Don’t blame me for safeguarding blunders, former Bishop of Lewes, Wallace Benn, tells IICSA hearing

12 March 2018

IICSA

Fiona Scolding QC, who questioned the Rt Revd Wallace Benn

Fiona Scolding QC, who questioned the Rt Revd Wallace Benn

A FORMER Area Bishop of Lewes, the Rt Revd Wallace Benn, has denied responsibility for a series of safeguarding failures in the diocese of Chichester during his tenure, saying that the handling of these issues was not under his delegation at the time.

Bishop Benn was giving evidence on Monday 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 was appointed to the diocese in 1997 — five years after the disgraced former bishop Peter Ball was translated to Gloucester from the same post shortly before being subject to a police investigation. Bishop Benn retired in October 2012.

Several allegations, investigations, and convictions for child sex abuse by priests in his area in East Sussex, both recent and historic, came to light during this period, including the cases of the late Roy Cotton, who was arrested on suspicion of child sex abuse four months after Bishop Benn took up the post.

Cotton’s permission to officiate (PTO) was never revoked. He died in 2006, without any conviction, two weeks before the arrest of his known accomplice Colin Pritchard, who was recently convicted of several counts of rape against a teenage boy in the 1980s and 1990s (News, 2 March).

Bishop Benn said that, under the area scheme at the time, the responsibility for safeguarding, and the implementation of clergy discipline, including the revoking of PTO, lay with the Bishops of Chichester: first, Dr Eric Kemp, then his successor, Dr John Hind.

“Safeguarding and disciplinary issues — in other words very serious issues — had an even more serious feel about needing to report to the diocesan [bishop] and keep him in the loop, and that ultimate responsibility of disciplinary action and safeguarding was his, not mine, under the area scheme,” Bishop Benn said.

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“I might well be the first port of call, and there would be an initial handling of an incident — a complaint — by the Archdeacon and myself; but we were under obligation to report it to the Diocesan Safeguarding Officers (DSA) and/or the diocesan bishop, who had ultimate responsibility for safeguarding matters.

“I had serious responsibility of safeguarding issues, as we all have, and cannot duck that, and I wouldn’t want to, but the ultimate responsibility was with the diocesan bishop. My responsibility was to listen to the advice of the DSA.

“If my responsibility had been to report to the police, and I had not, that would have been a serious delegation of duty — but that was not my understanding.”

Under intense questioning from the lead counsel to the investigation, Fiona Scolding QC, Bishop Benn repeatedly denied that he knew in 1998 about the previous conviction of Roy Cotton, dating from 1954, before his ordination.

Ms Scolding read from a transcript of a conversation between a survivor of Cotton, Phil Johnston, and Bishop Benn, in which the latter spoke of a previous conviction against Cotton (News, 9 March).

In his defence, Bishop Benn said: “I was talking about allegations — as the context of the whole transcript shows. I appreciate that my use of the wrong word would have added to Phil Johnson’s anxiety and confusion, and for this I deeply apologise.”

He then listed 13 reasons, reading from his notes, why he did not know about the conviction earlier than 2001, when Cotton issued a statement confirming his 1954 conviction. One of these reasons was that the source of much of his knowledge of the case came from his archdeacon at the time, the Ven. Nicolas Reed.

Bishop Benn admitted that he had spoken to Cotton in 1998, however, who had told him of “a false accusation being made against him, not a conviction” in 1954 which had delayed his ordination.

Bishop Benn said that he should have pushed Bishop Kemp to refuse Cotton PTO at that time, but felt that he did not have the authority. He also said that he did not have access to the blue file on Cotton, containing sensitive clergy information, including safeguarding issues.

“What I did was to say to my boss: ‘I have a problem with this man [Cotton]: I don’t believe him; but I have no evidence, and therefore you’re the senior man with the evidence, the blue file. . . I think it was fair to depend on Bishop Eric to look into the blue file. . . if I could have done it another way, then I am sorry, I would have done. I thought I was doing the best at the time.”

