Chichester child abuse: How did one small Church of England diocese produce so many paedophile reverends?

Evidence at the inquiry concluded that the abuse was 'normalised' because it was practised by so many. Worse still, one member of the clergy believed that God had forgiven him and therefore 'his slate was wiped clean' 

Andreas Whittam Smith
Monday 26 March 2018 09:33
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Top, from left: Michael Walsh, Christopher Howarth, Gordon Rideout and Michael Mytton. Bottom, from left: Jonathan Graves, Vickery House, Terence Banks and Peter Ball
Top, from left: Michael Walsh, Christopher Howarth, Gordon Rideout and Michael Mytton. Bottom, from left: Jonathan Graves, Vickery House, Terence Banks and Peter Ball

For a long time, I have wanted to understand why one small area of the Church of England has had a large number of the clergy sent to gaol for sexually abusing young people and children. The place is Sussex, particularly East Sussex, part of the diocese of Chichester.

I have not been alone in wanting this question answered. For the Government has set up an Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in England and Wales and this body has turned its attention to the diocese of Chichester. The hearings have been going on for some weeks now. I shall make extensive use of what the inquiry has been told.

Let me start with something truly shocking. Here is the list of the main perpetrators:

Peter Ball was the Bishop of Lewes between 1977 and 1992 (later Bishop of Gloucester). In September 2015, Bishop Ball pleaded guilty to counts of misconduct in public office concerning sexual activity with young adults and two counts of indecent assaults against adults. He was sentenced to 32 months’ imprisonment.

The Reverend Vickery House was a vicar within East Sussex and a close associate of Peter Ball. He was convicted of five counts of indecent assault and was sentenced to six-and-a-half years’ imprisonment in October 2015.

Reverend Noel Moore was convicted of child sexual abuse in 1951 and jailed until 1955.

The Reverend Roy Cotton was convicted in 1954 of gross indecency while a child was present as he exposed himself in the organ loft.

Reverend Pritchard pleaded guilty in 2008 to seven counts of sexual assault against two boys and was jailed for five years.

Denford: sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment

Reverend Robert Coles pleaded guilty to counts of indecent assault and two of attempted buggery and was sentenced in February 2013 to eight years’ imprisonment.

Reverend Jonathan Graves was convicted in 2017 of 12 offences, including indecent assault and cruelty to a child, and was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment.

Reverend Gordon Rideout was convicted of 34 counts of indecent assault and two counts of attempted rape against a total of 16 victims from May 2013. He was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. He also pleaded guilty in December 2016 to a further count of indecent assault against someone under the age of 16 and was sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment.

Reverend Keith Denford was convicted of three counts of indecent assault in April 2013 and sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment.

Reverend Christopher Howarth was convicted of 26 counts of sexual activity with a child and causing a child to engage in sexual activity and received 16 years’ imprisonment in total.

Pritchard: pleaded guilty to seven counts of sexual assault (BBC)

Peter Pannett was a deacon in the Brighton area. He pleaded guilty to two counts of making indecent images of children, one count of attempting incitement of a child to engage in sexual activity, and two counts of inciting a child under 16 to engage in sexual activity. He also pleaded guilty to two counts of causing a child to watch a sexual act. He was sentenced to 32 months of imprisonment.

So, why? John Hind, who was Bishop of Chichester 2001 to 2012, provided the answer when he told the inquiry that “abuse is not simply the act of some individual perpetrators, but actually it can involve collusion between different people, and that a climate can develop in certain areas in which people’s normal inhibitions against bad behaviour can get reduced. What is it that lowers those inhibitions? Well, one of them is clearly when you are in an environment in which a number of other people are abusing as well, and there can be a tendency to normalise what’s happening.” Another bishop in the diocese, Wallace Benn, said there was clearly a paedophile ring.

Coles: guilty of assault and buggery

It can be small things as well as large that have a normalising effect. Janet Hind, the bishop’s wife, described how one of the complaints made by the victims and survivors of one of the abusers was that during his trial a member of the clergy came and sat in court every day to provide support to the accused. Also, when a new case of abuse came to light, senior clergy members would give more weight to their pastoral concerns for the “perpetrator” than for the victim or try to manage the whole thing pastorally instead of following the correct safeguarding procedure, according to testimony by Shirley Hosgood, a former diocesan safeguarding adviser.

