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Church of England failed to protect children from abuse

The Church of England failed to protect children and young people from sexual predators a report published by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has found.

Between the 1940s to 2018, there have been 390 people who were clergy or in positions of trust associated with the Church who have been convicted of sexual offences against children, the inquiry found.

“Many of these cases demonstrate the Church of England’s failure to take the abuse seriously, creating a culture where abusers were able to hide. Alleged perpetrators were given more support than victims, who often faced barriers to reporting they simply couldn’t overcome,” said the report.

The Church’s failure to respond consistently to victims and survivors of child sexual abuse often added to their trauma and Archbishop Justin Welby slammed this failure as “profoundly and deeply shocking”.

Moral purpose

The investigation concerned the extent to which the Church of England and the Church in Wales protected children from sexual abuse in the past. The Church of England is the largest Christian denomination in the country, with over a million regular worshippers. Convictions of sexual abuse of children by people who were clergy or in positions of trust associated with the Church date back to the 1940s.

There were 449 concerns reported to the Church about recent child sexual abuse in 2018, of which more than half related to church officers. A significant amount of offending involved the downloading or possession of indecent images of children.

The report highlighted:

  • The culture of the Church of England facilitated it becoming a place where abusers could hide.
  • Deference to the authority of the Church and to individual priests compounded the issue.
  • Taboos surrounding discussion of sexuality came into play regarding abuse and victims disclosing abuse.
  • 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.
  • Faith organisations such as the Anglican Church are marked out by their explicit moral purpose, in teaching right from wrong.
  • In the context of child sexual abuse, the Church’s neglect of the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of children and young people in favour of protecting its reputation was in conflict with its mission of love and care for the innocent and the vulnerable.

While senior Church leaders are now saying the right things in respect of child abuse, lasting change will require more than platitudes, the report says, adding that continuous reinforcement of the abhorrent nature of child sexual abuse and the importance of safeguarding in all of the Church’s settings is required.

Trauma

The inquiry found that until at least 2015, the Church of England did not properly resource safeguarding. Funding has increased considerably, in particular for safeguarding staff. A further recent change means that the advice of safeguarding staff should not be ignored by senior clergy if they do not like the advice they are given. However, the inquiry found examples of this continuing to occur after undertaking file sampling.

Diocesan safeguarding officers – not clergy – are best placed to decide which cases to refer to the statutory authorities, and what action should be taken by the Church to keep children safe. Diocesan bishops have an important role to play, but they should not hold operational responsibility for safeguarding, the report adds.

“The Church has failed to respond consistently to victims and survivors of child sexual abuse with sympathy and compassion, accompanied by practical and appropriate support. This has often added to the trauma already suffered by those who were abused by individuals associated with the Church,” said the report.

Excessive attention was often paid to the circumstances of the alleged perpetrator in comparison to the attention given to those who disclosed they had been sexually abused or to the issue of the risk that alleged perpetrators posed to others, the inquiry found. Sometimes sexual offending was minimised as in the case of Reverend Ian Hughes who, in 2014, was convicted of downloading 8,000 indecent images of children. Bishop Peter Forster suggested to the inquiry that Hughes had been “misled into viewing child pornography” on the basis that “pornography is so ubiquitously available and viewed”. This is despite the fact that more than 800 of the images downloaded by Hughes were graded at the most serious level of abuse.

“Wanted the whole business to go away”

On some occasions public support was given to offending clergy. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord George Carey, simply could not believe the allegations against former bishop Peter Ball or acknowledge the seriousness of them regardless of evidence. Ball pleaded guilty in 2015 to two counts of indecent assault and one count of misconduct in a public office, relating to the “deliberate manipulation” of 16 vulnerable young men for his own “sexual gratification”, although allegations were first investigated in 1992. The inquiry reported that Carey “seemingly wanted the whole business to go away”.

Although there have been a number of important improvements in child protection practice within the Church, it has some way to go to rebuild the trust of victims. When the Church did try to uncover past failures, such as the Past Cases Review, which was completed in 2009, the exercise was flawed and incomplete.

With regards to The Church in Wales, it is a Province of the Anglican Communion and since 1920, it has been ‘disestablished’ and is not the ‘state’ religion of the country. It has six dioceses, with 1,295 churches organised into 594 parishes, and is served by some 600 clergy. In 2018, the electoral roll showed more than 42,000 worshippers in the Church in Wales. In recent years, a number of clergy have been deposed from holy orders following convictions for sexual assaults on children, or for offences concerning indecent images of children, although no precise data are available.

Each parish should have a safeguarding officer. A Historic Cases Review, published in 2012, concluded that there was a need to improve compliance with existing safeguarding policies, and to adopt additional policies to better protect children. In 2016, a further review was undertaken focussing on files of deceased clergy and a new safeguarding policy was adopted. Further improvements are still required, particularly in the area of record-keeping, as the inquiry’s sampling found to be almost non-existent and of little use in trying to understand past safeguarding issues.

Poor record keeping

“The Inquiry finds that to date, the Church in Wales has never had a programme of external auditing, so there has been no independent scrutiny of its safeguarding practices. It also highlights record-keeping as a significant problem for the Church; the Inquiry’s sampling exercise demonstrated both poor record-keeping and a total absence of records in some cases,” said the report.

This report, based on the Inquiry’s public hearings held during July 2019, includes eight recommendations, directed to both the Church in England and the Church in Wales, including a recommendation that the Church in England and Wales funds mandatory support for victims and survivors that takes into account their lifetime needs.

Professor Alexis Jay, Chair of the Inquiry said: “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.

Preventing repeat failures

“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,” she concluded.

The report and recommendations are available here.


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