The Catholic Church indicated its willingess to get involved more deeply in work in prisons, as part of the opportunity presented by the Conservatives' 'Big Society' project.
Delivering a lecture on why criminal justice matters to the Church, and how Christian communities can respond in a practical way to the questions of crime, justice and rehabilitation, Archbishop Vincent Nichols said: "We do not need to wait to make progress. The intention behind the Big Society, as I understand it, is that people don’t always have to turn to central Government for answers. There are some things that should not be difficult to resolve if common sense is applied."
The Archbishop was speaking from the chapel of Brixton prison, at a pact organised event in memory of Sir Harold Hood, a prominent Catholic journalist and former Vice President of the charity, who died in 2005.
The lecture drew upon the central messages on imprisonment and rehabilitation outlined in the Catholic Bishops Conference publication: 'A Place of Redemption', which was launched in the same chapel in 2004.
Speaking to an invited audience of voluntary and statutory sector representatives from the Criminal Justice Sector, Archbishop Nichols, spoke about the commitment of the Church to helping those who find themselves in prison, irrespective of the offence they may have committed.
“I would like to offer a Christian perspective, not as an ‘answer’ but as a contribution to the process of how society balances punishment, protection of the public and rehabilitation. As the Holy Father said in Westminster Hall, political choices need an ethical foundation.
“For the Church, the focus must be on the person. We cannot define someone and reduce them simply to one aspect of their lives – a crime committed. It is the whole person that matters.”
Archbishop Nichols also praised the work of PACT - the Prison Advice & Care Trust - and in particular the Basic Caring Communities (BaCC) which mobilises groups of volunteers, motivated by their faith, to provide support to ex-prisoners.
“I am delighted that pact has responded to the challenge by launching BaCC. This is just one example of how Catholic Social Teaching with its focus on the Common Good produces practical direct action, motivated by the faith that drives us in all we do” he said.
Andy Keen-Downs, Director of PACT, warmly welcomed the Archbishop’s renewed commitment on behalf of the Catholic Church in England and Wales to the charity’s work with ex-prisoners and with prisoners, children and families.
He said: “In his first address as President of PACT, the Archbishop has given both the Catholic community and wider society a challenge to re-examine our attitudes and actions towards prisoners and their families.”
However, the Archbishop also suggested that those involved with the Church should have less scrutiny and accountability when it came to issues of prison access.
"In some prisons I hear that it is becoming almost impossible to get Catholic volunteers in the Chaplaincy" he said. "Not because no one is coming forward, but because it can take months and months to provide security clearance. Similarly it can take months even for a local parish priest to be cleared to come into prison to say Mass as a sessional chaplain.
"I do not belittle security for a moment, but something clearly seems out of balance here, and it is prisoners that are suffering as a result. Perhaps we need to be a little more discriminating in what level of scrutiny is warranted for people of different ages and in different circumstances."