“The extent of the Church of England’s failure to identify, expose and punish child abusers within its ranks is set to be laid bare by a major inquiry, which heard of a “widespread culture of denial” yesterday.
Abusers were in some cases able to work unchallenged in the church for decades and evidence from witnesses will point to a catalogue of potential failures, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) was told.
The three-week inquiry, which opened yesterday, heard that there have been 48 claims for compensation within just one of the church’s 42 dioceses. It also heard details of 15 cases, dating from the 1950s to more recent incidents, of priests and other church staff and volunteers who abused their positions of trustto commit serious sexual offences against children.
In many cases priests were allowed to continue officiating despite previous allegations, arrests and even convictions over their behaviour towards young people. The inquiry will focus on the Diocese of Chichester, held up as a case study for the national church.
In some cases, those working in parishes have resigned rather than undergo vetting checks because they consider it to be a “slur on their character”, the inquiry heard.
The inquiry opened on the same day that police confirmed they were looking into whether to open any criminal investigations following a report published by Dame Moira Gibb last year. It accused the church of “colluding” with Bishop Peter Ball, the former Bishop of Gloucester and Lewes, to cover up his abuses and criticised Lord Carey of Clifton, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, for failing to pass six letters raising concerns about Ball’s behaviour to police.
Ball was convicted in October 2015 of offences against 18 young men. Lord Carey has since apologised for giving “too little credence” to those who complained. His representatives did not comment yesterday.
Fiona Scolding, QC, the lead counsel to the IICSA, identified at least 18 areas where the church may have failed in its response to abuse allegations.
These included a tendency to blame children for sexual abuse, a culture of “excessive deference” towards authority figures, and a propensity to “put [the church’s] own reputation as an institution above the need to safeguard children”.
There has also been an “excessive emphasis” upon forgiving abusers instead of reporting them to police.
In many cases, the church lacked “urgency, compassion, transparency and professionalism” in its response to abuse, while its complex and “Byzantine” structure has hindered improvements.
Nigel Giffin, QC, representing the Archbishops’ Council, said: “It is painful but necessary to acknowledge that the church has indeed, in important respects, failed in the love and protection it should have given to children, and to offer an apology.”
He said there had been “a real step-change and acceleration of reform in relation to safeguarding” in the church and the inquiry heard that spending on child protection in the church had increased from £1.6 million in 2011 to £5.1 million in 2017.
Lawyers representing abuse survivors cast doubt on the efficacy of these reforms and called for “radical” changes, including an independent body to oversee safeguarding policy and an obligation to report all abuse concerns to statutory authorities.
“We say that this appalling abuse scandal has deep roots in the culture and structure of the Church of England,” said Richard Scorer, a lawyer. “In reality, that culture and structure are not going to change, or at least not sufficiently, for [the inquiry] to have confidence that the same scandals will not be repeated in the future.”
He added: “It must be clear now that if you want to abuse children, there is no more effective way of terrifying and silencing your victims than to claim to have God on your side.”
David Greenwood, who is also representing victims, said there was “strong suspicion of an organised conspiracy between clergy and bishops in the Diocese of Chichester to enable children to be abused”.
According to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s witness statement, an extract of which was read to the inquiry yesterday, the Most Rev Justin Welby will tell the panel: “The failures we have seen are deeply shaming and I personally find them a cause of horror and sadness. That children have been abused within the communities of the church is indeed shameful.””