Why is Cardinal Vincent Nichols still Archbishop of Westminster? He is now approaching his 78th birthday, nearly three years after offering his resignation to Pope Francis in accordance with the Catholic Church’s rules that bishops must do so on their 75th birthday, yet there is no sign of a successor being appointed.
While it is normal for bishops to remain on for some time after their 75th birthday while a successor is being chosen, the apparent lack of urgency in finding a new prelate to head the most senior diocese in England and Wales is hard to understand, along with the lack of much media interest in the issue.
Cardinal Nichols has had a mixed career. To his credit, he has ably represented the Catholic population at many national events, most notably at services following the death of Queen Elizabeth II last year and he was the first Catholic prelate in centuries to take part in a coronation, offering prayers with other church leaders when King Charles was crowned.
However, his record in dealing with child sexual abuse is another matter. In 2020, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse said of the Crosby native: “There was no acknowledgement of any personal responsibility.”
He was described as lacking compassion towards victims and seeing his priority as protecting the Church’s reputation.
He did not help his own case by saying of paedophile priests who admit their crimes that it “takes courage” and emphasising that they had also done good (comments made in May 2009 in response to the publication of the Ryan Report on sexual abuse by clergy in the Dublin archdiocese).
It may be that the delay in finding a replacement may be down to a lack of an obvious successor.
Archbishop John Wilson of Southwark has been tipped by some journalists; at 55, he is young enough to be there for the long haul, in contrast to, for example, Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool or Bishop John Arnold of Salford.
However, Bishop Philip Egan (67) of Portsmouth can’t be ruled out as a caretaker figure. He is a frequent contributor to Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4. The Altrincham native is seen as on the more conservative wing of the Church – he has, for example, said that MPs who voted for the introduction of same-sex marriage should not receive Communion.
Moreover, there has been controversy in his diocese about the management of a fund for priests’ retirements, with complaints made to the Charity Commissioners about the extent of the bishop’s direct control over it.
Archbishop Mark O’Toole, at 60, is almost the perfect age to take over the post. Previously, Archbishop O’Toole has spoken of his experience of growing up in London, the son of Irish-speaking parents who had migrated to Britain in the 1950s. He is currently Archbishop of Cardiff and Minevia.
Bishop Paul McAleenan, the Belfast-born prelate who is lead Bishop for Migrants and Refugees in England and Wales is also seen as a possible candidate. In London, however, Catholics make up 35 per cent of the city’s Christians, outnumbering Anglicans, and this reflects the fact that it is very much an immigrant church, whose flock consists of people from all over the world. This could certainly swing the pendulum towards the Belfast man.
This is a factor, but not the only one, in the fact that Catholic numbers seem to be holding their own, in contrast to Anglican decline in the country where it began.
While Catholicism is stronger in London than in most other parts of England (with the notable exception of Liverpool), it is not inconceivable that, while Britain remains a predominantly secular country, Catholicism may well become the largest Christian denomination.
In that context, having a sound leader in Westminster is something of prime importance for all the country’s Catholics, not just those in that diocese.
However, a key issue which will face the new primate is tackling the issue of child sexual abuse and being seen to listen to victims. In that regard, he could take a leaf out of the book of former Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who has been praised for his empathy by many survivors.
He could also learn from the new Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, Stephen Wright, who ensured that a female survivor of clerical sexual abuse addressed the congregation at his episcopal ordination. Cardinal Nichols seemed visibly uncomfortable during this address.