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Bishop Benn said that a subsequent letter he had written to Cotton saying that he was “happy to grant” him PTO was a partially standard letter sent by his PA to all new PTO clergy, but should not have been.

“Hindsight is a blessed thing. It is not always obvious at the time. . . You cannot write: ‘You can have PTO, but I am very unhappy to give it.’”

He agreed that restrictions on Cotton’s PTO, such as not having access to children, and latterly, not taking public services, were “very difficult to monitor” — a responsibility which, he said, lay with the archdeacon and rural deans. It was a precaution that had failed in Cotton’s case: he took five services between 2001 and 2003, when he was reported to have been seriously ill in a nursing home.

Bishop Benn denied the evidence given by his first diocesan safeguarding officer, Janet Hind, who said on Friday that he had not told her about Cotton’s previous conviction when it came to light in 2001. When Ms Scolding referred to Mrs Hind’s scrupulous note-taking at that time, Bishop Benn said that the late Tony Selwood, her successor, would have disagreed on that point.

The evidence had become “muddled”, Bishop Benn said.

 

BISHOP BENN used the same word to describe the notes taken by Roger Meekings, who spoke to Bishop Benn while gathering evidence for his report into Cotton and Pritchard, in 2009.

Bishop Benn told IICSA that the report had felt like a personal attack, and that Archdeacon Jones, a former lawyer, had suggested that it might have been be libellous. “I never rejected his recommendations; in fact I sent a draft letter to Bishop John [Hind] tightening up one or two. I was against the publication of the report from him.”

Bishop Benn denied explicitly threatening legal action, however. “The fear that paralysed the inactivity of the diocese was self-induced. Nobody ever said to me: ‘Are you going to take legal action?’ I never did. There is indecision and then there is panic. And this ends up hurting someone.”

His working relationship with Mrs Hind had been “fine”, he said, and he had had a “good relationship” with his second diocesan safeguarding officer, Mr Selwood, who later died in a car crash while in post. But his relationship with Shirley Hosgood, who was in tenure when the Meekings report was published, was less friendly.

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“My problem with Ms Hosgood was that she went about it in quite an aggressive matter, and that caused a lot of difficulties.”

He gave the example of Ms Hosgood and Mr Meekings telling a senior diocesan staff meeting that they were the professionals and the clergy were “amateurs” on issues of safeguarding. When Ms Scolding pointed out that this would have been the case, Bishop Benn said that the Church had been “dismissed” at that time in terms of the help and guidance it could have offered.

During his evidence, Bishop Benn repeatedly shifted safeguarding responsibilities, and blame, to the diocesan safeguarding officers. This included responsibility for reporting suspected child abuse to the police, and conducting risk assessments, as the case of Pritchard, who was granted PTO on his retirement in 2007, despite having been arrested the previous year.

Bishop Benn said that this was a “regrettable mistake” made by his PA at the time, Joanna Medway, who had not conducted a fresh CBR check of Pritchard. “It was a very regrettable mistake to issue PTO without that qualification,” he said. “The advice at that time was not to withdraw PTO. She was very good at record-keeping, and this was the only mistake that she made in the time that she worked for me.”

PTO was withdrawn later in 2007 upon the arrival of Ms Hosgood in post.

While Bishop Benn accepted that Pritchard should have been suspended, he did not agree with the conclusion of the report by Dame Baroness Butler-Sloss that it would have been preferable to refuse to grant PTO in the first place. Again, he said, he would not have had the authority. “The chain of command was working,” Bishop Benn said.

 

HE WAS also questioned about Robert Coles, who was arrested on suspicion of child abuse shortly before Bishop Benn arrived in 1997, pending a police investigation. Bishop Benn and Archdeacon Reed spoke to Coles, who admitted one sexual offence of “inappropriate fondling” against a teenage boy.

Bishop Benn did not speak to the police about this, but informed the DSA, Mrs Hind. “That was protocol at the time. It wasn’t for me to challenge protocol but to live by it,” said Bishop Benn. “I thought the police had been told about it. I didn’t think I had a responsibility to talk to the police: I thought that was Mrs Hind’s responsibility. Come the beginning of 1998, I thought she was talking to the police. I am astonished if that wasn’t the case.”

