Skip to main content

Religious Orders and the Criminal Records Bureau

  • Helen Costigane (a1)

Recent scandals in the churches relating to the abuse of children and vulnerable adults have led to a desire to protect those to whom the churches minister by putting in place safeguards which screen out those not suitable to work in this capacity. For the Roman Catholic Church, the implementation of the Nolan Report has been a key part of this process, together with the setting up of the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults(COPCA). The Conference of Religious (the representative body of priests, sisters and brothers who belong to religious orders) has also been involve in ongoing dialogue with diocesan bishops about how the recommendations of the Nolan Report might best be implemented At the same time, concerns have been raised about whether some of the measures being implemented compromise important principles of privacy and confidentiality. This discussion looks at this from the particular viewpoint of a nun1 who does not work with children or vulnerable adults, and explores whether she is required to undergo checks by the Criminal Records Bureau simply by virtue of being a nun.

Hide All

1 Though A Programnme for Action (2001) (hereafter referred to as ‘the Nolan Report’) makes use of the term ‘order’, communities of consecrated men and women are referred to in the Code of Canon Law (1983) as ‘institutes’. The terms are used interchangeably in this discussion.

2 A note on terminology: in Roman Catholic canon law, the term ‘nun’ is reserved to those ‘who are wholly devoted to the contemplative life’ and who observe papal enclosure (cf Canon 667 §3), while the term ‘religious’ is used in the Code in relation to those who belong to apostolic institutes (cf Canons 662–665). In common parlance, however, both of these groups tend to be subsumed under the term ‘nun’. This, therefore, is the shorthand term used in this discussion.

3 Curti, E, ‘Does Nolan go too far?’, The Tablet, (25 May 2002), 11–13, 13.

4 Blunkett, David, on CRB website,

5 There are basic, standard and enhanced disclosures, where ‘enhanced disclosures are for posts involving a far greater degree of contact with children or vulnerable adults’. See the CRB website.

6 See the CRB website, as above.

7 Canon 220: ‘Nemini licet bonam famam, qua quis gaudet, illegitime laedere, nec ius cuiusque personae ad propriam intimitatem tuendam violare’.

8 Childress, J, ‘Privacy’, in A New Dictionary of Christian Ethics (London, SCM, 1993), p 498. See also the Canons relating to an individual's disclosure of something about themselves to another: Canon 240 §1, and Canon 630§§1 and 5.

9 See Canon 209, 223; rights are exercised within the Church as communio, and individuals may act to protect the common good, even if it means harming someone's reputation.

10 See Sheehy, G et al. , The Canon Law: Letter and Spirit, (London, Geoffrey Chapman, 1996), p 124. This mentions a number of Canons in this regard: Canon 483§2, Canon 1352§2, Canon 1361§3, Canon 1390§2, Canon 1455§1, and Canon 1598§1.

11 Canon 223.

12 Canon 1717 §2: ‘Care is to be taken that this investigation does not call into question anyone's good name’; Canon 1390 §2: ‘A person who calumniously denounces an offence to an ecclesiastical Superior, or otherwise injures the good name of another, can be punished with a just penalty, not excluding a censure’.

13 Caparros, E and Aubé, H (eds) Code of Canon Law Annotated (Wilson & Lafleur, Montreal, 2004), p 177.

14 Cf the Nolan Report, Recommendations 28 (on supervision); 29 (on obtaining references); 30 (non-appointment); 32 (probationary period); 39 (regarding checks on those already working with children); 41 (on candidates from other countries); 43 (on new posts outside the diocese).

15 Cf Recommendation 28, which speaks of the need for supervision as a means of protecting children for all posts (paid or voluntary). See also Recommendation 29 on the need to obtain references for any potential post-holder.

16 Cf Recommendation 38: ‘dioceses and religious orders should themselves maintain checks and references on prospective staff and volunteers for the diocese or order, and such records should be consulted by others dioceses and orders as necessary’.

17 Cf Recommendation 39: paid workers and volunteers who are already in posts working with children should now be CRB checked.

