The former bishop of Chester, Victor Whitsey, is being investigated 30 years after his death over allegations of sexual abuse in the latest scandal involving high-profile figures in the Church of England.
A lawyer representing four of the alleged victims has claimed the abuse was covered up by the C of E and has called for a independent review.
The allegations date from the late 1970s when Whitsey was bishop of Chester, and in the 1980s after he had retired and was living in the diocese of Blackburn.
The C of E said it had supported a police investigation into allegations of sexual offences against children and adults. The police told the church that, had Whitsey still been alive, he would have been interviewed in relation to 10 allegations. Whitsey died in 1987.
In a statement, the archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, and the bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, said: “We are deeply sorry and apologise to those individuals who have come forward to share their account of abuse by a bishop in the Church of England who was in a position of power and authority. We appreciate that it is very difficult for individuals to come forward and to give their account.
“Sexual abuse is a heinous crime – and is an absolute and shameful breach of trust. We acknowledge that for survivors the effects of sexual abuse are lifelong. We are offering pastoral support to all those who have come forward and continue to hold them all in our prayers.”
It added: “The church will consider what lessons can be learned from this case and whether any action needs to be taken as a result of what these inquiries have shown.”
Cheshire police said the allegations related to 13 people, five males and eight females. “The abuse is alleged to have taken place whilst the bishop was living and working in Chester and one incident is reported to have taken place outside the county,” a statement said. The police investigation had spanned 13 months, it added.
Richard Scorer, a specialist abuse lawyer from Slater and Gordon, which represents four of Whitsey’s victims, said: “The abhorrent and disgusting abuse perpetrated by Bishop Whitsey destroyed many lives, driving some to attempt suicide. What is equally abhorrent is that the Church of England knew of his abuse, did nothing to stop it and covered it up. It is crucial that there is now an independent review into Whitsey abuse and who failed to act when they learnt of his heinous behaviour.”
The law firm understands that a complaint was made to the C of E while Whitsey was still serving as bishop of Chester, but it was not passed to police. The church was believed to have been made aware of further allegations following Whitsey’s retirement, but no action was taken.
Slater and Gordon released a statement from one of Whitsey’s alleged victims. It said: “When I met Victor Whitsey I was young, innocent, and naive. I longed for his blessing to achieve my wish of a future as a vicar, serving God and the community. He told me he agreed I had a calling from God. He also told me he had the power to give me everything I wanted in life and the power to take it all away. He then proceeded to abuse me sexually and psychologically. I was powerless to stop him.
“I blamed myself, though I was the only victim and rationalised that it was my fault … I told no one; who would believe a teenage boy’s word against a bishop of the Church of England? I became reclusive and came to the ultimate conclusion. The prospect of ever seeing Victor Whitsey again was so abhorrent to me that I turned my back on my beloved church and my calling to serve God. I self-harmed and have spent a lifetime focusing on resentment and bitterness.
“Twenty years after my abuse, I suffered a complete mental nervous breakdown which included attempted suicide. Because of the sexual abuse I suffered at the hands of Victor Whitsey I lost my faith, my chosen life as a vicar, my self-belief, my freedom from worry and my dignity. Child sex abuse is a crime which stays with you for a lifetime. As a child you don’t understand why or what is happening, but as you grow older you realise the enormity of the abuse and it hurts you all over again – you blame yourself for allowing it – you hate yourself for being weak.
“Since my abuse, not a day has gone by that I have not thought about what happened to me.”
The author of the statement said he hoped there would be a public inquiry “to understand not only what Whitsey did to his victims but to also learn who knew what he was doing, to what extent his actions were intentionally covered up, and who else was complicit in the crimes that he committed, and for which, I continue to suffer every day of my life”.
The church has faced a number of high-profile cases of sexual abuse.
Peter Ball, a former bishop of both Gloucester and Lewes, was jailed in October 2015 for the grooming, sexual exploitation and abuse of 18 vulnerable young men aged 17-25 who had sought spiritual guidance from him between 1977 and 1992. He was released from prison in February after serving 16 months.
A damning independent report, published in June, found that senior figures in the C of E had colluded over a 20-year period with the disgraced former bishop.
The report made harrowing reading, the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said. “The church colluded and concealed rather than seeking to help those who were brave enough to come forward. This is inexcusable and shocking behaviour,” he said.
George Carey, a former archbishop of Canterbury who was criticised in the report, resigned as honorary assistant bishop in the diocese of Oxford.
Two years ago, the church issued a formal apology for alleged sexual abuse committed by one of its most senior figures, George Bell, the late bishop of Chichester, who died 57 years ago. It also settled a civil claim brought against Ball by a survivor.
However, critics accused the church of acting improperly and without sufficient evidence, saying Bell’s “condemnation as a paedophile” had irreparably damaged his reputation.