Another normalising procedure was, paradoxically, displaying the Christian virtue of forgiveness, forgetting that it’s not for the perpetrator’s friends and colleagues to forgive but the perpetrator’s victims, if at all. Thus, despite Roy Cotton’s conviction, an earlier bishop of Chichester, Eric Kemp told a fellow bishop: “In my opinion, it is all right. He’s been badly handled by the police. You can give him permission to take church services again.”

Pannett: 32 months’ imprisonment

To take another example – the Reverend Pritchard was granted permission to conduct services in February 2007 upon his retirement, despite having been rearrested at that time for child sexual offending. More significantly, forgiveness can be seen as “wiping the slate clean”. In his testimony to the inquiry, Archdeacon Philip Jones gave an interesting exposition.

He said that Rideout, who was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment, absolutely resisted any suggestion that he was guilty and “I believe he took the view that he had been forgiven by God, his slate was therefore wiped clean. More than that, in terms of his mental approach to it, indeed his psychological approach from a very conservative viewpoint, was that it would be almost as though the events for which he was under investigation and then convicted for hadn’t happened. So, the mental approach is that forgiveness in those circumstances means (the sin has) gone.” Mr Jones felt that was a fairly prevalent view.

However, there was also one large development that had an immense normalising impact. This was the presence of Peter Ball as Bishop of Lewes in East Sussex. A review carried out by Dame Moira Gibb gives his history and I quote from it.

In 1960 Peter Ball and his brother founded a monastic religious community. In 1968 an old barn was purchased in Somerset and renovated, with five members of the community moving to live there. Bishop Ball has said, in the course of a psychological assessment conducted in 2009, that it was here, believing that the Church had “gone soft”, that he began inflicting hardships on himself. These practices included sitting on a cold stone floor, praying naked in a cold chapel, fasting and self-flagellation. He also reported hitting other members of the community and being hit by them. He said that it was here that “things began to go wrong”.

Bishop Ball carried on in the same vein. When he first became a bishop, he announced that he would “continue to live as a religious with some of his brethren” – an unusual way of life for a bishop. In 1980, Ball launched an appeal to young people in East Sussex to join new residential communities which would give them a time-limited experience of monastic discipline, spiritual development and practical Christian service.

This initiative is variously referred to as the “Year for Christ” scheme, or the “Give a Year to God” scheme, and participants were often referred to as “schemers”. Separate male and female communities were envisaged, the former based at Ball’s own residence. From this time onwards, Ball regularly had a number of boys and young men living with him. Significantly, he usually employed no other staff to assist with housekeeping or domestic duties. No wonder; in effect he was trying to create “abuse” communities.

Bishop Ball also seems to have used his powers of appointment to find posts for a group of individuals within the East Sussex area, the majority of whom have now been accused of child sexual offending. Using Bishop Hind’s terms, this was “normalising” on a grand scale.

At his trial for misconduct in public office between 1977 and 1992, for indecent assault on a boy, aged 12 or 13, in 1978 and indecent assault on a man, aged 19 or 20, between 1980 and 1982, Bobbie Cheema QC for the prosecution summed up Bishop Ball. “He was highly regarded as a godly man who had a special affinity with young people. The truth was that he used those 15 years in the position of bishop to identify, groom and exploit sensitive and vulnerable young men who came within his orbit. For him, religion was a cloak behind which he hid in order to satisfy his sexual interest in those who trusted him.” Bishop Ball was sentenced to 32 months in prison.

Now it falls to Bishop Marin Warner, who succeeded Bishop Hind in 2012, to “clean up” Chichester diocese. In his evidence to the inquiry last week, Bishop Warner concluded with an apology to survivors. “While apologies can begin to sound formulaic, I do want to register my sorrow and apology for the sexual abuse of children that has taken place in the diocese of Chichester, and for the ways in which it has been mishandled in the past.

“This comes from the bottom of my heart as a human being, but also more formally from me as the bishop of this diocese. I also grieve for the loss of access to faith that this has often resulted in: a terrible realisation, and it is that which has sustained my efforts in ensuring that the diocese of Chichester reforms.” It is a daunting task.

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