Absolute power will corrupt bishops, says Sentamu

10 July 2019

Archbishop takes the witness stand in last set of IICSA hearings

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, gives evidence on Wednesday

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, gives evidence on Wednesday

BISHOPS must be aware that “if they have absolute power, it will corrupt them,” and that “unquestionable authority” is no longer acceptable in the Church, especially when making safeguarding decisions, the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, has said.

He was giving evidence on Wednesday in the second and final week of hearings in the Anglican investigation being conducted by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA).

Dr Sentamu, who was a practising lawyer and judge in Uganda before he came to the UK, said, however, that he had no trouble being both a pastor and judge when dealing with safeguarding incidents in his diocese of York.

Bishops who were unsure of their disciplinary responsibilities should go on a training course, he said. “Discipline is part of the power of being a bishop.”

For any safeguarding incident, however, he always sought the professional advice of his diocesan safeguarding officer, Julie O’Hara, he said. “You cannot — well, maybe people can — it is not good practice, it is not even gospel message to — disregard the advice of a professional in an area where you are not an expert.”

Nonetheless, bishops had failed to handle allegations of abuse in the past, and must be held to account, he said. “Bishops have got to be aware that, if they have absolute power, it will corrupt them. . . People have this mistaken trust because you happen to wear a dog collar and live in a lovely house.”

Dr Sentamu was asked by the lead counsel to the Anglican investigation, Fiona Scolding QC, about the evidence given by the Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, last week, who said that a cleric in his diocese who had been convicted of downloading 8000 indecent images of children should not be banned from ministry for life (News, 5 July).

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“I find that shocking,” Dr Sen­tamu said. “Did he not realise that possessing indecent images of children is abuse? . . . To try and draw that very subtle and non-existing distinction does not wear with me. If, in my heart, I have not got survivors and victims at the centre of what I am trying to do, then I need to go for more lessons, more classes, more training — because an indecent image of a child is an abuse. I am sorry, I cannot separate it out.”

It was also “shocking” that Dr Forster had renewed the Permission to Officiate (PTO) of a known child-sex offender, Dr Sentamu said. He defended his decision not to suspend Dr Forster, however, because he “posed no risk to children”. 

The case, he said, was entirely different from that of the Bishop of Lincoln, who was suspended in May (News, 24 May). “Had I the same facts as those in Lincoln you can rest assured that he would have been suspended. But the facts of Lincoln are so different in this particular case. . . Of course sus­pension is a very neutral act.”

Earlier on Wednesday, the In­­quiry heard evidence from the Revd Matthew Ineson, a former parish priest who was a teenage victim of sexual assault and rape by another cleric, the late Trevor Dev­amanikkam.

Mr Ineson has brought complaints under the Clergy Disciplinary Measure (CDM) against several senior clergy, including Dr Sentamu and the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, who is a former Bishop of Sheffield, citing their failure to act on disclosures that he had made in person and in writing to them over several years (News, 29 July 2016).

The CDM complaints had been brought six weeks over the one-year limitation period (from the date of the alleged misconduct) and were dismissed. Mr Ineson has appealed to the President of Tribunals.

Mr Ineson dismissed the CDM pro­cess as “totally unsuitable. . . Bishop investigates bishop. They are all conflicted.” He did not trust the outcomes of the CDM process and found it difficult to navigate, including the one-year reporting rule. “It is disgraceful,” he said. He had not been offered help or an explanation of the CDM, nor pastoral support. 

Questioned about his handling of Mr Ineson’s disclosure, Dr Sentamu said: “The responsibility did lie with the Bishop of Sheffield. I got a copy on the back of another letter [Mr Ineson] had written to me, and I assumed that the Bishop was going to deal with this in a timely fashion, because he had already dealt with another safeguarding matter in relation to Mr Ineson very propitiously.”

He agreed with the Bishop of Bath and Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Hancock, who has previously described the Church’s treatment of Ineson as “shabby and shambolic”.

After whether he had made personal mistakes in responding to disclosures, he said: “Have I swept it under the carpet? Hand on heart I don’t think so. Where there have been disclosures, I have been willing to apologise to the person, trying to do my best to support them.”

Dr Sentamu was also questioned about his contact with Mr Ineson at a fringe meeting for survivors held at the General Synod in York in 2018.

Mr Ineson described how Dr Sentamu had “grabbed and challenged” him at the end of the meeting. “He came over to me, really in my face, too close, and he grabbed me . . . by the shoulder and said to me: ‘One day you and I will talk.’”

Mr Ineson said that he had asked for an apology, to which Dr Sentamu allegedly said: “Apologies mean different things to different people,” and that Mr Ineson had “put a boulder” between them, before walking away. Mr Ineson told the inquiry: “It is who he thinks he is. He is arrogant, he is rude, he is a bully.”

Responding to this account, Dr Sentamu said: “If that’s how I behaved, it’s totally inappropriate. It would be totally inappropriate. But I — the room was a very small room and there were about probably 40 people there, a room which should be occupied by around 15 people. I was on my way out. . .

“I probably shouldn’t have done it, but I took him to be an honourable answering man and put my hand on his shoulder and said that I hoped one day we could meet and share a prayer together.”

He denied saying that Mr Ineson had put a boulder between them. “I could not say a thing like that. That’s why I said, when you read it out, that would be very inappropriate for anybody to say to anybody. No, I didn't, and there were witnesses who were around.”

Mr Ineson said that he had never received a formal apology from the Church. Asked by the Inquiry panel whether there was an impediment to the Church’s issuing an apology, Dr Sentamu said: “The problem comes because the evidence is contested, and the review [of his case] has not happened. I hope it will be swift. . . You do not want to be flippant about what kind of apology should be given.”

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Mr Ineson has called for mandatory reporting to the police, as well as an independent safeguarding body to hold the Church to account, “because the hierarchy could not be trusted”.

Dr Sentamu also supported mandatory reporting to statutory authorities. He agreed with the evidence of a former diocesan chancellor, Canon Rupert Bursell QC, on Thursday of last week, that the seal of confession must allow reporting disclosures or allegations of abuse. “The seal of confession cannot be left watertight,” Dr Sentamu said. “In the Church of England, if a child discloses, you have a duty to report. I want to extend that to structures — any organisation in which children are involved.

“Mandatory reporting could give assurance to survivors that matters will not be swept under the carpet. Sometimes strict law changes a culture.”

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