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Bishop Benn complaints are dismissed

17 May 2013


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

In a statement, Bishop Benn denounced "misconceived and unjustified" efforts by the safeguarding advisory group of the diocese of Chichester to bring complaints against him. He named two complainants: the chairman of the group, Keith Akerman, and the diocesan safeguarding adviser, Colin Perkins. Bishop Benn said that 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 group had complained to the Archbishop of Canterbury about Bishop Benn (News, 18 November, 2011). When Bishop Benn retired in 2012, the charges were unresolved (News, 26 October).

The complaints 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 against three young boys. 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."

Bishop Benn's statement is largely devoted to rebuking "attempts which have been made to cast me in the role of a scapegoat". 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, "much of it partial and inaccurate", had been "repeatedly" leaked. This had led to "repeatedly unfair media reporting".

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 (News, 26 April). Dr Warner had confirmed to Bishop Benn that he was not referring to "me or any conduct on my part".

The case of Mr Cotton was one of the issues explored by Baroness Butler-Sloss (News, 27 May, 2011), whose 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 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."

On Wednesday, Dr Warner said that the motivation of the members of the safeguarding group who made the complaints was "to indicate to survivors and their families complete commitment to a thorough and transparent investigation . . . The Church's procedures must be seen as providing adequate and clear evidence of accountability in safeguarding matters."

He hoped that the findings of archiepiscopal Visitation ( News, 24 August 2012) would "influence the ongoing national review of the Clergy Discipline Measure system to ensure the adequacy of these procedures in providing reassurance to victims, survivors and the general public that this accountability is in place".

Dr Warner expressed "gratitude to all those involved in this case, the diocesan safeguarding advisory group, and the outstanding commitment of Colin Perkins, the diocesan safeguarding adviser and his team, for all they have done to move diocesan safeguarding towards the standards that the communities we serve and our statutory partners rightly expect."

Three abusers sentenced

THE sentencing of two men found guilty of child sex-abuse offences was welcomed by the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, on Thursday of last week.

Last month, the Revd Keith Wilkie Denford, from Shoreham, who was the Vicar of St John's, Burgess Hill, West Sussex, from 1985 to 1990, was found guilty on three charges of indecently assaulting two boys (News, 12 April). Michael Mytton, aged 68, an organist from East Chiltington, who worked with Mr Denford, was also found guilty on three charges.

On Thursday of last week at Hove Crown Court, Judge Paul Tain sentenced Mr Denford to 18 months in prison. Mr Mytton was sentenced to nine months in prison, suspended for two years.

Dr Warner said: "The crimes committed by Mr Denford and Mr Mytton were not reported to the diocese of Chichester prior to 2011. Notification of the serious allegations against these two men we had formerly trusted was the result of our working relationship with Sussex Police and the local authority. This indicates the vital importance of an inter-agency approach to safeguarding. . .

"Over and above that, however, we hope that today will mark a milestone for the survivors who have had to live through this trial. To them we offer an unreserved apology and an assurance that we have heard and we believe the terrible story they have had to tell."

Carlisle priest jailed

A priest aged 70, the Revd Andrew Folks, who retired five years ago, was jailed for eight months at Carlisle Crown Court on Tuesday of last week after pleading guilty to child sex-abuse offences. He was an NSM in Langdale when the abuse took place. He pleaded guilty to a charge of attempting to indecently assault a boy of 15. He had previously pleaded guilty to one charge of indecent assault.


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