A member of the royal family was among a host of establishment figures who supported a bishop as he tried to avoid charges for sexually abusing young aspiring priests, a court has heard.
Peter Ball used his position of high leadership to "identify, groom and exploit sensitive and vulnerable young men" over 15 years, the Old Bailey heard.
The former bishop of Lewes, 83, preyed on his victims for sexual pleasure when they came to his home in Litlington, East Sussex.
Many were teenagers or in their early 20s at the time they sought out the bishop through his Give A Year For Christ scheme.
Last month, Ball, who has suffered ill health in recent years, pleaded guilty to misconduct in a public office after the failure of a last-ditch attempt to get the case thrown out.
Between 1977 and 1992 he abused his position "to manipulate and prevail upon others for his own sexual gratification" in relation to 16 young men.
He also admitted indecently assaulting two men in their late teens between 1980 and 1983 and between 1990 and 1991.
Two other counts of indecent assault on a boy of 12 or 13 and a 15-year-old youth were denied and will lie on file.
Ball appeared before Mr Justice Wilkie at the Old Bailey to be sentenced, 22 years after allegations first surfaced.
Outlining the facts of the case, prosecutor Bobbie Cheema QC said: "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."
She told the court that Ball abused a "large number" of males aged between 17 and 25 through his Church of England scheme or school visits.
Before pleading guilty in September, Ball made a statement denying that he had gained sexual gratification from the practices he engaged in with the complainants.
He claimed they had been "spiritually uplifted" by his conduct at the time but later felt embarrassed, Ms Cheema said.
Ball has now completely withdrawn those assertions, she added.
The prosecutor told the court how allegations first emerged in 1992.
The year before, a 17-year-old novice monk had been introduced by Ball to what he called "penitential psalms".
It involved saying prayers naked at night in a chapel before Ball watched the boy taking a cold shower and pulled down his underpants.
Ball, who called him "love" and "gorgeous", went on to suggest the boy be beaten with a stick or whip so his body could "bear the marks".
The young man was unhappy about it and told Ball's chauffeur and his wife, who frustrated the plan by taking him to France.
When he returned to Ball's residence, the defendant came to his room, took off his clothes and embraced and kissed him on the lips, the court heard.
Following another incident in Ball's study when the bishop ejaculated, the victim realised that naked prayers and cold showers were not usual with other aspiring monks.
He tried to commit suicide in November 1992 and told others in the church who "encouraged him to consider reconciliation and forgiveness", Ms Cheema said.
Police launched an investigation, leading six more young men to come forward.
When Ball was interviewed by detectives, he admitted ejaculating but denied it amounted to sexual activity.
Police had received a number of phone calls in support of Ball including from "MPs, former public school headmasters, JPs, and even a lord", the court heard.
The defence also claimed to have more than 2,000 letters of support including from cabinet ministers and a member of the royal family, the court heard.
Ms Cheema said: "I should make it clear that it is impossible to say whether those letters were encouraged and it is unlikely that those who wrote were in possession of the full facts."
In 1993, Ball accepted a caution for one count of gross indecency and resigned due to ill health but immediately began a campaign to return to work.
In 1995, he was granted permission to officiate as a priest in Truro for six months. Then-Archbishop George Carey extended it for a further three years, the court heard.
Ball also tried to overturn his "plea bargain" because of what he described as the malice of his accusers, the court heard.
In 2008, the Church reviewed the case and in 2012 referred it to Sussex Police who reopened the investigation.
But the first victim to come forward committed suicide not long afterwards, the court heard.
In a last message, he said: "I want to find my God. I have missed him for so long. Time to return."
Ms Cheema outlined details of further abuse against other young men.
In mitigation, Richard Smith QC said many people still feel "strongly" in support of Ball.
He said there was some concern about him being a "scapegoat" and there was "punishment on behalf of the Church".
He added that Ball's offences were "very much his dark side".
Mr Smith told the court that a pre-sentence report had highlighted Ball's "profound and deep" remorse.
It had identified difficulties in serving a prison sentence because of his "physical and emotional needs".
He said it would be "profoundly wrong" to allow his dark side to eclipse the good work he had done in his life.
Among his good qualities were "humility, hard work, enthusiasm, pastoral care, inspirational leadership in the church and capacity to show compassion", the lawyer said.
Ball's lawyer called for the sentencing judge to take into account the "significant delay" in the case.
He said he "could have and should have been prosecuted" earlier and it was not his fault that he was not.
Ball is now a "frail old man" who suffers from pulmonary and bowel issues.