Child sex abuse in the Church: alliance demands full inquiry

Anglican and Catholic churches have lost the right to police themselves, say victims

Survivors of childhood abuse by members of the Anglican and Catholic churches have called on the government to conduct a full independent inquiry which would force religious institutions to disclose any files they have on clergy who have been accused of sexual exploitation.

It is the first time abuse victims have joined forces with lawyers, charities and child safeguarding specialists to launch a dedicated national campaign demanding such an inquiry.

Members of the newly formed Stop Church Child Abuse campaign argue that both the Anglican and Catholic churches have “lost the right to police themselves” following a long history of covering up abuse claims.

They also say safeguards which were put in place following a string of sex abuse scandals in the late 1990s are not strong enough to reinstate trust in the institutions. 

Both churches have countered that their current safeguards are some of the strongest in the world and have been used as a blueprint by other religious organisations following abuse scandals.

Yesterday a coalition of survivor groups – including the Minister and Sexual Abuse Survivors (Macsas), the Lantern Project, Survivors Voice Europe and the National Association of People Abused in Childhood – collectively argued that only an independent inquiry can assess the full extent of abuse within organisations run by the Anglican and Catholic churches.

They point to the fact that governments in Ireland, Australia, the Netherlands and Canada have all ordered some form of independent review which helped shed further light on abuse and cover-ups that were not uncovered by the church’s own investigations.

Both the Anglican and Catholic churches insist that the vast majority of abuse allegations are historical and have now been effectively tackled.

But a string of recent convictions and renewed scandals have reinvigorated demands to hand over investigation of abuse claims to an entirely independent body.

There is also widespread anger that both churches have vigorously resisted attempts by victims to seek compensation in the courts.

Richard Scorer, a Manchester based lawyer who has fought on behalf of abuse victims for the past 15 years, said yesterday: “The one thing I’ve learned on these is that the churches only act on the issue of child abuse when they face external pressure. There is no internal momentum within the churches to deal with this issue.”

Within the Anglican community a string of historical abuse scandals centred around the Diocese of Chichester has continued to blight efforts by senior leaders to assure the public that they have learned from the abuses of the past. A report which was commissioned following the conviction of a serial sex offending priest has never seen the light of day whilst a second report by Baroness Butler-Sloss found that senior clergy, including bishops, showed “a lack of understanding about the seriousness of historic child abuse”.

The Catholic Church has also seen new abuse scandals spring up. In the past five years Downside, Ealing and Buckfast Abbey have all seen monks or employees jailed after admitting sexual molestation charges in the past five years.

Earlier this year Father Richard White, a monk from Downside, was jailed for sexually assaulting school boys in allegations that stemmed back to the 1980s.  He was removed from teaching when the allegations first surfaced but was not prosecuted.

Lucy Duckworth, from NAPAC, explained why she believed child safety in schools is still not taken seriously enough. All schools, including ones run by churches, are advised to report any abuse allegations to the local authorities. Yet they are under no statutory obligations to do so. “Technically it is not against the law to not report a rape,” she said. “If a headmaster is aware that a priest has raped a child within their school they legally do not have to do anything else about it. The public don’t really know this.”

To highlight discrepancies in child protection policies, she has polled a random sample of 39 faith schools around the country and found that only one said it would automatically report all abuse allegations.

“We’re told time and time again by the church that they are taking all possible measures to prevent historical abuse ever repeating itself again,” she said. “What we have found is that this is simply not true.”

Both the Catholic and Anglican churches defended their safeguarding record.

Danny Sullivan, chair of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission, said that the church “deeply regrets [the] hurt and damage” caused by abuse and “remains committed to working as effectively as it can with victims and survivors and to ensuring their needs remain its priority.” He added that regular audits “monitors the quality of safeguarding processes and systems within Dioceses.”

Elizabeth Hall the Church of England's national safeguarding officer added:

“We continue to both promote the safest possible arrangements now and try to respond well to people who come forward from the past. This involves working closely with the statutory authorities involved and with organisations that support the victims, which is why we made contact with NAPAC when we heard about the Stop Church Child Abuse campaign.”

She added that the church would “of course co-operate with any public inquiry and work closely with those setting it up” if it was given the go-ahead.

Case Study: 'I believe the abuse was known about'

Phil Johnson, from Eastbourne, suffered abuse at the hands of two Anglican priests over a period of around nine years.

Colin Pritchard was convicted in 2008 and Roy Cotton died before coming to trial.

“It was my belief that the abuse was widely known within a circle of friends associated with the church,” Mr Johnson said. “I went to the police and reported my abuse and my suspicions about the others.

Both vicars were arrested in December 1997. They both denied everything. In March 1999, I was informed that the Crown Prosecution Service had decided not to proceed as there was insufficient evidence.

Another victim had come forward who had been abused by the same two vicars as me and my brother.

After another police investigation there was a trial in 2008. I was informed by the church that Cotton had a previous conviction and they had known about this for many years. People like me have been through five years of police investigations, four years of inquiries, all driven by the victims and survivors.

“The church cannot be trusted to investigate itself. We need honesty, transparency and clear external oversight. And we will get that only with a fully independent public inquiry.”

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