Church of England faces up to child abuse scandals

The Church of England is to review its handling of child abuse cases following the jailing of three church workers for sex offences.

Last month, Somerset vicar David Smith was jailed for sexually abusing boys over a 30 year period, and former Hampshire choirmaster Peter Halliday was sent to prison for sex offences against boys in the 1980s. In April, Derrick Norris, a churchwarden in Northampton, was jailed for raping and abusing a young girl and sexually abusing a teenage boy, in a case that emerged 25 years after the offences. In each case, the church failed to take action.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams last week apologised and admitted that practice was “very variable” before 1995 when the Church of England produced its first child protection guidance and put advisers in each diocese.

The Bishop of Manchester has since appointed an independent lawyer to review clergy files for any outstanding child protection allegations, in a move that could be replicated by every diocese.

Bishop of Hereford Anthony Priddis, chair of the Church of England central safeguarding liaison group, insists that current child protection policy in the church “is not going fundamentally wrong”.

But child protection experts disagree. According to a child protection adviser to one diocese, speaking on the condition of anonymity, the review must overhaul clergy training.

“Speaking to clergy about child protection is like speaking to social workers in the 1950s,” she says. “Social work and psychology have moved on, while the church remains trapped in their level of understanding.”

The former social worker believes churches’ “innate over-optimism” has been a big barrier to handling abuse effectively.

“The sense of forgiveness and belief in people’s ability to change gets in the way,” she says. “Clergy are often reluctant to accept that some people can be dangerous.”

Priddis hopes these views “are not a fair comment” on the church as a whole, but admits there is need for cultural change.

He is keen to convey the message that forgiveness “is not cheap grace” and no substitute for an understanding of offending behaviour. “Paedophiles have a distorted mindset. We can’t assume they will change, and mostly they can’t. If people don’t understand the cycle of abuse there is a danger they will not take it seriously.”

David Pearson, chief executive of the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service, also believes church workers need better training. He points to the case of David Smith, who was not sacked by his employer, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, when abuse allegations surfaced against him in 2001 because the complainant declined to make a police statement.

“Smith should have been removed on the balance of probability, rather than waiting for it to be proved beyond all reasonable doubt,” Pearson says.

Priddis says that handling of child abuse cases could also be improved by better information sharing.

“Staff can be wary of breaching people’s confidentiality, and churches are not always treated as equal partners by agencies,” he says. “I can recall a case where clergy were not told by probation that a sex offender could be attending the church, and it would have been helpful if they had.”

Priddis says dioceses will be asked to review files “on anybody who is still alive” to spot previous abuse allegations. “We want to ensure there are no more cases lurking,” Priddis says. “If there are any question marks over cases we will see what action can be taken.”

Pearson urges for the review to include spoken testimony as well as written records.

He says: “There must be no excuse for people who were involved in any decisions not to speak up, although they may fear criticism.”

Priddis cannot predict how many cases could come to light, but admits it would be “horrendous” if a lot emerged. He says: “Even one more case that slipped through the net would be one too many.”

Contact the author
 Maria Ahmed

This article appeared in the 7 June issue under the headline “Beyond forgiveness?”

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