Church put ‘excessive emphasis’ on forgiving predators, abuse inquiry told
Young victims ‘were often made to feel responsible’
Sexual abuse thrived in the Anglican Church due to clerical naivety about exploitation risks and an “excessive emphasis” on forgiving predators, an inquiry has heard.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse was told that young victims were often made to feel responsible for their experiences when they reported concerns to church staff.
Public hearings are taking place this week examining how the Church of England handled allegations of sexual misconduct stretching back to the 1950s, first focusing on the Diocese of Chichester.
Fiona Scolding QC, the lead lawyer for the Anglican strand of the inquiry, set out the potential problems within the church that will be highlighted by witnesses and documents during a fortnight of hearings.
They included the church prioritising reputational concerns over the safety of children when allegations against the clergy came to light.
Abuse victims from the Diocese of Chichester in the 1950s and 1960s will give evidence, as well as those who were preyed upon in the 1990s during a scandal which “engulfed the diocese in the first decade of the 21st century”, she said.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby will be among those appearing before the probe on behalf of the church.
Ms Scolding said in her opening statement: “The church is the established church of England – the national church.
“It is a very important and powerful institution within our society.
“It provides spiritual sustenance for many and is seen as a leader in terms of not just religious questions, but related questions of social justice and ethics.
“Its management of allegations of child sexual abuse reflect not just society’s difficulties in coming to terms with it, but also how even institutions dedicated to good can both harbour individuals who are malign but also be institutionally incapable of effective responses to concerns about the sexual abuse of children.”
Problems uncovered by the inquiry also included “a culture of excessive deference to those at the top of the hierarchy and an unwillingness to challenge them”, she said.
Evidence suggested that clerical figures suffered from an “inability” to spot grooming, believe holy men were capable of harming young people or understand those abused as children could suffer long-lasting damage.
Ms Scolding added there was “an excessive emphasis upon forgiveness, which allowed individuals to go without justice and for individuals who complained of abuse feeling isolated if they did not ‘forgive’ their abuser”.
The Church of England for years lacked meaningful child protection measures, was beset by a “culture of amateurism” and was sluggish in responding to criticism, she told the inquiry.
Ms Scolding said the church was “an institution which, unsure of itself and its role within the late twentieth century, was frightened of criticism from outside, and which preferred to put its own reputation as an institution above the need to safeguard children”.
Church figures including former Bishop of Lewes Peter Ball have been convicted of abusing numerous children within the Diocese of Chichester.
Earlier, the Archbishop of Canterbury was criticised by the head of the inquiry for breaching confidentiality surrounding his involvement in the probe.
He confirmed to a journalist that he intended to give evidence to the inquiry.
At the start of Monday’s hearing, chairwoman Professor Alexis Jay said: “I am aware that during a press conference at Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury recently confirmed to a journalist that he would be giving evidence at this hearing and also the date of his appearance … the church has apologised for this breach of confidentiality.
“Whilst the panel is grateful for this apology, it is most disappointing that the confidential matters were shared by the archbishop, in breach of the undertaking.”
Clergy figures accused of sexual offences against children were repeatedly allowed to keep close ties to the church, the inquiry heard.
Several of those arrested continued playing an active part in religious life, including Reverend Robert Coles, who was arrested in 1997 but performed more than 100 services at a parish in East Sussex between 1998 and 2002.
No-one at the parish knew of his past, it was heard, and he is alleged to have sexually groomed a child between 2007 and 2008.
The Bishop of Lewes at the time, Wallace Benn, had accompanied Coles to the police station when he was arrested, Ms Scolding said, adding: “It is accepted that the senior clergy, including the Archdeacon of Lewes, the Bishop of Lewes and the Bishop of Chichester, as well as the diocesan safeguarding advisor knew of this arrest.”
Coles had even met with church figures including Bishop Benn before his arrest and retirement in 1997 and admitted to sexual activity with children, described as “buggery” or “inappropriate fondling”.
He was not placed on any list for clergy that have acted in an unfit manner and was permitted to continue at his ministry until retirement.
In 2012, Coles pleaded guilty to charges of indecent assault and buggery against three boys aged between 10 and 16 in the late 1970s and early 1980s and was sentenced in February 2013 to 8 years imprisonment.