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Church must accept past faults, says Chichester diocesan Visitor Robert Bursell QC

16 March 2018


Canon Rupert Bursell QC gives evidence on Tuesday

Canon Rupert Bursell QC gives evidence on Tuesday

THE Church cannot hope to achieve reconciliation with survivors of clerical abuse unless it is willing “properly to apologise” and to accept the faults of its past, a former diocesan chancellor, Canon Rupert Bursell QC, has said.

Canon Bursell, who retired in November, was giving evidence on Tuesday morning to the public hearing conducted by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA), in London, on the extent to which the Anglican Church has failed to protect children from sexual abuse.

He carried out an archiepiscopal Visitation of the diocese of Chichester in 2012 (News, 24 August 2012). The diocese is being used as a case study for the investigation.

Canon Bursell, who is a survivor of abuse, though not by a cleric, told IICSA: “As far as reconciliation is concerned, I find this very difficult having been abused myself, because it effects whether you can, yourself, forgive.

“Any abuse is unique to the person . . . but until the Church is prepared properly to apologise, properly to acknowledge the faults that have gone past, and are shown to be grappling with the ongoing problems, there can be no reconciliation, I think, between those who have been abused by the clergy.”

When questioned on the various apologies issued by the Church to survivors, he said: “They go a long way. The wording of apologies is very difficult and how you respond to them depends on the individual. I think that unless the apology is actually person to person it may lack something.”

Canon Bursell stood by the criticisms he had made in his visitation report, including “dysfunctionality” between senior bishops and staff. He told IICSA: “If the diocesan safeguarding team found it necessary to bring a clergy discipline measure complaint against a bishop it shows a complete breakdown of safeguarding within the diocese. I cannot think of anything more dysfunctional.”

When asked for his views on truth and reconciliation, which were outlined in his interim report, he said: “We are absolutely convinced that unless there is complete transparency, not only about what has gone on, but which still may be going on, there can be no end to the problems – I am not sure there ever will be an end, but having said that we cannot begin to properly tackle it.”

Canon Bursell said that there was also no place for the Seal of Confession in relation to child sex abuse. “There is not in relation to terrorism whether the Anglo-Catholics like it or not or whether they are aware of it or not.”

He also repeated concerns that he had previously expressed over the use of the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) to handle cases of clerical abuse (News, 15 July 2016). “It is too cumbersome,” he said. “I have come to the conclusion that individual bishops should not have participation in the machinery. They never did so before the coming into the effect of the 2003 measure, and I can’t see why it is necessary that they should now.

“If you have been abused by a cleric it must be difficult to have confidence in what is going forward if a cleric is going to be involved at any level. . . When there is an abusive cleric it may well be that there are other problems in the parish at the same time and there may be a muddle of pressures to bear, particularly on the diocesan bishops, on other reasons to get the cleric out rather than discipline which should be entirely separate and should go forward.

“I am afraid I know that that has happened.”

Permission to officiate should never be granted to priests who have been convicted of sexual offences in any circumstances, he said. “Quite apart from the fact that they may well reoffend, it seems to me it is a matter of perception in so far as victims and their families are concerned. Although one can forgive, one cannot forget and should act accordingly.”

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