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Child abuse and the church

I believe that we sought to act in the best interests – not only of the Church, but of the family and of everybody concerned at that time

This from David Wilcox, Assistant Bishop to the Diocese of Chichester, then Bishop of Dorking, responding to the case of Peter Halliday, ex-choirmaster who abused young boys between the years 1985-1990. Halliday was eventually jailed for two and half years, but the church of England received criticism for not reporting Mr Halliday to the police, choosing instead to ask him to leave quietly and refrain from working with adolescents in future.

Things were very different then. I think that we make the mistake of trying to read back what we now know and how we now do things.

This also from David Wilcox, Assistant Bishop to the Diocese of Chichester, then Bishop of Dorking, responding to the case of Peter Halliday, showing an apparent lack of repentance for his inaction in response to the evidence and information he received about Mr Halliday.

We are completely satisfied that what was done at the time was the way things happened in those days when child protection awareness was on the cusp of serious change. Church officers at every level acted in good faith in accordance with what they perceived to be in the best interests of child and family at that time.

This from Mark Rudall, spokesman for the Diocese of Guildford, responding to the suggestion that the Halliday case was seriously mishandled.

It has been stated that the law was different back then. This is a compete red herring. It was well known even then that serious crimes against children had to be reported to the police. The Church had a clear responsibility to take action.

This from David Pearson, chief executive of the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service, responding without too much sympathy to the defences offered by David Wilcox, Assistant Bishop to the Diocese of Chichester, the Bishop of Dorking, and Mark Rudall, spokesman for the Diocese of Guildford.

As far as I am aware there were no consequences for David Wilcox, Assistant Bishop to the Diocese of Chichester, then Bishop of Dorking, for having acted the way he did (as one of a team of people who chose a particular course of action), and it appears the whole affair died down following the incarceration of Mr Halliday. Should anybody have information to the contrary, I should be interested and grateful to receive it.

Why am I bringing these cases up? Well, solely from anecdotal evidence it is not at all unusual to hear of Anglican clergymen having been moved around because of certain unhealthy predilections. And not just anecdote, either, since there does occasionally appear in the news cases that have lead people to suggest the cover-up of child abuse, such as the case of Roy Cotton, a known paedophile ordained by the church of England whom, amongst other details of the case that lead to suspicion, it was suggested by Lambeth Palace should be placed in a ‘carefully selected parish.’ He went on to abuse at least 10 boys during his time in the church. Reviewing the case, Baroness Butler-Sloss suggested the parish, and probably many others, demonstrated ‘a lack of understanding of the seriousness of historic child abuse.’ Not everyone responded positively to the Butler-Sloss report, however, particularly when it was discovered that her report effectively downplayed the access Cotton had to children, leading one of Cotton’s victims to say,

I don’t even know if I can believe any of the Sloss report now.

If there’s errors, mistakes, cover-ups, whatever you want to call them, just one, do I believe the rest? I really don’t know.

To their credit certain Bishops welcomed the review, with the Bishop of Chichester, John Hind, saying ‘I feel deep and profound sorrow for the pain caused to all victims and for the institutional failings of the Church in this Diocese.’

This being said, it would nonetheless be unwise, not to mention irresponsible, to construct any sort of case or offer any sort of allegations based on anecdote or seemingly isolated news stories alone. It does plant the seed of a perfectly legitimate question, though: how widespread was child abuse and cover-up of child abuse in the church of England?

To its unending credit, the church initiated a review to investigate, it would seem at first glance, precisely these questions. It compiled a comprehensive report based on its own files and data systems in order to ensure there were no clergy or other affiliated persons working with children when there was sufficient cause or evidence to suggest they should not be doing so. The (admittedly comprehensive) review was completed, and the church of England responded that

The Review indicates that there are no outstanding issues of which the Church has previously been made aware relating to any clergy or other office holders’ suitability to work with children that have not now been investigated by the police or other relevant professional authority.

As a result of this Review, we are now able to say that nobody representing the Church in a formal capacity has allegations on file that have not been thoroughly re-examined in the light of current best practice, and any appropriate action taken.

Which is admirable. But it does lead to the question: what about before the review? Whilst the church has finally reviewed its historic cases and updated its protocols, does this not also suggest that historically cases of abuse were not dealt with in an acceptable manner? Does it not suggest that some cases remained in the system, inadequately responded to, until 2008-9 when such cases were reviewed, with the relevant people working with children, when they should not have been doing so, and for which all evidence was there to prevent them from doing so, right up until 2008-09?

And not trifling cases neither. According to the review:

As a result of the diocesan reviews of 40,747 files, 13 cases were identified requiring formal action. Eleven cases were referred to the statutory authorities, eight of which involved a member of the clergy and three of which involved a non-ordained person holding some form of church office. Five of these cases relate to past allegations that originally involved police investigation and some of which resulted in convictions, but in the light of the latest developments in the safeguarding field, the Independent Reviewers have now recommended that details of the individuals involved should be referred to the Independent Safeguarding Authority for consideration for inclusion on their barred list**. The other six cases were referred to the police for advice or investigation over the review period and the police have since indicated they are unable to take further action. In three of these cases, a risk management strategy has been put in place by the diocese’s multi-agency child protection management group. There are no cases where a police investigation is still on-going.

A further two cases where action by the statutory authorities was not possible, each relating to members of the clergy, were deemed by the independent Reviewers to warrant formal disciplinary actions by the Church.

