Church put 'excessive emphasis' on forgiving predators, abuse inquiry told


Sexual abuse thrived in the Anglican Church due to clerical naivety about exploitation risks and an "excessive emphasis" on forgiving predators, an inquiry has heard.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse was told that young victims were often made to feel responsible for their experiences when they reported concerns to church staff.

Public hearings are taking place this week examining how the Church of England handled allegations of sexual misconduct stretching back to the 1950s, first focusing on the Diocese of Chichester.

Peter Ball case
Disgraced former Bishop of Lewes Peter Ball at the Old Bailey, where he was convicted of preying on aspiring young priests for his own sexual gratification (John Stillwell/PA Wire)

Fiona Scolding QC, the lead lawyer for the Anglican strand of the inquiry, set out the potential problems within the church that will be highlighted by witnesses and documents during a fortnight of hearings.

They included the church prioritising reputational concerns over the safety of children when allegations against the clergy came to light.

Abuse victims from the Diocese of Chichester in the 1950s and 1960s will give evidence, as well as those who were preyed upon in the 1990s during a scandal which "engulfed the diocese in the first decade of the 21st century", she said.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby will be among those appearing before the probe on behalf of the church.

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The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby (Gareth Fuller/PA Wire)

Ms Scolding said in her opening statement: "The church is the established church of England - the national church.

"It is a very important and powerful institution within our society.

"It provides spiritual sustenance for many and is seen as a leader in terms of not just religious questions, but related questions of social justice and ethics.

"Its management of allegations of child sexual abuse reflect not just society's difficulties in coming to terms with it, but also how even institutions dedicated to good can both harbour individuals who are malign but also be institutionally incapable of effective responses to concerns about the sexual abuse of children."

Problems uncovered by the inquiry also included "a culture of excessive deference to those at the top of the hierarchy and an unwillingness to challenge them", she said.

Evidence suggested that clerical figures suffered from an "inability" to spot grooming, believe holy men were capable of harming young people or understand those abused as children could suffer long-lasting damage.

Ms Scolding added there was "an excessive emphasis upon forgiveness, which allowed individuals to go without justice and for individuals who complained of abuse feeling isolated if they did not 'forgive' their abuser".

The Church of England for years lacked meaningful child protection measures, was beset by a "culture of amateurism" and was sluggish in responding to criticism, she told the inquiry.

Ms Scolding said the church was "an institution which, unsure of itself and its role within the late twentieth century, was frightened of criticism from outside, and which preferred to put its own reputation as an institution above the need to safeguard children".

Church figures including former Bishop of Lewes Peter Ball have been convicted of abusing numerous children within the Diocese of Chichester.

Earlier, the Archbishop of Canterbury was criticised by the head of the inquiry for breaching confidentiality surrounding his involvement in the probe.

He confirmed to a journalist that he intended to give evidence to the inquiry.

At the start of Monday's hearing, chairwoman Professor Alexis Jay said: "I am aware that during a press conference at Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury recently confirmed to a journalist that he would be giving evidence at this hearing and also the date of his appearance ... the church has apologised for this breach of confidentiality.

"Whilst the panel is grateful for this apology, it is most disappointing that the confidential matters were shared by the archbishop, in breach of the undertaking."