*** DEBUG END ***

Disaster and its aftermath

14 April 2022

James Jones looks back ten years to the day the Hillsborough report was published


The Hillsborough Independent Panel members present their report in Liverpool Cathedral on 12 September 2012. Left to right: Raju Bhatt, Sarah Tyacke, Paul Leighton, Peter Sissons, Bishop James Jones, Phil Scraton, Bill Kirkup, Christine Gifford, and Katy Jones

The Hillsborough Independent Panel members present their report in Liverpool Cathedral on 12 September 2012. Left to right: Raju Bhatt, Sarah Tyacke, ...

AS FAR as I am able to judge, chairing the Hillsborough Independent Panel was the single most important aspect of my work as Bishop of Liverpool from 1998 to 2013. It brought into the sharpest focus, for me, issues that all of us struggle with — the problem of suffering, the pain of loss, living with grief, the corruption of power, and the lack of justice in the world.

These and other sad life events are made all the more difficult to bear by trying to square them with a belief in God, who seems to have neither the will nor the power to intervene.

It was the families and survivors of Hillsborough who impressed on my inner being the burning imperatives of truth and justice. To change the metaphor: truth is a double-edged sword that cuts inwards as well as outwards.

While the families fought publicly for the truth for more than 30 years, rising up and challenging the patronising disposition of unaccountable power of so many institutions, I found myself, for ten of those years, going deeper into myself, questioning my own ideas and values, as well as my own involvement in a society that had denied for so long both truth and justice to the families of the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster.

WHEN I was asked to chair the Panel, I sought advice from colleagues and from leaders in the city and the region. Many advised against it as a poisoned chalice.

I have to confess that, at this stage, it was not so much the pursuit of truth and justice that persuaded me, but the pastoral needs of the families that I had already met.

Even at this point I knew that lives had been shattered by Hillsborough. Suicides, early deaths, family breakdown, depression, and unemployment featured in the lives of the bereaved and the survivors.

As a pastor, I felt drawn to them, and subconsciously imagined that I would find fulfilment in meeting their need to find answers to their legitimate questions about what had happened to their loved ones, and who was responsible.

For more than 20 years, the families and survivors had felt frustrated and let down by the police, the press, politicians, Parliament, and by the judiciary itself. Even though, in the past, the Church had been slow to respond to the cries of the families for a thorough inquiry, having been failed by so many institutions it was to the Church that they turned for the chairing of the Panel.

As we entered the final stretch, it became ever more clear that the families had suffered a series of injustices over the decades. The Panel began to experience something of the antagonism that the families had endured over the years when our work was frustrated, delayed, and threatened with judicial review.

Right at the outset, we had agreed with the families that they should be the first to read the report so that they could be assured it would not be tampered with. They were understandably suspicious of powerful interests seeking to rewrite the narrative (this “families first” principle is now followed by other inquiries and panels).

We needed to agree a venue that would provide privacy for the families and protection from the glare of the media as they absorbed what we knew would be traumatic material.

We consulted them, without disclosing the content of the report; discussed various options in the Panel; and finally settled on Liverpool Cathedral. It suited the complex logistical requirements, and also provided a dignified and sacred place to remember and honour the 96.

EVERY day, for three months before we published the report on 12 September 2012, I read in my daily prayers one of the parables of Jesus: the widow and the unjust judge in Luke’s Gospel.

I used to think that this was a parable about prayer. In the context of Hillsborough, I began to feel the force of it as an allegory about justice. “Grant me justice.” That had been the prayer of the Hillsborough widows, mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters for more than 20 years.

As I read this parable each day, I could see and feel so many dimensions of their search for justice: how easy it is to give up and to lose heart; how indifferent the judicial system seems to ordinary people; the imbalance of power in the relationships between the powerful and the powerless; the indomitable human spirit that refuses to give up.

