A CLERIC who was convicted of possessing 8000 indecent images of children should be able to minister again because he was “penitent” at the time of his arrest, was probably “lured” into downloading the images, and would not have carried out the abuse itself, the Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, has maintained.
The cleric, Ian Hughes, was found guilty in 2014 of possessing 8200 indecent images of children — 800 of the “worst kind” — and sentenced to a 12-month custodial sentence (News, 31 January 2014).
In oral evidence to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), on Wednesday, Dr Forster confirmed that he had written to the tribunal judge of the case, Sir Andrew McFarlane, to persuade him to go against guidelines of the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM), which stated that a lifelong ban be automatically imposed after a conviction of child abuse.
“They are guidelines, they have to be interpreted,” Dr Forster said. “I felt that in [Mr Hughes’s] case — given his relative youth, the fact that he was entirely penitent from the outset as to what had happened, and [that] his previous record of ministry was excellent — it was worth raising the possibility of a 20-year ban.
“The problem is that once you impose a lifetime ban there is no way to reverse it. . . if for 20 years he had lived out the penitence.”
A section of his letter to Sir Andrew was read out to the Inquiry: “While I accept the complicity in the original abuse,” he wrote, “it is nevertheless the case that many people who download child pornography believe it to be different from direct abuse of a child. They may be entirely unwilling to perpetrate such abuse directly. The internet has a seductive character in this regard.”
Questioned by the junior counsel to the Anglican investigation, Nikita McNeill QC, on this, Dr Forster said: “People can be lured into downloading indecent images of children. I am not saying that we shouldn’t be too hard on them, I am saying that this should be noted.”
Sir Andrew, who granted the request, had not acknowledged this point in his response, only that Mr Hughes was young and that the case for him returning to ministry might be reviewed in 20 years. Dr Forster admitted: “In retrospect I could have missed that paragraph out.” He repeated that he had been right to consult a senior figure who was now the president of the family division.
Asked whether someone who was in possession of 8000 images of child sexual abuse could ever be a person appropriate to be in public ministry within the C of E, he said: “That’s a matter for the Ministry Division to consider.”
Dr Forster, who has been Bishop of Chester since 1996 and is due to retire this year, was questioned for more than two hours on his involvement in three cases of clerical abuse which were disclosed in the diocese during his tenure: that of Mr Hughes; allegations made against a former Bishop of Chester, Victor Whitsey, now deceased; and the case of Gordon Dickenson, who, this year, admitted and was convicted of eight counts of indecent assault against a child.
A survivor — known only as AN-A88 — who in September 2017 disclosed to the police that she was molested by Whitsey at his palace when she was a young girl in the 1970s gave evidence on Wednesday morning.
She said that she had been taken to meet the then bishop at the Bishops’ Palace after her father, a vicar, left the marital home.
Whitsey had hugged her and said that she needed comforting “like the little children”. “It was a hug that was far too close. . . He said that men had urges. I thought he was referring to my father. . . I thought that was a bit strange.”
He had asked her to sit on his knee, she said, and he had had an erection. “He was feeling me through my clothes. . . he was stroking me through my clothes. . . I really was a child in many ways. . . I was such a naive person. . . very suddenly he pushed me away and I got off his knee. I presume at that point he ejaculated.”
Her brother had also been abused that day, but she did not know this until the day their mother’s ashes were interred years later. Bishop Whitsey had signed the book of remembrance in the church. She said: “My brother looked at me and said: ‘That bastard abused me.’ It was a bit of a mingle-mangle moment; I looked at him and we knew straight away. I just said: ‘Me too.’”
Unknown to them at the time, their conversation had been overheard by the vicar. The witness said: “Had mandatory reporting been in place, my brother, who died a year afterwards, would have died knowing that something might have been done, and that people had been aware of his distress. He was more distressed than I was.”
She said that, having been a deeply committed churchperson when she was younger, she had fallen out with the Church. “I didn’t trust the church anymore or the people within the Church. But I didn’t fall out with God. I am lucky. I know not many people feel that. . . I read things about the Church and I was not impressed.”
The apology issued by Dr Foster and the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, later that year when the police investigation into Whitsey — Operation Coverage — had closed, was “almost irrelevant”, she said.
“It doesn’t mean anything very much. . . a true apology has to include an acknowledgement, some affect, perhaps, no defence, and reparation.”
She had received no personal apology or pastoral support after she attempted to contact the diocesan safeguarding officer. “Nothing has changed. It feels like a candyfloss apology. . . it is hiding a core of deception and sophistry. Real apology is about an exchange of power and shame.”
When questioned on this, Dr Forster said: “I am very sorry that nobody got back to her. . . That is most regrettable; it is obviously the diocesan office, not my office; it doesn’t affect me directly.”
Another survivor has said in a witness statement that he made an allegation against Whitsey to Dr Forster in 2002. Dr Forster told the Inquiry that he had “a vague recollection of someone saying something odd about Victor Whitsey.
“He did have a reputation for odd behaviour in general, not abusive behaviour, but he had a reputation, so if anyone said something odd about him 17 years ago, I probably wouldn’t have registered it; partly because he was known to be someone who behaves in odd ways.”
Dr Forster said that he had “not been attuned” to the possibility of a bishop carrying out abuse. “I have to accept that I would not be as sensitive to disclosures then as I am now. I have no memory of what transpired. I can only think that this was relatively informal and not in context. . . no written note was kept.”
Dr Forster is currently the subject of a complaint under the CDM concerning his decision not to disclose to the police in 2009 information from a retired cleric in his diocese, Mr Dickenson, who had disclosed that he had been accused of abusing a child in the 1970s.
Despite this, Dr Forster had decided to renew Mr Dickenson’s Permission to Officiate (PTO) that year, based on his risk assessment, he said, because “I knew the four parishes in which he had served, his ministry was minimal.”
Dr Forster did not give the document containing the disclosure to the diocesan safeguarding officer or the police. He accepted that it was a “misjudgement” to decide that the risk from Dickenson was small.
Asked whether he was qualified to make this risk assessment, Dr Forster told the Inquiry: “I agree that I should have sought various advice. It was a disclosure of a disclosure that had been handled at the time. I had received it confidentially.”
The information was not discovered until police began investigating the case of Whitsey in 2017 (News, 13 October 2017). Whitsey, Dickenson’s bishop at the time of the abuse, had moved him to another parish and told him never to repeat the offence. Dr Forster said that he had not made the connection between the two cases.
Dickenson, who was the Vicar of Christ Church, Latchford, from 1968 to 1974, retained permission to officiate in the diocese until 2014. He was sentenced to 27 months in prison in April. The CDM complaint against Dr Forster was lodged by Sir Roger Singleton in the same month (News, 5 April). A lessons-learnt review into the Whitsey case has been commissioned by the National Safeguarding Team of the C of E (News, 24 May).
A recent audit of safeguarding in the diocese of Chester, conducted by the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE), stated: “The Bishop of Chester does not delegate any of his safeguarding responsibilities and takes all decisions about if and when the threshold of referral to statutory authorities take place.”
Dr Forster struggled to answer questions on whether he agreed that a qualified safeguarding professional, rather than a bishop, should be making decisions on individual safeguarding cases, including referrals to statutory authorities.