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Welby’s ‘grief’ over abuse case

15 February 2013


"No excuses": Archbishop Welby

"No excuses": Archbishop Welby

THE Archbishop of Canterbury has apologised "with deep grief" for the "betrayals and failings" of the Church in the case of a former parish priest sentenced yesterday for child-abuse offences.

The offender, Robert Coles (below), 71, was sentenced to eight years in prison after pleading guilty to 11 sex offences against three young boys, committed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in West Sussex.

He was arrested in March (News, 9 March) at his home in Eastbourne and had been awaiting trial, due to commence on 10 June, over seven alleged offences of sexual assault. He had pleaded not guilty to all these offences. At a hearing in Chichester Crown Court on 14 December last year, he pleaded guilty to 11 offences. The Crown Prosecution Service said yesterday that it had decided not to proceed with the seven outstanding charges, which the judge said would lay on the court file. Mr Coles was also served with a Sexual Offences Prevention Order prohibiting him from any contact with the three victims, from having any unsupervised contact with boys under 16, and from seeking any employment or voluntary work which would involve unsupervised access to children under 16. He was also required to register as a sex offender for life on his release from prison.

None of the charges related to any allegations of recent or current offending and police emphasised that there was nothing to suggest that any children were currently at risk. 

Brighton Crown Court heard that Mr Coles had made a "partial admission of inappropriate touching" to the then Archdeacon of Lewes and Hastings, the Rt Revd Nicholas Reade, in 1997. The matter was referred to the then Bishop of Lewes, the Rt Revd Wallace Benn, who launched an investigation. Mr Coles resigned and retired, and the diocese of Chichester passed information to a child-protection adviser, but not to the police.

Detective Inspector Jez Prior of Sussex Police said yesterday that the force had received the "full co-operation from the diocese of Chichester" in the recent investigation.

A spokesperson for the diocese of Chichester said that the sentencing of Mr Coles was "a traumatic reminder of the inherited safeguarding failures in the history of this diocese. The extent of the abuse is appalling, and the inadequate response at the time would be unthinkable today." The sentence marked "another step on our path towards ensuring that all past cases of abuse are brought to light and that the perpetrators are brought to justice".

In 2011, the Rt Revd Lord Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury, appointed two Commissaries, Bishop John Gladwin and Chancellor Rupert Bursell QC, to carry out an archiepiscopal visitation, the first for more than 100 years, to investigate the operation of child protection policies in the diocese of Chichester ( News, 30 December 2011). The interim report, published in August ( News, 7 September) said that "dysfunctionality" in the diocese was preventing adequate child-safeguarding, and must be "urgently addressed".

Yesterday, Archbishop Welby confirmed that the Commissaries were continuing their work in the diocese. He had been "appalled" by the details of the case of Mr Coles: "The systems designed to protect the survivors clearly failed, their vulnerability was taken advantage of, and their lives have been deeply and in some cases permantenly affected, as have the lives of those who love them." The safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults should be the "highest priority" for the Church. "There are no excuses for shortcomings."

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