An independent report into the church’s handling of the case is expected to be published next month.
Bishop George Bell review to criticise Church’s handling – reports
Bishop George Bell’s reputation could be restored after an official review in the Church’s handling of abuse allegations is expected to be critical of how the CofE handled the case.
The wartime Bishop of Chichester, a celebrated Anglican figure who was given the equivalent of a Saints’ Day, was accused of historic abuse in 2015.
A Church inquiry two years ago found ‘on the balance of probabilities’ he had abused a child in the late 1940s and 1950s. The Church awarded his alleged victim, known only as ‘Carol’, compensation of £15,000 after experts said they had ‘no reason to doubt’ the claims.
The case is hotly debated both within the Church and across the wider establishment with Bell’s accusers saying the compensation is long overdue. But a George Bell support group was launched last year to argue his positive reputation and legacy is being tarnished by unsubstantiated claims.
A recent debate on historical child sex abuse in the House of Lords reflected the growing concerns among leading establishment figures about the George Bell case.
It is expected to be critical of the Church’s initial investigation, although it does not rule on the bishop’s guilt or innocence, according to the Mail on Sunday.
Church of England’s handling of allegations against Bishop Bell ‘flawed and unfair’
A review into historic abuse allegations against a celebrated bishop is expected to criticise the Church of England’s handling of the case as ‘flawed and unfair’.
As reported on the Justice Gap (here), 37 years after the death of former Bishop of Chichester a woman known as ‘Carol’ made complaints that he had abused her when she was a young girl in the late 1940 and early 1950s. Bell has been described as ‘the most significant English clergyman of the 20th century’ and who spoke out against the Allies’ carpet-bombing of German cities such as Dresden.
The allegations first arose in 1995. In October 2015 a claim was settled by the Church of England and compensation reported to be £15,000 was paid out. The current Bishop of Chichester Dr Martin Warner issued a formal apology in October 2015.
In July 2016 two members of the General Synod, Martin Sewell and David Lamming, both retired lawyers, proposed a motion of ‘no confidence’ in the investigation. Speaking to the Justice Gap, Sewell said that the case was ‘almost unique’ insofar as its review was conducted in ‘complete purdah’. ‘You can’t get anything out of the Church and that is what raised our hackles. It must deal with these matters with transparency and accountability,’ he said.
The Bell case represents the perfect storm from which injustice emerges. We had a Church fearful and sensitive to allegations that it might be covering up abuse, a plausible complainant, a long dead Bishop with no living heirs, and a culture which had abandoned the presumption of innocence in favour of asserting that all complainants are entitled to be believed.’
Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has spoken in parliament about his ‘distress’ at the Church’s treatment of Bishop Bell and claimed that its procedures ‘had the character of a kangaroo court and not a just, compassionate and balanced investigation of the facts’. The George Bell Group was set up in response to the perceived unfairness at the late Bishop’s treatment. The campaign – supported by former chairman of the Bar Desmond Browne QC, historian Andrew Chandler, Frank Field MP and the Conservative Peer and historian Lord Lexden – calls the wording of the October statement ‘(at best) reprehensibly equivocal, and (at worst) positively misleading’.
The Mail on Sunday reported that Lord Carlile handed his report to the Archbishop of Canterbury last week. You can read Peter Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday on the George Bell case (The spirit of justice seems to be dead in many parts of this country).
This article was first published on October 9, 2017
Jon is editor of the Justice Gap. He is a freelance journalist. Jon’s books include The First Miscarriage of Justice (Waterside Press, 2014), The Justice Gap (LAG, 2009) and People Power (Daily Telegraph/LawPack, 2008). Jon is a journalism lecturer at Winchester University and a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln. He is twice winner of the Bar Council’s journalism award (2015 and 2005) and is shortlisted for this year’s Criminal Justice Alliance’s journalism award
It’s never ‘tough’ to pick on the dead
The spirit of justice seems to be dead in many parts of this country. I always disliked Ted Heath but I am revolted by the police treatment of him, and by some public reaction to it.
The police do not decide guilt or innocence. No man should be condemned without a hearing and we are all innocent until proven guilty.
Have we forgotten these ancient British rules? I hope not. Now I gather that the Church of England’s hierarchy are trembling in their cassocks about a report (soon to be published) into their disgraceful smearing of the late Bishop George Bell, a man of real courage and principle who makes them look like pygmies.
To appear as if they were tough on today’s real paedophiles (which they aren’t), these prelates condemned Bishop Bell on the basis of a solitary uncorroborated allegation made decades after the alleged crime. Blackening the names of dead men to boost your own reputation is a pretty wretched thing to do.
We can only punish it with contempt. But we should punish it all the same, or nobody is safe.
