BISHOPS and church leaders have praised survivors of the serial abuser Peter Ball for their bravery, after their testimonies appeared in a new BBC documentary on the case, which was broadcast this week.
The church leaders also condemned the “cover-up” of abuse by the Church.
Ball, a former Bishop of Lewes and of Gloucester, was sentenced in 2015 to 32 months in prison for a series of offences, including misconduct in public office and indecent assault, more than 20 years after the first allegations against him were made (News, 7 October 2015). He served 16 months of his sentence. Further charges were allowed to lie on file. He died last year, aged 87 (News, 24 June).
The two-part programme, Exposed: The Church’s dark secret, was shown on BBC2 on Monday and Tuesday nights after the watershed. The documentary, which has been well-received by reviewers, included testimonies from victims, police, lawyers, and church officers, as well as dramatic reconstructions.
On Wednesday, the independent chair of the National Safeguarding Panel, Meg Munn, praised survivors of Ball and their families. “The BBC documentary showed the devastating and lifelong impact of abuse,” she said. “Those who spoke out, showed incredible bravery.
“The failure to stop Peter Ball and other abusers, and the failure to bring them promptly to justice, compound the hurt and damage to victims and survivors. Failure to co-operate with police by high-ranking clergy, including a former Archbishop, is truly shocking. Those who failed victims should consider their position.”
Speaking about the changes in the Church’s hierarchy and culture that she has witnessed, she said: “These are necessary, but not sufficient.
“Within the church structure, each diocese is effectively a fiefdom, and significant power rests with diocesan bishops. Last year, one diocese refused to share safeguarding information with another diocese. It took a number of months to resolve the issue, possibly exposing people to risk.”
In the documentary, survivors of Ball — the Revd Graham Sawyer, Cliff James, and Phil Johnson — are filmed describing their ordeals at locations that included Ball’s former residences. “It was so evil, I remember curling up in a ball under my duvet, just wishing and praying that I could die,” Mr Sawyer says.
The nature of the abuse included naked praying, masturbation, and flagellation for Ball’s own sexual gratification. Archive footage of Ball from an ITV programme from the 1980s on his monastic lifestyle is shown, as is his appearance on Wogan, the BBC talk show, and press images of Ball with establishment figures such as Margaret Thatcher and the Prince of Wales.
The documentary focuses on the late Neil Todd, whose disclosure of allegations against Ball in 1992 eventually led to the Bishop’s first arrest that year. Ball accepted a police caution and resigned. Mr Todd had been repeatedly abused by Ball during the 1980s and ’90s.
Mr Todd’s father, Jim, and Ball’s gardener and housekeeper in Gloucester, Michael and Christine Moss, to whom Neil Todd first disclosed the abuse, are also interviewed. Ball treated Mr Todd like a slave, Mr Moss said. “It was a relationship of fear.”
In the second episode, Mr Todd’s sister, Mary, describes her last moments with her brother while he was on life support, having taken an overdose, in 2012, just after the investigation by Sussex Police, Operation Dunhill, was established. She told the programme: “Peter Ball is categorically responsible [and] all his friends in high places.”
The episode focuses on the survivors’ battle to expose Ball, particularly that of Mr Johnson, who is now a member of the Church’s National Safeguarding Panel. “What Neil couldn’t face was going through was another police investigation; he had tried to be heard and had been treated appallingly,” Mr Johnson says.
The documentary draws on the Gibb report, An Abuse of Faith, published in 2017, which described in detail the events and circumstances that eventually led to Ball’s imprisonment (News, 30 June 2017). The report strongly criticised the conduct of senior church leaders, including a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, for failing to respond to repeated expressions of concern and allegations against Ball, and withholding key information from the police.
The programme also quotes from statements made by Prince Charles and Church leaders during a public hearing carried out by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) in July 2018. The Inquiry, which has been investigating the extent to which the Anglican Church failed to protect children from sexual abuse, is due to publish its final report in the summer (News, 19 July).
The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, posted a message on Twitter on Tuesday: “Deeply saddened and shocked to watch the first programme about Peter Ball on @BBCTwo. Appalled by the cover-up and mightily impressed by those brave survivors willing to share their stories.”
In a video statement posted on YouTube on Tuesday afternoon, the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, said: “I am utterly ashamed that one of my predecessors, a so-called bishop in the Church of England, could have committed such horrific abuse, and an awful abuse of faith.
“I also want to say again how sickened I am at the Church’s response at the time: bishops and Archbishop more interested in protecting a bishop and the reputation of the Church rather than putting victims and survivors at the heart of their response, which is what they should have done.”
The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, said that everyone in a position of leadership needed to watch the programme, calling it “terrifying” for its exposure of the abuse of power. The Dean of St Paul’s, the Very Revd Dr David Ison, described it as “heart-rending”, particularly the survivors’ “betrayal by cover-up by the Establishment”. The Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman, said that the documentary was “disturbing and shaming on so many levels”.
The Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Hancock, the lead bishop on safeguarding, said in a statement on Tuesday evening: “The powerful BBC documentary Exposed: The Church’s darkest secret is a stark and important reminder of the serious sexual wrongdoing of Peter Ball against many young men, including Neil Todd, who took his own life, and the complete failure of the Church to respond appropriately over a period of many years. . .
“The documentary brings home in a graphic way the courage of the survivors who shared their story. It is a matter of great shame and regret that the Church did not act to address the behaviour of Peter Ball at the time, and that survivors were left to fight tirelessly for justice.”
He apologised to victims and survivors. “I know from my meetings with victims and survivors that the effects of abuse are lifelong, and we must never forget this. We recognise that there are survivors who have never spoken out and who may still want to come forward; we would urge them to do so.
“There is much that is being written and said about accountability and the culture of deference in the Church, and it is clear that change has been too slow. We are committed to making these changes and ensuring that the Church is a safe and welcoming place for everyone.
“I once again offer all survivors a wholehearted apology, and applaud their bravery in coming forward, which continues to hold us to account.”
Read a reflection on the BBC documentary from a survivor of clerical abuse
You can also read our leader comment and Andrew Brown’s press column on the story