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Church of England: A Place Where Abusers Could Hide

“The culture of the Church of England facilitated it becoming a place where abusers could hide,” concluded a damning 154-page report released October 6 by the United Kingdom’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA).

The report recommended that diocesan bishops should no longer have “operational responsibility” for investigations into abuse allegations.

Cultural factors including deference to clerical authority, taboos surrounding the discussion of sexuality, and an instinct for institutional protection, the report said, created “barriers to disclosure that many victims could not overcome.”

“Faith organizations such as the Anglican Church are marked out by their explicit moral purpose, in teaching right from wrong. In the context of child sexual abuse, the Church’s neglect of the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of children and young people in favor of protecting its reputation was in conflict with its mission of love and care for the innocent and the vulnerable.”

The report noted with approval significant steps taken by the Church of England and the Church in Wales to improve recordkeeping and to fund a safeguarding system in recent years, but recommended a series of additional steps, including making the system independent of the jurisdiction of diocesan bishops and adequately funding the needs of survivors and victims of abuse.

“Culture change is assisted by senior church leaders now saying the right things, but lasting change will require more than platitudes,” the report stated. “It will need continuous reinforcement of the abhorrent nature of child sexual abuse and the importance of safeguarding in all of the church’s settings.”

The IICSA began its investigation of the Church of England and the much smaller Church in Wales in 2016, as part of a wider review of 11 institutions responsible for the care of children, including the Roman Catholic Church, several local councils, and residential schools, as well as allegations of child abuse linked to Parliament. The process was set up in response to widespread public outrage in 2012 when reports surfaced that media personality Jimmy Saville had abused hundreds of children during his life.

The report into the two Anglican church, which was based on a series of public hearing and the review of tens of thousands of documents and witness statements, is the first in the series to be made public. It was able to identity 390 convicted offenders who had held positions of leadership within the Church of England from the 1940s until the present. In 2018, it said, there were 2,504 safeguarding concerns reported to dioceses of the Church of England about children and vulnerable adults. Of these, 449 were about recent child sexual abuse, and many involved the downloading and possession of indecent images of children.

Several illustrative “pen portraits” show diocesan bishops and other senior leaders protecting and excusing abusive behavior. Former Bishop of Chester, Dr. Peter Forster, for example, told an IICSA panel in July 2019 that the Rev. Ian Hughes, a priest of his diocese who was convicted in 2014 of downloading 8,000 indecent images of children, had been “misled into viewing child pornography,” because “pornography is so ubiquitously available and viewed.”

Forster also failed to act, failing even to make a written record, when a complainant disclosed his abuse by a former Bishop of Chester, Victor Whitsey, in January 2016. Forster told the panel that it “didn’t register at the time” because Whitsey “did have a reputation for odd behavior, in general.” By July 2019, 19 individuals had reported to the IISCA that they were sexually abused by Whitsey as children.

Another anonymized report traces abuse by “a priest and a prominent member of the Church of England.” The anonymous reporter said that when, as a 16-year old in the 1970’s, he visited the priest in his home, he was ordered by him to strip naked and to “fight” him. The priest then pinned him down on a bed and tried to rape him. The reporter said that when he was 18, he disclosed the abuse to a different priest in confession. The second priest, who later became a bishop, asked for details of the assault, and after the confession began to kiss the young man passionately. This led to a romantic and physical relationship that lasted for around a year.

The victim disclosed his abuse to several senior priests and bishops of the Church of England from the 1980s onward, but none of them offered any advice as to what he should do. Some treated his disclosure as part of the sacrament of confession and so viewed it as confidential. One bishop, to whom he disclosed in 1987, promised to make discreet inquiries but nothing happened. The victim said he had written 17 letters to Lambeth Palace about his concerns. “The only response he received was a letter from the correspondence secretary, which stated that the archbishop would “be sure to hold him in his prayers when he hears that you have written again,’” the report noted.

The report makes eight recommendations, half of which apply to both churches. These include coordinating safeguarding at the national church level, an established system for the sharing of personnel files of clerics who move between the two churches, and the provision of financial support to victims and survivors of abuse. The Church of England’s Archbishop’s Council voted on September 26 to create a fund for providing payments to survivors and victims of church based sexual abuse.

Diocesan safeguarding officials (DSOs) “need sufficient authority to take action, without the approval of the diocesan bishop, in respect of key safeguarding tasks,” the report said. “DSOs – not clergy – are best placed to decide which cases to refer to the police or social services, and what action should be taken by the Church to keep children safe. Diocesan bishops have an important role to play, in particular to help congregations and clergy to understand safeguarding and to make it a priority, ‘intrinsic to the beliefs’ of the Church of England, but they should not hold operational responsibility for safeguarding.”

It also recommends that the Church of England’s Clergy Discipline Measure should be revised or replaced with a new system that removes the current 12-month statute of limitations for complaints about safeguarding matters and imposes a “mandatory code of practice” for the handling of safeguarding issues.

The Church in Wales was commended for the independence of its safeguarding body, though improvements to record-keeping and the establishment of more robust safeguarding policies were recommended.

It had been expected that this would be the final report of the investigations into the two Anglican churches, but the IICSA said that more work needs to be done on the relationship of safeguarding to the seal of the confessional and to mandatory reporting requirements, as well as the way in which the disclosure and disciplinary requirements apply to church volunteers and non-parochial religious organizations.

The current report stated that there is significant disagreement within the Church of England about the inviolability of the seal of the confessional, and noted that a churchwide commission charged with making recommendations about the seal’s relationship to disclosures of abuse was unable to reach consensus. The IICSA will hold three more hearings on these topics between now and the end of 2020, and a final report is expected in the spring of 2022.

In a statement released on October 6, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said, ““The report published today is a stark and shocking reminder of how so many times we have failed — and continue to fail — survivors. Apologies are vital, but they are not enough. We have to listen. We have to learn. And we have to act.”

Welby thanked abuse survivors for their courage in coming forward and offered “my sincere apologies to those to have been abused, and to their families, friends, and colleagues.” He pledged that the report’s recommendations would be given full consideration, saying, “IICSA has shone a light on the past and present to help us better inform our future safeguarding work. They are owed our thanks, which we give wholeheartedly. I pray this report and its recommendations will result in the changes needed to make our Church a safer place for all now and for future generations.”

A statement from the Church in Wales also welcomed the report and promised to take its recommendations seriously. “We know that we have failed in the past in a number of areas, and we apologize unreservedly to those who have been affected as a result,” it added. “We continue to hold all survivors of abuse in our prayers and are ready to support anyone who comes forward with any concern.”


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