18 Recommendation 34.

19 Recommendation 37. This is not of itself contentious as canon law requires that careful enquiry is to be made of candidates for priesthood and religious life as regards their suitability. See Canon 241 §1, and Canon 642, 1029, 1051. There is also a body of literature on this including the following in the journal Human Development: see eg Costello, T, ‘Psychological Evaluation of Vocations’ 6/4 (1985) 37–41; J Greer, ‘Vocational Assessment’ 20/2 (1999) 28–35; GD Coleman and RL Freed, ‘Assessing Seminary Candidates’ 21/2 (1999) 14–20.

20 COPCA Annual Report 2003, p 18.

21 Among these are listed medicine, nursing, dentistry, accountancy and the law.

22 Canon 597 §1: ‘Every Catholic with a right intention and the qualities required by universal law and the institute's own law, and who is without impediment, may be admitted to an institute of consecrated life’. The qualities required by universal law are listed in Canons 641–645, and include requirements relating to age, health, disposition and maturity, as well as a consideration of other ties (such as a marriage bond, being bound to some other institute, or having unmet debts). Canon 645 also allows for an institute's own laws demanding further proof as to suitability (§3), or the superior to seek other information if it seems necessary (§4). Given the fledgling nature of COPCA and the recency of developments in Child Protection, it is unlikely that any CRB provisions have been written into an institute's positive law. However, it is Canon 645 §4 which is of particular interest: ‘Superiors can seek other information, even under secrecy, if this seems necessary to them’. This does not entitle a superior to seek secret information, but rather relates to the method of gathering the information, that is, ‘without making known the fact or the circumstances of the enquiry’. See Beal, JP, Coriden, J, Green, TJ (eds), New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (Paulist Press, New York, 2000) p 812. This means that ‘the candidate is unaware that the superior is seeking the information’ Hite, J, ‘Admission of Candidates and Formation of Members: Canons 641–661’, in Hite, J, Holland, S, Ward, D (eds) A Handbook on Canons 573–746 (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn 1985), pp 115168, p 131.However, the CRB website makes it clear that Disclosure is a ‘fully consensual process, with the applicant agreeing to an applying for the check’ http://www/ This being the case, it is not possible to obtain further information from the CRB ‘under secrecy’, therefore the practice as proposed by COPCA is not strictly in line with this part of the canon. Further, Hite believes that in such cases where further information is sought, ‘the superior should be motivated by a sufficient cause’ (p 131), which suggests that such information is not looked for as a matter of course, in contradiction to the COPCA requirement which advocates it for all new applicants to priesthood and religious life.

23 Volunteering organisations where regular duties include working with, caring for, supervising, training, or being in sole charge of children or vulnerable adults. The key term here is ‘regular’.

24 See Nolan Report, Annex F.

25 Canon 207 §2.

26 Canon 573 §2.

27 Canon 573 §1.

28 O'Hara, E, ‘Norms Common to All Institutes of Consecrated Life: Canons 573–606’ in Hite, J, Holland, S, Ward, D (eds) A Handbook on Canons 573–746 (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn 1985), pp 3158, 33.

29 Sweeney, BJ, The Patrimony of an Institute in the Code of Canon Law: A Study of Canon 578, (unpublished dissertation, Pontificia Studiorum Universitas A S. Thoma Aq, in Urbe, Roma, 1995).

30 See Komonchak, JA, ‘Subsidiarity in the Church: The State of the Question’ (1988) 48 The Jurist 298349.

31 Green, TJ, ‘Subsidiarity during the Code Revision Process: Some Initial Reflections’ (1988) 48 The Jurist, 48, 771799, 797.

32 Sweeney, p 91.

33 Cf Canons 383, 391.

34 Canon 586.

35 Canon 681 §1 and Canon 683 §1.

36 Canon 678. See also Canon 756 §2.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Ecclesiastical Law Journal
  • ISSN: 0956-618X
  • EISSN: 1751-8539
  • URL: /core/journals/ecclesiastical-law-journal
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed