A FORMER Bishop of Chester, the late Victor Whitsey, was able to abuse at least 18 people, children and adults, male and female, without being challenged, an independent review has found.
Judge David Pearl, who chaired the review, says that his report on the handling of the sexual-abuse allegations against the late Hubert Victor Whitsey will make “deeply uncomfortable reading for the Church” — not least because of the way in which church officials have since responded to survivors of Whitsey’s abuse.
The exhaustive 145-page report, A Betrayal of Trust, was published on Thursday. It charts serial abuse that began in 1966 with the abuse of a teenage boy on a trip with the Church Lads’ Brigade, and continued even after the late Bishop moved into a retirement home in 1981. He died in 1987.
One witness’s statement says that, while the abuse was taking place, the Bishop said to him: “I have the power to give you everything you want, and the power to take it away.”
Another disclosed abuse that took place in 1982 to the Bishop’s secretary, “who tells her not to worry about it as [the Bishop] was now retired”.
The 18 known victims, both male and female, ranged from children to young adults. Some were abused on multiple occasions, and many of the incidents took place at Bishop’s House, in Chester. The Bishop “groomed his victims, and often their families, to enable his abuse”, the review finds. “He used his position in the Church to abuse both prospective ordinands, and children and young persons, many of whom were particularly vulnerable as they were experiencing family difficulties such as the death or departure of a parent.”
It concludes that some of the victims did disclose the abuse against them to senior members of the Church, and that opportunities were missed by church leaders in the late 1970s and early ’80s to deal with these matters while Whitsey was still alive. The involvement of the retired Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, and the veracity of the Bishop of Beverley, the Rt Revd Glyn Webster, come under particular scrutiny.
Dr Forster was not a safeguarding professional, and should not have been conducting inquiries, the review concludes. It concentrates on the work done by the relevant dioceses, and by the National Safeguarding Team (NST) of the Church of England, during the period 2014-18. It finds that there was a further disclosure in 2012, and that opportunities were lost by the Church to deal with this disclosure.
Concerns were raised by named individual clergy members and others, over the years, about Bishop Whitsey’s “odd” behaviour. In 2012, “M1 mentions HVW [Bishop Whitsey] during a dinner party at which Bishop Glyn Webster (who at that time was a Canon) is present.” In March 2014, “M1” disclosed to the Revd Andrew Foreshew-Cain that he was abused by a northern bishop when he was a teenager. M1 discloses that he told a northern bishop about the abuse and was told “not to make a fuss”.
The following month, Fr Foreshew-Cain and Sheryl Kent, DSA for London, are charted as communicating via email about how to support M1 in coming forward to the diocese. “Father Andrew Foreshew-Cain confirms that M1’s abuse was by a former deceased Bishop of Chester, and the Bishop of Beverley ‘asked for silence’”.
More disclosures followed in 2016, with protracted exchanges between DSA and NSA personnel. The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, was informed by Dr Forster that July of emerging details of two allegations of sexual abuse. Cheshire police began an investigation later the same month. Dr Forster was urged not to make contact with anyone else in relation to the case.
Bishop Webster was advised on 5 September 2016 that a victim had alleged that he had spoken with Bishop Webster and “been advised by him not to report it”. The Bishop responded that he “did not receive a disclosure and would not advise someone not to report their abuse”.
The review reports that witness M3 “stated he cannot fault the actions of the Cheshire police. He says that the officers who dealt with this case were absolutely amazing, that they exhibited an incredibly victim-centred approach, and were always approachable and understanding. This is in stark contrast to the way he was interviewed by Bishop Peter Forster, in the room where he been abused.”
There is concern about the letters of apology that have been sent to the victims, both regarding the length of time that it took to send them, but also the fact that they were generic letters that did not relate to individual circumstances. “A different and more sensitive letter could have been addressed for example to F3, paying particular attention to the abuses she and her daughters had suffered, the knowledge of which had caused serious distress. In fact, all three letters are identical, and we see no justification for that at all.”
A joint statement from Judge Pearl and Kate Wood, a co-reviewer, said that the victims’ suffering had clearly been made worse by the poor response of church officers at different times, when the victims had the courage to come forward. “We hope our recommendations are helpful in the Church’s learning lessons in responding to allegations of abuse as well as being a reminder that, for victims, the effects of Whitsey’s abuse are lifelong,” they said on Thursday of last week.
The Church of England’s lead safeguarding bishop, the Rt Revd Jonathan Gibbs, described the report as “a stark account of the appalling abuse by Victor Whitsey and the Church’s failure both to protect these children and young adults and to respond well when the survivors and victims had the courage to come forward.
“It is also particularly poignant coming so close to the publication of the damning IICSA report on the Church of England. We apologise to all victims and survivors of Victor Whitsey, including those who may not be known to us, and where he also failed to prevent abuse by others.
“As we said following IICSA, while apologies will never take away the effects of abuse on victims and survivors, we today want to express our shame about the events that have made those apologies necessary. Our focus must lie today with the survivors and victims of Whitsey, recognising the impact that this horrendous abuse has had on their lives, and with deep gratitude for their courage in engaging with the independent review.
“We are taking action to ensure that the Church is a safer place for all, and we will be using these recommendations to help us drive change — and some of these already link up with existing work. We recognise that an urgent response to the identified failures in safeguarding practice is necessary.
“The IICSA recommendations have been accepted in full by the House of Bishops, which has committed to moving towards an independent safeguarding structure as well as to working for a real and lasting change in the culture of the Church.”
The present Bishop of Chester, the Rt Revd Mark Tanner, said on Thursday of last week: “There are no words to express my horror and shame as I read this report; and, even if there were, words alone are not enough. Our apologies, which are freely and sincerely given, must be backed up by action.
“I am grateful to all those who have already helped us start to change, to Judge Pearl for this report, and most of all to the incredibly brave survivors who have spoken up and made us listen. It is with them and all victims of abuse that my thoughts and prayers rest today as I commit myself and the diocese of Chester to respond in word and action to this report.”
Bishop Tanner looked stricken at the press conference that followed the publication of the report, referring more than once to the “wickedness” that had been perpetrated. The diocese was very aware of the dangers of “marking our own homework” in response to the report, and that, he promised, would not happen.
The Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, said: “That a bishop should have been able to go on abusing young and vulnerable people over such a long period without ever being held to account for his actions is a matter of deep shame for the Church of England. In addition, there may be others for whom the publication of the report raises painful questions: we know of at least one instance where disclosures of abuse by someone else were made to Whitsey when he was bishop, and he did nothing in response.
“On behalf of the Church, I apologise, and say I am deeply sorry to all who suffered as a result of his behaviour. In addition to making this apology, I also want survivors to know that, if you wish it, my colleagues and I will be here to offer you real and ongoing support. Meanwhile, we must ensure that these challenging lessons are learned, so as not to repeat the errors of the past.”