Primate speaks of his grief over child abuse

22 February 2013

SUSSEX POLICE

Sentenced: Coles

Sentenced: Coles

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 who was sentenced on Thursday of last week for child-abuse offences.

The offender, Robert Coles, aged 71, of Upperton Road, Eastbourne, 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 last year (News, 9 March 2012) at his home, and had been awaiting trial for seven alleged offences of sexual assault. He had pleaded not guilty to all these offences.

Then, at a hearing in Chichester Crown Court on 14 December, he pleaded guilty to 11 offences. The Crown Prosecution Service said on Thursday of last week that it had decided not to proceed with the seven outstanding charges, which the judge said would lie on the court file.

Mr Coles was also served with a Sexual Offences Prevention Order, which prohibits 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 that 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 & Hastings, the Ven. Nicholas Reade (later Bishop of Blackburn), 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 "full co-operation from the diocese of Chichester" in the recent investigation.

A spokesperson for the diocese of Chichester said: "The extent of the abuse is appalling, and the inadequate response at the time would be unthinkable today." The sentencing 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".

Last Friday, Bishop Benn offered the survivors "my own sincere apology and my deep regret that anyone should have acted in this unspeakable manner". He said that Mr Coles had met him and Archdeacon Reade, and "admitted sexual activity with a minor". This had been reported to the diocesan child-protection adviser, Janet Hind, who, he understood, was the "sole point of contact between the diocese and external agencies, including the police", and the Bishop of Chichester.

Bishop Benn said that there was "inadequacy of training" in the diocese at the time. "However, I was under no illusions about the seriousness of the situation involving Robert Coles. . . There was no ineptitude on my part and no cover-up on my part."

In 2011, the then Archbishop of Canterbury appointed two Commissaries, Bishop John Gladwin and Chancellor Rupert Bursell QC, to carry out an archiepiscopal visitation to investigate child-protection policies in the diocese of Chichester ( News, 30 December 2011). The interim report, published last year ( News, 24 August), said that "dysfunctionality" in the diocese was preventing adequate child-safeguarding, and must be "urgently addressed".

On Thursday of last week, 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 safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults should be the "highest priority" for the Church. "There are no excuses for shortcomings," he said.

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