THE Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt Rt Revd Peter Price, has explained how a man about whom concerns were raised more than 20 years ago was able to go on sexually abusing boys as a vicar in the diocese.
The priest, the Revd David Smith, who is 52, was sent to prison after the second child-abuse court conviction involving a Church of England employee or office-holder in the past fortnight.
The Bishop, the Rt Revd Peter Price, in a statement, said: “We have apologised sincerely to Smith’s victims, their families, the parish, and all involved in this case.”
Mr Smith moved to the diocese in 1993. The Bishop said that the Church’s practices and policies were now as stringent as possible, and were kept constantly under review.
During the two-week trial, Bristol Crown Court heard that the abuse had begun in the 1970s at the Roman Catholic monastic boarding school at Douai Abbey in Berkshire. As assistant housemaster there for a year, Mr Smith abused three boys.
But concerns were not raised until 1983, when he was an assistant curate at Wotton-under-Edge, in Gloucestershire, and formed a relationship with a 12-year-old boy. The boy’s parents complained, but the court heard that the matter was later dropped on a technicality — although the boy’s mother said that she had been led to believe that the Church would deal with the problem. Mr Smith abused three more boys after becoming Vicar of St John the Evangelist, in Clevedon.
In 2001, a victim from Douai Abbey saw Mr Smith speaking on television about the death of his cousin in the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. The victim contacted the late Jim Thompson, Bishop of Bath & Wells at that time, who told him that the problem had effectively been dealt with.
Mr Smith was brought to trial after another victim told a churchgoer what had happened, and police contacted others through church records and found DNA on Mr Smith’s sofa. He had always said that the accusations were a “figment of someone’s imagination”.
On Thursday of last week, the jury at Bristol Crown Court found Mr Smith guilty of sexually abusing six boys. He was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison.
In his statement on Saturday, Bishop Price explained the current child-protection guidelines followed in the diocese, and defended Bishop Thompson’s actions.
After the trial, Bishop Price said, the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS) had asked whether the diocese had been aware of Mr Smith’s record when he was appointed to Clevedon in 1993, and why it allowed him to continue working in 2001.
Bishop Price said: “When Smith came to us from Gloucester diocese there was nothing on his file to indicate there were any concerns about him. No complaint about sex abuse had been made to police during his time there.”
Bishop Price said that the 2001 complaint dated from the 1976-77 period before Mr Smith was ordained. “That man met Bishop Jim, but made no formal complaint to the police and did not press charges. Bishop Jim informed the police of the allegation. It is a fundamental principle of British law that a man is innocent until proven guilty.”
Bishop Price said that Mr Smith had agreed a protocol not to be alone with children, and his case had been regularly reviewed. “We did everything we could at the time, and, without a formal complaint to police, there were no grounds to remove him from his post.”
The Bishop said that Mr Smith was suspended in 2005 after a formal complaint to the police.
The CCPAS said on Friday that fundamental questions had been raised about continued access to children by church leaders about whom serious concerns had been raised. In a statement, it referred to this case and that of the Hampshire choirmaster Peter Halliday, who was jailed for 30 months for sexually abusing boys (News, 4 May).
A spokesman for the Church of England said this week: “Today, when new bishops come into post, they review past and current cases on file with their child-protection advisers. If they identify a risk to children, they will take action.”