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Church admits ‘more robust action’ should have been taken against Norwich priest Anthony McSweeney jailed for sexual abuse

PUBLISHED: 18:40 20 April 2017 | UPDATED: 19:02 20 April 2017

Father Anthony McSweeney arrives at Southwark Crown Court, London, in 2015. Photo: John Stillwell/PA Wire

Father Anthony McSweeney arrives at Southwark Crown Court, London, in 2015. Photo: John Stillwell/PA Wire

The Catholic Church has admitted it should have taken “more robust action” against a former Norwich priest jailed for sexually abusing a vulnerable teenage boy at a children’s home.

St George's Catholic Church, in Sprowston Road, Norwich. Photo: Google Maps St George's Catholic Church, in Sprowston Road, Norwich. Photo: Google Maps

Anthony McSweeney was jailed for three years in 2015, after he was found guilty of indecently assaulting the youngster while working at Grafton Close Children’s Home in Hounslow, West London, between 1979 and 1981.

Concerns were raised in 1998, when his cleaner discovered his stash of sex toys, truncheons and pornographic videos at St Peter’s Catholic Church in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex.

Initially it was threatened that he would be “banished” from the priesthood.

But instead of being reported to the police, he was quietly moved to a new parish, St George’s, in Norwich, where he led the Sprowston Road church’s congregation.

Father Anthony McSweeney arrives at Southwark Crown Court, London, in 2015. Photo: Lauren Hurley/PA Wire Father Anthony McSweeney arrives at Southwark Crown Court, London, in 2015. Photo: Lauren Hurley/PA Wire

Now, the safeguarding commissions of the dioceses of East Anglia and Brentwood have accepted the recommendations made in an independent review following McSweeney’s conviction, and that “there were failings in the way in which the Church managed the situation at the time”.

In a statement issued by the two dioceses, it said: “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.”

It also accepted “local priests and parishioners were not adequately supported, their concerns were not taken sufficiently seriously, nor acted upon diligently” and “Anthony McSweeney’s subsequent transfer to East Anglia [...] was poorly managed, lacked insight and was not adequately documented.”

The dioceses said national safeguarding procedures put in place in 2001 would mean a similar matter would now be passed straight to the police.

Now, if a priest asks to be transferred from one diocese to another, formal undertakings have to be given that the priest is of good standing before such a move can take place.

However, the statement added: “At the time of these events awareness of the need for child protection was in its infancy.”

The dioceses have also raised the following recommendations with both 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 chairmen of the two safeguarding commissions, Denis White of East Anglia, and Linda Ransom of Brentwood, expressed their thanks to those who assisted the review.

They added they were committed to ensuring “very high standards of safeguarding practice within the dioceses, in particular for children and vulnerable adults, but also for the benefit of the whole Church”.

Representatives from St George’s Church did not wish to comment.

Background

McSweeney was arrested in 2013 after police began investigating abuse following revelations about Jimmy Savile.

When he appeared at Southwark Crown Court in early 2015, the court heard how McSweeney - who was also found guilty of making indecent images of children - abused the teenager with his close friend John Stingemore, 72, who managed the care home and was found dead in January 2015 – weeks before his trial.

Prosecutor Sarah Plaschkes QC said: “This was a joint enterprise by both men, to use the victim for their own sexual gratification.

“There was grooming behaviour used against the victim – both men used the washing routine at the home as an excuse to confuse the child.

“There was specific targeting of a particularly vulnerable child.

“Not all children at the home were abused. He [the victim] was targeted because he was a vulnerable boy, isolated from his family.”

During his trial, jurors heard McSweeney was sexually motivated to watch children shower, and had a collection of child pornography.

He watched as his teenage victim was abused by Stingemore in the care home shower.

Sentencing him, Judge Alistair McCreath recognised there was no evidence to suggest the priest himself molested the child, but he had encouraged it.

He said: “He has a voyeuristic interest in children, either in seeing them unclothed, or in seeing them sexually abused by others.”

The judge added the priest had abused the position of trust that he was in, preying on the youngster at the care home where he should have been safe.

He acknowledged that McSweeney had been a “good and conscientious priest in almost all aspects of his calling”.

McSweeney was cleared of three indecent assaults on two other boys at the care home and taking a pornographic photo of one of these boys.

In 2012, McSweeney had been appointed as a director at Norwich’s Notre Dame High School, but resigned following his arrest in 2013.

Following McSweeney’s conviction, headteacher Brian Conway sent a letter to parents, students, staff and governors, saying the school was “saddened and shocked by the crimes”.

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