Complaints against Bishop Wallace Benn are dismissed

14 May 2013

BBC

ALL complaints under the Clergy Discipline Measure against a former Bishop of Lewes, the Rt Revd Wallace Benn, have been dismissed, it was announced on Tuesday.

In a statement, Bishop Benn denounced the "misconceived and unjustified" efforts by the safeguarding advisory group of the diocese of Chichester to bring complaints against him. He had been the victim of a "one-sided and unjust process of trial by media . . . orchestrated by unknown people with, it seems, no interest in the truth or the ministry of the Church".

In November 2011, the diocese of Chichester confirmed that the diocesan independent safeguarding advisory group had made a complaint to the Archbishop of Canterbury concerning Bishop Benn ( News, 17 November, 2011). When Bishop Benn retired in 2012, the charges were unresolved ( News, 26 October).

The complaints from the safeguarding advisory group related to the handling of the case of Robert Coles, a former parish priest who in February was sentenced to eight years in prison after pleading guilty to 11 sex offences, committed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, against three young boys in West Sussex. The complainants argued that Bishop Benn should have passed information that he possessed about Mr Coles's conduct to the police. Bishop Benn has maintained that this was the responsibility of the diocesan child-protection adviser ( News, 22 February).

On Tuesday, Bishop Benn said: "As of 10 May 2013, all complaints against me under the Clergy Discipline Measure have come to an end without any misconduct of any kind having been established. No complaint against me has been allowed to proceed beyond the preliminary stages of the process."

The complaints had been considered by the Archbishop of York and the President of Tribunals, Lord Justice Mummery. Some of the complaints had been dismissed on their merits, and the rest on the basis that "they have been made outside the time allowed under the Clergy Discipline Measure and where no good grounds exist for any extension of time".

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Bishop Benn's statement is largely devoted to rebuking "attempts which have been made to cast me in the role of a scape-goat". Noting that, after receiving advice, he had declined to comment in the press, he said that it was a "matter of deep regret" that information about the complaints against him, "much of it partial and inaccurate", had been "repeatedly" leaked. This had led to "repeatedly unfair media reporting".

He quoted from a letter from Lord Justice Mummery, dated 29 January, addressed to the complainants, in which the judge referred to a "one-sided and unjust process of trial in the media by the dissemination of unproven, possibly unfounded, allegations".

Bishop Benn referred to a private letter from the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, to a survivor of child abuse, in which the Bishop spoke of "deception and cover-up" and "ineptitude and irresponsible lack of professionalism" in the Church's handling of Roy Cotton, a convicted paedophile who held several posts as a cleric, despite complaints made to the diocese ( News, 26 April).

Bishop Benn said that this was a "matter of great regret" but that Dr Warner had confirmed that he was not referring to "me or any conduct on my part".

The case of Roy Cotton was one of the issues explored by Baroness Butler-Sloss in a report on the handling of child-abuse allegations in the diocese of Chichester (News, 27 May, 2011). The report concluded that, across the diocese, there had been "a lack of understanding of the seriousness of historic child abuse". It said that senior clergy, including bishops, "were slow to act on the information available to them and to assess the potential risk to children in the diocese".

In 2011, Bishop Benn and the then Bishop of Chichester, Dr John Hind, apologised for "any past mistakes which may have left children vulnerable and which may have more recently made victims feel that they have not been taken seriously". They also apologised for "weaknesses in our procedures".

Bishop Benn said on Tuesday: "The actions of clergy who have engaged in the abuse of children appal me, and the ongoing effect on survivors is of the highest concern to me. Throughout my time as Bishop of Lewes, I have at all times tried to assist the diocese to deal appropriately with safeguarding issues. I have also welcomed and given my full support to the efforts made and being made to improve the practices and procedures within the diocese for safeguarding children and vulnerable adults.

"But none of what has happened in the past can justify the attempts which have been made to cast me in the role of a scapegoat without regard to where the truth lies and where the blame ought to lie."

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