Church of England 'put its reputation ahead of protecting children'

7 October 2020, 06:32 | Updated: 7 October 2020, 08:29

A report found the Church of England spent decades failing to protect children
A report found the Church of England spent decades failing to protect children. Picture: PA

By Asher McShane

The Church of England spent decades failing to protect children and young people from sexual predators, instead protecting its own reputation, a damning report has found.

The Church was accused of being "in direct conflict" with its moral purpose of providing "care and love for the innocent and the vulnerable" by failing to take abuse allegations seriously, neglecting the "physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing" of the young, and creating a culture where abusers were able to "hide".

Church of England Rev Sally Hitchiner was asked by Nick Ferrari at breakfast on LBC: “Why do you think paedophiles are so attracted to the church?”

She said: “I think it’s historically been one of the areas where you can have a position in society that is above reproach and I’m thankful to say that that is coming to an end.

“People see vicars and priests as fallible human beings, they rightly treat us with the same questions and needing to earn respect as everyone else does but historically… vicars have had a wrong position in society.

“There isn’t much scrutiny about what we do day to day.” She said she might not meet with her “line manager” the bishop more than once a year.

She said historically people have treated priests "as if they are god" rather than being like everyone else.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse's (IICSA) report into the Anglican Church also found examples of clergymen being ordained despite a history of child sexual offences.

Bishop of Huddersfield Jonathan Gibbs, the Church of England's lead safeguarding bishop, and Melissa Caslake, the Church's national director of safeguarding, said: "The report makes shocking reading and, while apologies will never take away the effects of abuse on victims and survivors, we today want to express our shame about the events that have made those apologies necessary.

"The whole Church must learn lessons from this inquiry."

The inquiry heard that, from the 1940s to 2018, 390 people who were either members of the clergy or in positions of trust associated with the Church had been convicted of sexual offences against children.

The report found that, in many of those cases, the Church of England failed to take the abuse seriously, and alleged perpetrators were "given more support than victims, who often faced barriers to reporting (abuse) they simply couldn't overcome".

It cited the case of the late Robert Waddington, who was Dean of Manchester Cathedral between 1984 and 1993, and died of cancer in 2007 amid a flurry of abuse allegations dating back more than half a century.

The inquiry heard that a "serious allegation" was made to the then-Archbishop of York David (now Lord) Hope in 1999 about Waddington, but the Archbishop said there was "simply no possibility" of the suspect acting in this way.

The Archbishop was said to have not sought further information, instead meeting with Waddington, who continued to officiate in the Diocese of York.

In December 2004, Archbishop Hope wrote to Waddington stating that he was "very pleased to note the matter is now closed", the inquiry heard.

The report also refers to the case of Reverend Ian Hughes, from Merseyside, who was convicted in 2014 for downloading 8,000 indecent images of children.

Bishop of Chester Peter Forster, who retired last year, suggested to the inquiry that Hughes had been "misled into viewing child pornography" on the basis that pornography is "so ubiquitously available and viewed".

Bishop Forster minimised the seriousness of Hughes' offending, the inquiry found, despite more than 800 of the images being graded at the most serious level of abuse.

The report said the Church of England also "struggled to develop a model for effective safeguarding within its organisational structure".

Richard Scorer, lead lawyer for Slater and Gordon, who represented 20 survivors of abuse within the Church of England at the inquiry, said: "This is a very damning report.

"It confirms that, despite decades of scandal, and endless promises, the Church of England continues to fail victims and survivors. Bishops have too much power and too little accountability."

The report acknowledged that the Church had made "considerable improvements to practices and procedures" in recent years, but identified that it needed to make further changes to existing measures, including a Church-wide policy on the funding and provision of support to victims and survivors of child sexual abuse concerning clergy.

The report also identified that the Church in Wales had its own issues, with safeguarding officers "spread too thinly".

In addition, it had not had its own safeguarding measures independently audited, and there had been very little support for victims and survivors of child sexual abuse, such as counselling and therapy.

In an open letter ahead of the report publication, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York apologised to survivors of abuse, saying they were "truly sorry for the shameful way the Church has acted" against those who have suffered.

Inquiry chairwoman Professor Alexis Jay said: "Over many decades, the Church of England failed to protect children and young people from sexual abusers, instead facilitating a culture where perpetrators could hide and victims faced barriers to disclosure that many could not overcome."

The inquiry report follows a previous, linked, strand focusing specifically on shamed bishop Peter Ball, the former Bishop of Lewes and of Gloucester, who was jailed in 2015 for sexually abusing 18 young men over three decades.

The report last year found that the Church of England "put its own reputation above the needs of victims" and described what could be seen as attempts by the Prince of Wales to support Ball as "misguided".

The IICSA was set up in 2015 and has investigated the actions of celebrities, politicians, police, religious groups and schools, among others.

The remaining three avenues of the inquiry are due to hear evidence later this year, before a final report of overarching findings from all 15 sections of the investigation is laid before Parliament in 2022.