FOR decades, the Church of England has contradicted its “moral purpose” by failing to protect children and young people from the hundreds of sexual predators within its ranks, the national child abuse inquiry has concluded.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) published its investigation report on the Anglican Church on Tuesday. Since 2016, the Inquiry has been investigating the extent to which the C of E and the Church in Wales failed to protect children under its care, respond to allegations of abuse, and provide adequate safeguarding policies and practices. Public hearings and tens of thousands of documents of evidence and witness statements have been gathered.
The latest report identifies 390 convicted offenders associated with the C of E from the 1940s until 2018, but warns that it is not possible to identify accurately the true scale of sexual offending.
During this time, the Church paid “excessive attention” to the alleged perpetrators of sexual abuse in contrast to that given to the victims, it says. The report gives multiple detailed examples of clerics whose position and reputation were prioritised over proper consideration of the serious allegations against them from victims, including children.
For too long, child protection was under-resourced, and the position and advice of the few existing safeguarding personnel was repeatedly ignored or overlooked.
“The culture of the Church of England facilitated it becoming a place where abusers could hide,” it says. “Deference to the authority of the Church and to individual priests, taboos surrounding discussion of sexuality and an environment where alleged perpetrators were treated more supportively than victims presented barriers to disclosure that many victims could not overcome.
“Another aspect of the Church’s culture was clericalism, which meant that the moral authority of clergy was widely perceived as beyond reproach.”
The report refers, as an example, to evidence given by a former Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, during the public hearings in July 2019, regarding a convicted cleric, Ian Hughes (News, 5 July 2019).
Dr Forster had told the IICSA panel that Mr Hughes, who 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), had probably been “lured” into downloading the images.
It notes that, until shortly before his retirement, Dr Forster retained responsibility for safeguarding decisions, something that was beyond the diocesan safeguarding panel to change.
Themes raised in the July hearings are expanded on in the report, including evidence that the Church prioritised its reputation over safeguarding, its failure to offer proper redress and pastoral support, and the inadequacies of the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) (News, 19 July 2019). Church leaders also repeatedly “used forgiveness to justify a failure to respond appropriately to allegations” and as the appropriate response to any admission of wrongdoing, the report says.
For examples of deference and clericalism, it also revisits evidence given during the hearings in 2018 which it used as case studies: the diocese of Chichester and the abuse carried out by Peter Ball.
Cases are also repeated of clerics being ordained despite a history of child sexual offences and of clerics who were unable or unwilling to properly fulfil their safeguarding responsibilities.
Not all of the examples given in the report are non-recent. In 2018, there were 2504 safeguarding concerns reported to C of E dioceses about either children or vulnerable adults, it states, and 449 concerns about recent child sexual abuse. A significant amount of the offending involved the downloading or possession of indecent images of children.
While the report acknowledges that the C of E has made “important improvements” in child-protection practice in the past ten years, “it has some way to go to rebuild the trust of victims.”
It makes eight recommendations, four of which apply to both the C of E and the Church in Wales. This includes the introduction of a church-wide policy on the funding and provision of support to victims and survivors. This should be mandatory across all dioceses, it says. Both Churches should also commit to sharing information at a national and diocesan level, especially concerned clerics who move between the Churches.
Recommendations specific to the C of E include replacing the post of diocesan safeguarding adviser with a diocesan safeguarding officer, who, it says, should have the authority to make decisions independently of the diocesan bishop in respect of key safeguarding tasks. This includes supporting complainants, carrying our risk assessments, and advising on the suspension of clergy in safeguarding matters.
The CDM should be revised or replaced with a new system that removes the current 12-month time-limit for all complaints with a safeguarding element. In this vein, the Church should also “reintroduce the power to depose from holy orders where a member of the clergy is found guilty of child sexual abuse offences” and introduce a “mandatory code of practice” to improve the way that safeguarding issues are handled.
The Church in Wales has also made significant progress in reviewing its safeguarding policies and past cases, the report says. It is praised for having an independent safeguarding body which reviews all complaints and decisions about whether complaints go to the Clergy Discipline Tribunal. It is criticised in particular, however, for poor record keeping and for spreading its provincial safeguarding officers “too thinly”.
The report recommends that the Church in Wales should introduce independent external auditing of its safeguarding policies and procedures; introduce record-keeping policies; and enshrine the structure of its safeguarding in policy.
This is not the final IICSA report on the Anglican Church, as previously reported. The Inquiry intends to publish a separate report focusing on safeguarding in relation to the seal of the confessional, mandatory reporting, and how the disclosure and barring regime applies to volunteers and to religious organisations. This will be its third and final report on the Anglican Church. There will be three more hearings on these topics between now and the end of the year. The final report is expected in spring 2022.
The chair of the Inquiry, Professor Alexis Jay, said on Tuesday: “Over many decades, the Church of England failed to protect children and young people from sexual abusers, instead facilitating a culture where perpetrators could hide and victims faced barriers to disclosure that many could not overcome.
“Within the Church in Wales, there were simply not enough safeguarding officers to carry out the volume of work required of them. Record-keeping was found to be almost non-existent and of little use in trying to understand past safeguarding issues.
“To ensure the right action is taken in future, it’s essential that the importance of protecting children from abhorrent sexual abuse is continuously reinforced. If real and lasting changes are to be made, it’s vital that the Church improves the way it responds to allegations from victims and survivors, and provides proper support for those victims over time.
“The panel and I hope that this report and its recommendations will support these changes to ensure these failures never happen again.”
Read the full responses from the Church of England and Church in Wales
You can also read more on this topic in this week’s Features:
What to do about adult abuse
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