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Confront the failures of the past

27 November 2020

The IICSA report should prompt the C of E to examine its history, says Barbara Bilston

Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

Children play in a playground in 1948, the year in which the Children Act was passed. The Act gave primary responsibility for child protection to local authorities

Children play in a playground in 1948, the year in which the Children Act was passed. The Act gave primary responsibility for child protection to loca...

THE report by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) (News, 9 October) presents the evidence for the Church’s having failed in recent years in its duty to the vulnerable.

As it comes to terms with the report’s findings, the Church would do well to pay attention to the social and legislative context in which the abuse took place, and be aware of the systemic and cultural factors that allowed such egregious behaviour to occur in plain sight.

Abusive behaviour by the clergy was evident more than a century ago. In Leaves from a Life, published in 1908, Jane Ellen Panton described contemptuously an errant clergyman hustled out of his parish to a foreign mission station, but who, with the connivance of a sympathetic colleague, crept back to a London parish to continue his abuse of young parlourmaids. She considered complaining to the bishop, but concluded that it would be a waste of time. She was right.

Furthermore, at that time, the family was considered to be a sacred enclave into which no legislator dared to tread. Even as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was being founded in the 1880s, Whatley Cooke-Taylor, a reformer, declared: “I would far rather see even a higher rate of infant mortality prevailing . . . than intrude one iota on the sanctity of the domestic hearth.”


MORE enlightened attitudes to children’s health, welfare, and education developed after 1945. The case of Dennis O’Neill, a 12-year-old boy killed by his foster father, led to the 1948 Children Act, which gave primary responsibility for child protection to local authorities, while still leaving a significant part for the NSPCC to play. Children’s Officers and Health Visitors were appointed to protect children’s welfare, and social-work training developed.

There was, however, a growing awareness of sexual exploitation by adults of children in single-sex boarding schools, Scout groups, and churches. Homosexual practice was illegal until 1967; so complaints about adults in positions of authority risked disaster for the perpetrator and the institution. The first Act of Parliament to address adult sexual abuse of children in 1963 related only to girls and boys under 14. There was no protection for older children.

Put simply, for the greater part of the 20th century, the criminal justice system, combined with social attitudes and institutional denial, failed children and young people who were sexually abused.

If they disclosed abuse, they were either disbelieved or blamed for what had happened. The perpetrator was portrayed as the hapless victim of personal temptation, whose lapse was being exploited by a precocious troublemaker. Disclosure would destroy the adult’s reputation and livelihood, and the institution would be mired in litigation and scandal. Incomprehension and lack of training prevented the church hierarchy, as well as secular institutions associated with children, from recognising the obsessive and repetitive nature of the behaviour.

The Church’s traditional rituals for confronting the damages of sin were guilt and remorse, confession, absolution, forgiveness, and reform. Senior clergy had the additional responsibility of episcope, guiding troubled clergy away from temptation and protecting them and their ministry. Removing them to another location was a simple, attractive, but dangerously ineffectual option. A culture of ignorance, tradition, and fear left the Church, like other social institutions, unprepared for exposure to reputational damage by prioritising the abuser over the abused.

Legislation and training were urgently needed. After the passing of the 1989 Children Act, the Open University produced the first national training materials for field workers in statutory and voluntary agencies, and the police. Training for parish clergy took too long to catch up, and, even then, did not focus on senior clergy.

Not until 2003 did the Sexual Offences Act put children at the centre of legislation and create the charge of “abuse of trust” by adults. Over the next few years, safeguarding training was developed, and further reforms in the Care Act of 2014 formally added vulnerable adults to those in need of safeguarding.


THE good news is that more progress has been made in constructing legal and administrative frameworks to protect children and vulnerable adults in the first two decades of the 21st century than in the whole of the 20th. The Church now works with multi-agency safeguarding teams.

But prevention alone is not enough. IICSA has revealed the flaws endemic in all social institutions charged with the care of children, which has led to demands that victims of past failures by the Church deserve recognition and redress.

A century after Mrs Panton’s warning, it took the Jimmy Savile revelations and high- profile cases in the Church to lift the curtain. No wonder victims felt ignored. Now, the Church’s belated response must be to take the initiative by confronting its moral and ethical obligations to admit its mistakes, and offer care, reparation, and healing.


Canon Barbara Bilston is a retired priest in the diocese of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, and a clergy representative on the diocesan safeguarding panel. Before ordination, she worked as a social worker and as an academic in the field of social work and welfare.

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