Justin Welby telling off the BBC over sex abuse was the pot calling the kettle black
Photo: Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. (Photo: Getty)
Simon Kelner Tuesday October 3rd 2017
So there is the pot, as black as night, scorched by the depredations of everyday life, tarnished by hard times and rough usage. And suddenly, without warning or provocation, the pot turns round to the kettle, similarly battered and bruised, and says: “It’s not me that’s black. It’s you!”
This was the essential nature of an implausible exchange on Radio 4’s Today Programme when the Archbishop of Canterbury excoriated the BBC for their lack of integrity over dealing with sex abuse in its organisation. I am sure I heard it right. The head of the Anglican church, which has a long and horrible history of the sexual abuse of vulnerable young people, was complaining that the BBC hadn’t acted responsibly when the scale of Jimmy Savile’s offences became known.
Savile may have been protected by the blithe, blind, egregiously liberal mores of the age, but he was something of a one-off. Sex abuse was not endemic or systemic within the precincts of Broadcasting House, and the BBC’s reaction to his unmasking was swift and authoritative. The corporation launched an independent investigation by a high court judge, and accepted all its recommendations. They apologised to Savile’s victims, and have established new safeguards for children.
So what was the Archbishop on about? Why did he take on the BBC on grounds that he must have realised would be very problematic for the Church?
He knew, of course, that he would get support from the inveterate Beeb bashers among the national press, but notwithstanding that, it’s hard to credit his intervention. It is true that Archbishop Welby has been on the front foot regarding sex abuse scandals in the Church, insisting there will be no cover-up of historic allegations and saying that “the rule is survivors come first, not our own interests”.
‘I am deeply resistant to a religious leader who uses his pulpit to attack one of our most admirable institutions‘ At this point, it’s too tempting not to resort to scripture. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, according to the Gospel of St John. And an independent review of the Church of England’s handling of a particular sex abuse case in 2016 concluded that Welby’s office failed “to respond meaningfully to repeated efforts by the survivor… to bring his case to the Church leader’s attention”.
It is a shame that Welby took to the airwaves armed with a pocketful of stones, a fact not lost on a welter of Twitter respondents, including a number of victims of abuse. Both the Anglican Church and the BBC, representing two of the four estates of a democracy, are all too prone to introspection and self-absorption, and Welby’s comments were part of a bigger interview, not yet aired, to mark the 60th birthday of the Today programme. Within it, he discussed ways in which society has changed in that period. We have become kinder and more considerate, he said, but the flip side is the cult of individualism, or a “radical autonomy”, in his own words.
I found myself applauding this analysis. But I am deeply resistant to the moralising tones of a religious leader who uses his pulpit to attack one of our most admirable institutions, respected and envied throughout the world. That’s not to say the BBC is without sin either, by the way. But this was an unmerited and unjustified attack, which, taken with the Archbishop of York’s willingness to pocket the Murdoch shilling, might lead conspiracy theorists to think that the Anglican Church was pursuing an agenda against the Beeb.
Did Church keep abuse secret?
THE Anglican Church will be probed for potentially harbouring a “culture of secrecy” surrounding sexual abuse which allowed predators to offend unchallenged, an inquiry has heard.
The public inquiry into child sexual abuse is preparing to scrutinise the response of religious institutions to allegations of exploitation by the clergy.
This will include the disgraced former Bishop of Lewes Peter Ball.
Ball was jailed for 32 months in October 2015 after pleading guilty to a string of historical offences, including two counts of indecent assault.
Attitudes to sexuality will form part of the investigation into the Anglican Church, due to begin next March, a preliminary hearing of the inquiry was told.
It comes after the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, provoked debate by accusing the BBC of not handling reports of longstanding abuse with the same “integrity” as the Church.
Speaking at the new headquarters of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in central London, counsel to the inquiry Fiona Scolding QC said: “Culture is important because it shapes everything about the way that things are done within the organisation and it is both deeply embedded within an organisation and often difficult to change.”
Outlining the aims of the Anglican Church investigation, she said: “This will involve examining how far was there or is there a culture of secrecy within the Church.
“How far the Church’s approach to sex and sexuality contributed or contributes to difficulties with cultural change.
“How far does the hierarchical nature of the Church create a power imbalance which could inhibit the reporting of abuse.”
Ms Scolding said this would not only stretch to attitudes of the past, but also cover the current practices of the Church and any future reforms it has planned.
The preliminary hearing also heard 184,020 pages of evidence had been received for examination.
Around 100,000 have so far been reviewed by inquiry officials with 22,000 of these found to be duplicates and 35,000 deemed irrelevant.
Article of Faith, an independent review of how the Church handled Ball’s case, was published earlier this year.
Chaired by Dame Moira Gibb, the review found “Ball’s conduct has caused serious and enduring damage to the lives of many men”.