Which must be considered A Good Thing. And again, all credit to the church of England for their actions in this regard. But the question remains: what had happened to allow such people to be working in the first place? Presumably, since their misdemeanours were on file and known about, this must have involved shockingly poor judgment at best, or something more collaborative at worst? And what about the Bishops? Since these cases were known about, since some of them involved historic documented abuses, why had the Bishops under whose authority such persons were working not reported such people much earlier? Presumably they must have known of the existence of these cases – why wait until a church of England review has taken place before any reporting to external authorities had taken place? Or even before dismissing them from service?

Which leads us to the protocols for the review, available here. Again, the church of England is to be commended for the range and depth of its study and intentions, but significant questions remain. According to the protocols, cases that did not require further review include, for example,

Some cases where the alleged abuser is known to be deceased, and therefore presents no current risk. However the needs of victims will still need to be considered sensitively, and the case still needs to be listed, where information is discovered. There may also be a need to review the matter in order for lessons to be learnt, or in the light of new information.

Which strikes me as inadequate primarily because, whilst earthly justice might be difficult to dispense, thorough review of the case might well be beneficial to discover any potentially alarming details about a) the response of the Bishops and their decision-making, and b) the response of church authorities more widely.

And it seems to me that this is the blindspot in the whole review – the ability, or indeed intention, to root out cases of intentional cover-up or the incidents of such poor responses to allegations and evidence that one might reasonably suspect a cover-up, even if it turns out that the inadequate response was more rooted in incompetency and/or ignorance than the intent to wilfully mislead. The report protocols demonstrate a notable lack of focus specifically on the issue of how issues were dealt with and, more specifically, when, where and whether there were instances of intentional cover-up and/or inadequate responses to those who had abused. Indeed, the very terms upon which the report proceeds demonstrates a certain weakness for allowing for the possibility of such an exploration. This is not to say the report does not (very briefly) talk the talk. For example, we read that,

We need to reflect on past decisions, in particular on those matters that were not always dealt with by the church in accordance with best practice of the time or of today.


Bishops, together with their Diocesan Child Protection Management Groups (DCPMG) and Child Protection Adviser(s) (CPA), should ensure that any cases which were known of in the past but not adequately responded to, should be the subject of urgent review, reported to the statutory authorities wherever appropriate, and that follow-up action is taken.

But that is about as far as it goes, and the rest of the document certainly does not give the impression that this is either the main aim or the principal intention of the report. For example, we read that

The CPA will compile and maintain the Known Cases List, but ultimately the responsibility for ensuring that no cases or any suspected risk are omitted remain with the diocesan Bishop, as he may have access to information not previously provided to others.


Some records may have been lost or damaged. Some may have been received in the form of confidential reports from a psychologist or others, and these may have been returned to the author without a copy having been retained. In such cases Bishops, together with the appropriate officers, must ensure that concerns, if they exist, are re-documented, and that the status of the information – fact, opinion or unsubstantiated information – is clearly recorded.

And again

Bishops and other responsible people in the Diocese may be aware of such non-recorded cases themselves, and they will also need to consult predecessors and relevant Diocesan senior colleagues, including those retired, for information which may exist only in their or their colleagues’ memories.

It remains dubious whether one could argue with full confidence that such protocols offer the opportunity for unfettered investigation into potential incidents of cover-up and/or serious incompetence at the level of Bishop, for example.

With this in mind, we must also acknowledge that this is a fine line to walk. Was Bishop Wilcox guilty of a cover-up? He certainly does not think so, and firmly argued as such. His reasons are clear and, to try and remain even-handed, his defence is probably well-founded, even if ultimately inadequate. Nonetheless, people reviewing such cases in light of contemporary standards (something which Bishop Wilcox explicitly counsels against) could be forgiven for attaching the word ‘cover-up’ when they read of such cases.

Having not seen the final report and findings, and currently unable to find it, it is important to admit that many of these questions remain essentially unanswerable (should anybody have the report, I would be grateful to receive it). Which also means that they are there to be answered, certainly for this observer. Whilst the church of England has reacted admirably in certain respects, significant questions remain, the principal one being the scope of its review and investigation into the potential and possibility of serious and sustained cover-up of abuse by members associated with or employed by the church of England.

Whilst not seeking to retreat to the trenches that some would occupy, and try to construct out of this any overarching narrative regarding the character and composition of Canterbury, nonetheless there remains sufficient space to ask the question whether the Church has been submitted to the kind of scrutiny it should rightly receive, and whether incidents of cover-up and/or serious incompetence were restricted to isolated incidents affecting a very small minority,  or were parts of a wider church problem.

And if it turns out, as it may or may not do, that the church of England has not received that scrutiny, then one might legitimately proceed to ask the question: why not?

Time has revealed to us that, for whatever reason, our forbears were rather less diligent in recognising and reporting paedophilia and child abuse, as Ann Widdecombe, amongst many others, has forcefully argued. In this sense, Bishop David Wilcox was talking with accuracy, even if with hindsight we can find the moral reasoning almost entirely alien. The bigger problem was and to some extent still remains societal, and is certainly not confined to any one institution. As such, unanswered questions remain and part of our response as a society must include the recognition of where we got things wrong, wherever this impulse might lead us. This is precisely in order to avoid fooling ourselves that the perpetrators were monsters confined to one sector or one segment of society, a willful ignorance that brings with it the attendant risk that we minimise the danger and thereby unwittingly approach the same moral precipices once more. This lack of honesty, of transparency, of a wholesale mea culpa characterises the approach of some that would turn this issue into some kind of sectarian powerplay. As a society we should refuse to play such outmoded games: the stakes are simply too high.

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