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Mrs Hind said in her evidence, however, that she thought it was the bishops’ responsibility to report to the police. Coles was later released without charge and the investigation dropped. He was permitted to take early retirement.

Bishop Benn said that Coles was not a licensed, serving clergyman to be able to take action against him. Initially, the diocese did not know where Coles was worshipping, and it was the responsibility of the diocesan safeguarding officer to enforce restrictions anyway, he said.

Coles was allowed, against canon law, to officiate in the diocese by Jonathan Graves, who was later convicted of child sex abuse. When asked by Ms Scolding why Bishop Benn had not reprimanded Graves under the Clergy Disciplinary Measure, he said: “The entire staff team knew about that. To take action against him like that would not have been my responsibility.”

Grave had been arrested in 2005, but no further action was taken. “I didn’t know about that, and he had an unblemished CRB,” Bishop Benn said. He pulled his PTO upon learning in 2008 about a blemished CRB. Graves had been granted PTO by the palace (i.e. the Bishop of Chichester), he said, not by him.

 

HE WAS then questioned about his involvement in the case of Canon Gordon Rideout, who was jailed for ten years in 2013 for 36 separate counts of sex abuses against 16 children in Hampshire and Sussex in the 1960s and 1970s.

Bishop Benn was questioned about his relationship with Rideout, whom he had driven to a police interview in 2002. He said that he regretted not urging Dr Hind to further investigate the case after the police investigation was closed. Rideout retired in 2003, but remained a rural dean until 2006, without any restrictions on his PTO.

 

IN HIS evidence, Bishop Benn also denied that his conservative views on homosexuality and forgiveness impeded safeguarding during his tenure. “I really don’t think that that’s got anything to do with safeguarding,” he said.

Mrs Hind had said in her evidence on the Cotton case: “Bishop Wallace actually was trying — was more lenient, because he had very strong views about homosexuality: anti, but he was trying to sort of be more fair than perhaps he should have been by wanting to allow him [Cotton] to have some limited ministry. . .

“It certainly didn’t have any effect on me. I made it very clear to Bishop Wallace when he asked me. I said I’m concerned with the abuse of children and not the sexuality of the abuser. That was my line, and I still hold to that.”

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Bishop Benn said that the written statement from Archdeacon Jones, describing his views on forgiveness (News, 9 March) was also a “very inaccurate, shocking misrepresentation of Evangelical opinion. . .

“Not only do I not to my knowledge — no Evangelical Anglican I have ever met believes in cheap grace — not only do I not believe it, and not preach it, but I have preached against it.

“Real repentance means turning your back on past sins and being willing to take the consequences here in this time. God may forgive, but we have consequences to live [with] here, and we have perhaps punishments to face up to and acknowledge and take. Real repentance is the issue, and repentance is never cheap grace.”

When questioned about his reluctance to condemn Cotton by allowing his PTO to remain for so long, Bishop Benn said: “What I was concerned about was a premature rushing to judgement without an adequate consideration of evidence. It is not the level of evidence that ever bothered me . . . it is the running to premature judgement before things have been properly considered.”

Concluding his evidence on Monday afternoon, Bishop Benn said: “I care little for my own reputation. I care a lot for the reputation of victims.”

On the charge under the Clergy Disciplinary Measure subsequently brought against him, but later dismissed (News, 14 May 2013), he said: “What was happening at that time was that there was a barrage of reporting on the TV, a lot of it with inaccurate information, mostly focused on my attention, and it seemed that the diocese had withdrawn and left me with collateral damage. . .

“It seemed as if the diocese wasn’t prepared to face up to mistakes, and simply allowed me to be the scapegoat. It is not helpful to anyone.”

Reminded by a question from his own lawyer, Bishop Benn told the hearing: “All PTOs were done from 2009 onwards centrally. In December 2010 I relinquished any particular responsibility for safeguarding.”

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