Britain’s most senior Catholic cleric has apologised for withholding evidence of child sex abuse allegations made against JRR Tolkien’s son during his priesthood.

Father John Tolkien who died in 2003 had been accused of sexually abusing an 11-year-old twice in the mid-1950s.

On Thursday, the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols told an inquiry into child sexual abuse that he had been focused on settling legal action against the church quickly when he chose not to disclose a key document to a complainant in 2002.

The Telegraph reports: The note showed that accusations against Father John Tolkien had been made to the church in 1968 – the only evidence of a contemporaneous complaint made about his behaviour.

But despite lawyers telling Cardinal Nichols – then Archbishop of Birmingham – that the findings supported already credible claims by Birmingham man Christopher Carrie, a briefing paper recorded him saying: “The Archdiocese would prefer not to disclose this document even if it means settling the action.”

On Thursday, the clergyman expressed remorse about his actions as he appeared before the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which is investigating child protection failings within the Catholic church.

He told the hearing: “In the context of the claim and the discussions with the solicitors, my priority was to get that settled and when that was settled I simply didn’t give the matter any further thought, for which I apologise.

“Looking back, I wish solicitors had pointed that out to me; they might have said…maybe there is a duty for you to let the claimant know what you have said.”

Cardinal Nichols, who is currently the Archbishop of Westminster, fended off suggestions the information was suppressed as part of a “cover up” to protect the church’s reputation.

Mr Carrie had taken civil action against the Archdiocese of Birmingham over abuse allegedly suffered at the hands of Father Tolkien, the son of the author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

The priest, who died in 2003 aged 85, had been accused of twice sexually abusing the 11-year-old Mr Carrie in the mid-1950s, dressing up his actions as a “blessing”. Prosecutors decided not to press criminal charges against him in February 2002 due to his ailing health.

Lawyers for the Archdiocese of Birmingham identified at least two other alleged victims and determined that Mr Carrie’s claims were consistent and likely to succeed in court.

They then uncovered a record from 1968 of a complaint made to the Archdiocese about Father Tolkien – who was sent for treatment as a result.

Asked be inquiry counsel Jacqueline Carey why he had failed to disclose the note, Cardinal Nichols said:  “My main purpose, I must admit, was to try and avoid civil action in court.”

The archbishop also expressed regret that more decisive action was not taken in 1968, after another accuser came forward with abuse allegations from 1970.

On the spectre of child abuse hanging over the church, he said: “The presence in the church of the terrible evil…it is something which will mark my priesthood always and it is something that – the more I hear, the more I reflect on it – is a cause of great sorrow and shame for me and indeed I know for the Catholic Church.”