CHESTER police have announced that they have conducted an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse made against a former Bishop of Chester, the Rt Revd Victor Whitsey, who died in 1987.
They confirmed on Tuesday that, were he alive today, he would have been spoken to by police.
Alleged victims of the Bishop say that they reported the abuse, one on the following day, but that no action was ever taken.
The current Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, and the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, supported the investigation into “allegations of sexual offences against children and adults” by Bishop Whitsey, and have apologised to those who came forward.
The allegations date from 1974 onwards, when Bishop Whitsey was Bishop of Chester, and continued after 1981 when he retired and moved to Blackburn diocese, with permission to officiate. They relate to 13 complainants, five male and eight female.
The investigation, “Operation Coverage”, was launched by Cheshire Constabulary in July last year. A summary report from the force said that this followed a report from the diocese of Chester’s safeguarding officer that related to “serious sexual abuse disclosures that had been made by two males”. A man had reported that he had been sexually abused as a child by the Bishop between 1974 and 1979 at the Bishop’s House in Chester. Another man also came forward alleging that he had been abused by the Bishop in 1981.
After these initial reports, the Church conducted its own internal inquiries, uncovering “a number of further witnesses and allegations”. The summary says: “It is clear that those who reported abuse had previously disclosed details of their allegations to the Church. Five of the cases that Cheshire Constabulary investigated related to disclosures which were allegedly previously reported to members of the clergy.”
One of the men reported his alleged abuse to “representatives of the clergy” the day after it is alleged to have occurred in 1981, and was able to provide the police with letters that he had received from the Church related to this. Another man reported the alleged abuse to representatives of the clergy in 1992 and between 2000 and 2002. “On both occasions, due to their wishes, no further action was taken by the Church,” the summary says. “The disclosures have been confirmed by the witnesses from within the Church; however police could find no records of the disclosures being made.”
No clergy file relating to Bishop Whitsey could be located, although his retirement file was found.
The Church of England’s national review of past cases of child abuse, which took place in 2008-09 (News, 26 February 2010), looked at more than 40,000 Church files for any evidence that clergy or Church workers had abused children, going back 30 years. It identified 13 cases that needed further formal action. It did not include the files of deceased clergy, however. One of the findings of the review of safeguarding in the diocese of Chichester was “seriously inadequate record-keeping” (News, 27 May, 2011).
“It is clear that the impact of the alleged abuse they have suffered has been significant and has affected their future lives,” the police summary says. “The witnesses making allegations within this enquiry are not known to each other, and at the time of the alleged abuse, they were all strongly connected to the Church.”
The summary concludes: “Based upon the accounts provided, Operation Coverage has determined that should [the] Right Reverend Hubert Victor Whitsey have been alive today, then the police would have spoken to him in relation to 10 of the witness allegations.”
A statement explains: “This would have been in order to outline the details of the allegations made and to provide him with an opportunity to offer an account of events.
“It is important to remember that this is not an indication of guilt — this is a key part of the investigation process and this happens regularly as part of a case to obtain an account whether this leads to further action or not. It is not the role of the police to judge whether someone is guilty or innocent.”
Two of the ten allegations relate to “adult abuse of position of trust /sexual activity with a boy aged 13-17”.
The statement from Dr Sentamu and Dr Forster reads: “We are deeply sorry and apologise to those individuals who have come forward to share their account of abuse by a bishop in the Church of England who was in a position of power and authority. We appreciate that it is very difficult for individuals to come forward and to give their account.
“Sexual abuse is a heinous crime — and is an absolute and shameful breach of trust. We acknowledge that for survivors, the effects of sexual abuse are lifelong. We are offering pastoral support to all those who have come forward, and continue to hold them all in our prayers. . .
“The Church will consider what lessons can be learnt from this case and whether any action needs to be taken as a result of what these enquiries have shown.”
Richard Scorer, a lawyer who represents four of Bishop Whitsey’s victims, said: “The abhorrent and disgusting abuse perpetrated by Bishop Whitsey destroyed many lives, driving some to attempt suicide.
“What is equally abhorrent is that the Church of England knew of his abuse, did nothing to stop it and covered it up. It is crucial that there is now an independent review into Whitsey [’s] abuse and who failed to act when they learnt of his heinous behaviour.”
Bishop Whitsey served in the dioceses of Chester, Manchester, St Albans, and Blackburn. He was married with two sons and a daughter, and retired to a house near Clitheroe on his retirement (Obituary, 31 December, 1987).
In recent years, two other C of E Bishops have faced allegations of historical abuse. In 2015, a former Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Peter Ball, was jailed for a series of offences against teenage boys and young men (News, 9 October, 2015). In the same year, allegations of sexual abuse by a former Bishop of Chichester, the Rt Revd George Bell, resulted in a compensation award, 20 years after the complaint was first made (News, 23 October, 2015). A review of the Bell case is to be published soon.