Churches in England apologise for child abuse failings as inquiry releases damning final report

(Photo: Unsplash/Josh Applegate)

The Church of England and Catholic Church in England and Wales have apologised following the release today of the final report from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which detailed decades of safeguarding failures.

The 458-page report reflects the accounts of over 7,000 victims of child abuse and brings together the findings of 19 separate investigations into government, religious and other institutions since 2015. 

It makes 20 recommendations, including proper redress, the introduction of mandatory reporting, and new child protection authorities for England and Wales.

Presenting the report today, Chair of the inquiry, Professor Alexis Jay, said that the nature and scale of the abuse encountered over the last seven years was “shocking and deeply disturbing”, and that victims “must not be treated as invisible”.

“This is not just a historical aberration which happened decades ago, it is an ever-increasing problem and a national epidemic,” she said. 

Among the institutions investigated were the Church of England, Church in Wales and Catholic Church. 

The report found that the Church of England put its reputation before the wellbeing of the children and young people in its care, and failed “to respond consistently to victims and survivors with sympathy and compassion”.

“In the context of child sexual abuse, the Church’s neglect of the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of children and young people in favour of protecting its reputation was in conflict with its mission of love and care for the innocent and vulnerable,” IICSA said. 

It continued, “The Church of England failed to respond consistently to victims and survivors with sympathy and compassion, accompanied by practical and appropriate support.

“This often added to the trauma of those who had experienced child sexual abuse by individuals connected to the Church.”

Failures were apparent in the case of convicted former bishop, Peter Ball, who was shown undue “compassion” by “people of prominence” in the Church of England, among them the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey. 

“One victim, Neil Todd, was seriously failed by the Church and ultimately took his own life. At the time, the Church discounted Ball’s behaviour as trivial and insignificant, displaying callous indifference to Mr Todd’s complaints,” the report reads.

“The Archbishops’ Council accepted that the Church had displayed ‘moral cowardice’ in response to the allegations.

“The inquiry found failings in the response of Lord Carey, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, including showing Ball a degree of compassion which he did not extend to his victims and not disciplining Ball after he was cautioned.

“Other people of prominence also supported Ball but without any consideration of the experiences of Ball’s victims.”

Lord Carey has apologised in the past for his handling of the Ball case. 

In the Diocese of Chichester, where 20 individuals were convicted of child abuse offences over 50 years, IICSA found that the responses of leaders “were marked by secrecy, prevarication, avoidance of reporting alleged crimes to the authorities and a failure to take professional advice”.

“Internal reviews failed to expose the nature and scale of the problem within the diocese. Instead, they were used by Church leaders to act out their personal conflicts and antagonisms. The reviews ultimately came to nothing until 2011, when the Archbishop of Canterbury intervened by ordering a visitation,” the report said.

While the report recognises “important improvements” in the Church of England since the launch of the inquiry seven years ago, it found that some internal past case reviews were “flawed and inaccurate”, and demonstrated “a tendency to minimise offending”.

“While there have been important improvements in child protection practice, the Church of England still has more to do to rebuild the trust of victims and survivors,” it states.

Responding to the report, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby said that the major institutions covered in the report, including the Church of England, had “clearly failed children”. 

“For that we must continue to be truly sorry. It is critical that we make sure that everyone is safe, and we must commit whole-heartedly to safeguarding. It is one of the highest priorities for the Church because, as the report shows, we still have not got it right,” he said. 

“I wrote to the then Home Secretary in 2014 calling for an Inquiry and I am acutely aware of how painful the process has been for the survivors and victims who have shared their experiences. They have done so with much courage, and I thank them for coming forward.

“In 2020 when the previous IICSA report was released, specifically related to the Church of England, I said the Church cannot and will not make excuses for what has happened. I stand by that today.

“We are already learning and acting on the Inquiry’s previous findings and recommendations. Now we will examine and respond to today’s wider recommendations published.” 

The Church of England’s Lead Bishop for Safeguarding, Jonathan Gibbs, said the Church of England was taking the report’s recommendations “very seriously”.

“The Church’s main focus in response must first and foremost be recognising the distress caused to victims and survivors,” he said.

“We are truly sorry for the hurt caused by the Church and by our failures in safeguarding and we thank them for courageously coming forward to the inquiry and sharing their experiences.

“We support the comments by the inquiry panel, that victims and survivors of child sexual abuse must not be treated as invisible, and we must ensure they have a voice.

“They are victims of serious and lifechanging crimes and should have been protected by the state and by the institutions, including the Church, where the crimes were committed.

“We acknowledge our poor response to victims and survivors. We must ensure that our response to victims and survivors is meaningful, compassionate and personal.”

The Catholic Church in England and Wales was similarly found to have put its reputation before victims.

IICSA said its investigation into the Catholic Church had revealed “a sorry history of child sexual abuse where abusive priests and members of religious orders and institutions preyed on children for prolonged periods of time”.

Over 3,000 complaints against 900 individuals connected to the Church were made between 1970 and 2015, resulting in 133 convictions. The report says, however, that the true scale of abuse is likely to be far higher. 

“Responses to disclosures about child sexual abuse have been characterised by a failure to support victims and survivors – in stark contrast to the positive action often taken to protect perpetrators and the reputation of the Church,” IICSA said.

“The reactions of Church leaders over time were marked by delay in implementing change, as well as reluctance to hold individuals to account or to make sincere apologies.

“On occasions, they conveyed a grudging and unsympathetic attitude to victims and survivors.” 

The report calls for “real and lasting changes to attitudes” among Catholic leaders. 

“Although there have been some improvements to current safeguarding arrangements, more recent audits have identified weaknesses. The culture and attitudes in the Roman Catholic Church have been resistant to change,” the report said.

In response, the Catholic Church apologised for the decades of failings and said it remained “committed to listening with humility to those who have been hurt by the actions of Church members so that their experiences will inform our work”.

“It is important for us to again offer an unreserved apology to all those who have been hurt by abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales and to reaffirm our commitment to the continued refinement and improvement of our safeguarding work to protect all children and the vulnerable,” it said. 

On the Church in Wales, the report notes that a number of clergy have been defrocked in recent years over child abuse offences, and says that further improvements are needed “particularly in the area of record-keeping and the capacity of provincial safeguarding officers”.

Responding to the publication of the report, the Church in Wales apologised to victims and said it would take time to “digest and consider” the report. 

“We will continue to take any more recommendations the report makes for us extremely seriously as we are committed to developing the best possible standards in safeguarding,” it said.

“Our priority is to be a Church where everyone is, and feels, safe and welcome and where safeguarding is understood to be the responsibility of everybody. We continue to invest substantially in our people, our processes and our training to achieve this.

“We know that we have failed in the past in a number of areas and we once again apologise unreservedly to those who have been affected as a result.

“We hold all survivors of abuse in our prayers and are ready to support anyone who comes forward with any concern.”

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