How, in spite of the impossibly long wait needed until we see it, Jesus says that God is on the side of those seeking justice. It was this last point that fortified me.

Although we had made preparations to face the media, the source of my nerves on the morning of 12 September, as we gathered in the cathedral, was how I was going to be with the families. We knew that what was in the report would turn their world upside down.

The emotional tension knotted every muscle. Grief is a contagion. I felt in my soul a suppressed weeping that I feared could erupt at any moment as I caught sight of the heavily lined faces of many of the 250 family members taking their seats in the well of the cathedral.

As a priest, you learn at such events to tighten the valve on your own feelings so as to lead others through the trauma of the occasion, and then find your own time and place to release your inner turmoil.

DURING the presentation of the report by the Panel, three family members fainted. A year later, Margaret Aspinall recalled the day to me: “Oh, Bishop, we’ll never forget those three words. They turned our world upside down . . .You said, ‘You’ve all come here today wondering if we’ve found anything new,’ and then you said, ‘And we have.’ And with those three words everything changed.”

Phil Scraton and Bill Kirkup led the presentation. When Bill presented his analysis of the post-mortem reports, there were audible gasps from the families. At the end of the 90-minute presentation, and just before copies of the full report were given to each family, another leading family member took the microphone. We had no idea what he would say.

From his trembling lips slipped the word “Sorry”. He had come forwards to apologise for ever doubting the integrity of the Panel. It brought a lump to my throat. It’s true that we had faced many challenges posed by the families and survivors, but on this day of truth-telling it was they who merited the apology, not us.

His “sorry” spoke to me and my colleagues of the dignity and grace that seasoned the frustration and anger of their long struggle for truth and justice.

After the families had had time to read at least the summary of the report, we reconvened for a live video link to the House of Commons, and a statement on Hillsborough by the Prime Minister, David Cameron.

Unequivocally, he offered an apology to the families for “a double injustice”. The day before, at 8.30 a.m., without actually giving him the report, I briefed him in his Downing Street office. He grasped the gravity immediately.

He recognised the injustice of the 96 having been blamed for their own deaths, as well as the further injustice of having had to wait more than 20 years for the truth to be told. If ever there were a case of “justice delayed is justice denied,” it was Hillsborough.

At the end of the afternoon, at about 4.30, we gathered the families together to draw the lengthy proceedings to a close. It had been a momentous day. It was already making news around the world. For both families and survivors, it was bittersweet.

They were vindicated at last, and heartbroken; their grieving revived, their love rekindled, their loss magnified.

But, if grief is a journey without destination, then on 12 September 2012, in Liverpool Cathedral, two milestones were reached, with the names of truth and justice, further memorials to the 96.

Throughout the day the chapter house, located to the left of the high altar, had been set aside as a chapel for the families to use as a retreat from the intensity of the proceedings. I thanked the families for their extraordinary forbearance through the long day. I said I was now going to the “chapel” to remember the 96 and to pray to God that truth and justice would prevail in his world.

I walked the length of the cathedral and knelt down in the bishop’s stall with my face in my hands. For the next hour, I think most of the 250 family members followed — some kneeling, some standing, some looking in the Book of Remembrance, some praying, and all of us caught up in a physical and spiritual movement of to-ing and fro-ing, of reliving and remembering, of dying and living.

Then from within me sprang a tearful well, dampening my eyes in thanksgiving that on this day it was in the house of God that the families heard truth call out to and for justice. From that day on, words such as these have leapt off the pages of the Bible for me: “The works of his hands are truth and justice” (Psalm 111.7, Common Worship).

This is an edited extract from Justice for Christ’s sake: A personal journey around justice through the eyes of faith by James Jones, a former Bishop of Liverpool, published by SPCK at £12.99 (Church Times bookshop £11.69); 978-0-28108-625-2.

Since the book was written, Andrew Devine, who was injured at Hillsborough and died in 2021, has been added to the official toll of victims, which now stands at 97.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)