are mired in scandal which has nothing to do with gay marriage or gender issues but everything to do with money and worshiping mammon first not God.


I think the Ipatiev house KOB once occupied following his downfall is still available in Northumberland. However, I imagine someone like Elsie would insist on somewhere like Tuscany or Provence should he end up pariah like KOB.


And what happened to the residents of the real Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg ? KOB was lucky he got away so lightly. There are many other bishops who might feel likewise about themselves. + Vin would do well to opt for a grace and favour place in either Tuscany or Provence, or Chelsea, or wherever. He needs to recede in to genteel retirement, and shut up. It will be genteel, because he will be bankrolled by Westminster, and he has a good number of well heeled friends, including the Bishop Emeritus but one of Menevia and ex-Abbot of Belmont, who comes from money, member of the Leander Club and all that, and will look after him
I reckon there could be undiscovered dirt and scandal that could dog + Vin so he’d be better off out of it for his own sake. WTF is he hanging on until the bitter end ? In any other walk of life he would be long retired. Oh, and spare me the commitment, obedience, loyalty to the Holy Father, hand to the plough, not looking back stuff. He’s still there because it suits him. + Vin always does what suits him. But, it doesn’t suit us !


Former + Menevia – he who has a grace and favour house worth seven figure in North London and drives a relatively new (and pricey) German car with personalised reg plate that references his Episcopal status.


9.15am I wonder what has been done to the house to make it almost twice as expensive as the other houses in that street?


At 10.45 this morning it is refreshing to read the above articulate and thoughtful comments, and an absence of the usual suspects.


10.46: MMM: Yes, it is worthwhile when commentators remain calm, balanced, fair and rational without the usual vulgar name calling and foul mouthed responses. It is more conducive to constructive debate and analysis. Let’s hope it remains this way….for always!


You all are blind. National media abuses children. Journalists abuse children by writing lies getting whole communities to turn against youngsters ruining lives. The not so pure media have ways to make lies seem truthful and discredit people by highlighting failures. I am one of those. So I suggest wise up. I was 15 and the National press turned me into a Horror story. So angry, you foolish people.


The media are the enemy of the people, exploiting crises in people’s lives and constantly causing divisions, all to create publicity to make money. They are a cancer in society and they would think nothing of destroying you at 15 or your family to make money.


Vin is actually a very Holy, humble and prayerful man and he looks after his Clergy. Unfortunately he inherited something rotten and he is left to account for the past behaviours of others. Not fair at all.


Your statements of fact are presumably reliably supported by solid evidence? Would you care to enlarge in order to persuade many other commentators here who appear to think otherwise?


‘Would you care to enlarge’

MMM, honestly! I don’t think this is an appropriate place or time 😉


Interesting to compare 2:53 with 1:41 as the impression was cleverly given at the time that everything had been the fault of Couve de Murville and Nicholls was sent to sort everything out. Mention of Byrne’s Oratorian connection reminds that no explanation has ever been given over the mysterious disappearance of his successor at Oxford, though he is finally gone from the clergy list. Yet another one bites the dust – or the pillow!


Canon Hepp.
Could you please explain your “thinking” in your 7:02 comment above.
Perhaps the winking emoji is intended to convey some subliminal significance and I’d appreciate your clarification of your intention on that also.
And thank you.


I can be light hearted when appropriate.
But on serious issues I prefer not to be light headed.


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