Church of England ashamed at abuse in Chichester

September 5, 2012
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The Rt Rev Dr Martin Warner, the Bishop of Chichester since just May this year, has said he is “profoundly ashamed” by the fact that the Church’s safeguarding procedures failed vulnerable children in the Chichester diocese. He said an apology to the victims was “too light a word”, and that he will do all he can to ensure that such vile practices do not happen again within the Church.

The Bishop’s comments come days after an interim report was issued by Lambeth Palace, following an enquiry into a paedophile ring within the diocese which has seen 5 arrests (3 this year) and two former priests convicted for a string of sexual offences against children. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s response to the report was also one of deep regret that matters had been so badly handled in Chichester. He expressed hope that the victims will believe that the Church of England would take their experiences seriously: “We owe them not only our words of apology but our best efforts to make sure that in the future our churches will be safe places for children and vulnerable people of all ages”. The Archbishop admitted that the report showed “many and longstanding failures in implementing a robust and credible safeguarding policy in the Diocese of Chichester” and he assured those affected that the Church was committed to learning lessons from the past. The report’s authors (Bishop John Gladwin and Chancellor Rupert Bursell QC) predict that further allegations will now come to light. The Church is encouraging victims to come forward and report their abuse to the police, or speak to the NSPCC who have set up a help line on 0800 389 5344.

The remorse expressed by the top hierarchy of the Church of England can be contrasted with the attitude of the Catholic Church to the mounting revelations against their institutions and priests. Hours after his death last Friday, a statement released on behalf of Cardinal Carlo Martini announced a damning critique of the Catholic Church’s response to child abuse cases involving clergy. Commenting on the scandals, the former Archbishop of Milan said, “the paedophilia scandals oblige us to take a journey of transformation”, a stance which the Church in general has been disappointingly reluctant to take. Demanding openness and accountability over the issue of abuse in the Church is the only way that we can begin to uncover the full extent of its reach.

We hear also in the news this week that police are stepping up the hunt for Laurence Soper, former Abbot of Ealing Abbey and the headmaster of the now infamous St Benedict’s private school. He had previously been bailed pending enquiries into his role in the child abuse scandal at the top Catholic school and has by all accounts disappeared from his job as treasurer of the Benedictine order at its headquarters in Rome. Two former teachers at the school have already received prison sentences including Father David Pearce – I represented one of his victims who succeeded in his compensation claim earlier this year. Other men (including Soper) were implicated in the scandal by Lord Carlile who carried out an investigation into the school. Scotland Yard has now issued pictures of Soper to be printed in faith magazines and on police web sites. How a man who spent 30 years of his life leading children in moral and spiritual guidance can be so corrupted that he would not return to be questioned by the police beggars belief. The Catholic Church should take note of the Church of England’s response to its own scandal if it wishes to avoid the further erosion of its moral authority. However instead what we see is a Church riven by indecision, and one that uses technical legal arguments to defeat otherwise valid claims of compensation from victims abused by its priests. I heard last week that despite its defeat in the High Court and the Court of Appeal in the case of JGE, the Catholic Church is now applying to the Supreme Court to overturn a decision that it is indeed responsible for its abusing priests. If they win, hundreds could be denied compensation. And that is shameful.

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