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Probe into unlicensed ministry

15 March 2013

THE diocese of Chichester is conducting an "exhaustive investigation" into the extent to which a priest "illegally" led acts of worship after being investigated by police for child-abuse offences.

Robert Coles, a former parish priest, aged 71, from Upperton Road, Eastbourne, was sentenced last month 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 (News, 22 February).

Chichester diocese issued a statement on Monday, saying that it was investigating "the extent to which Coles functioned illegally as a priest at St Luke's, Stone Cross, after his retirement in 1997".

The diocese had been made aware that Mr Coles "assumed the role of priest on well over a hundred occasions between 1997 and early 2003 without the legally required 'Permission to Officiate' status".

The interim report of the Archbishop of Canterbury's Commissaries, who investigated the operation of child-protection policies in the diocese last year (News, 7 September), had "made clear" that it was an "ecclesiastical offence" to "invite or permit a cleric to officiate without a proper licence or permission to officiate", the statement said.

It continued: "If any of the relev-ant persons who allowed the situation . . . to happen were still ministering in the diocese, and if they turned a blind eye in any way, they will face disciplinary proceedings.

"The fact that Mr Coles illegally exercised a priestly ministry after he was investigated by Sussex Police for offences of child abuse, and after he made a partial admission as to the truth of those allegations in 1997 to diocesan authorities, shows that the processes followed at the time were seriously flawed."

Chichester diocese said that "very strict procedures" were now in place "to prevent such failures".


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