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Archbishops apologise after 383 new abuse cases revealed in Church of England beset by 'culture of deference'

by Donna Birrell

The Church of England's safeguarding has been slammed as "at risk of failing others in the future" unless there are "significant changes."

That's the finding of a review across all 42 dioceses which has revealed 383 new cases of church-related abuse. 

Of those cases,168 related to children, 149 to vulnerable adults, with 27 recorded as both and 39 with no recorded data. 

Data on the alleged perpetrators shows 242 cases related to clergy, with 53 relating to church officers and 41 relating to volunteers whose role included engagement with children.

181 of the cases related to 'sexual' abuse, followed by 39 'emotional' abuse cases, 33 'physical' and 21 allegations of 'financial' abuse.

Responding to the findings, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York expressed their "great sadness and profound shame" saying: "There are no possible excuses, no rationalisations for our church's failure to share the love of God and value each and every person...We sincerely apologise for our failures and want to reach out to those who are still suffering from the pain and misery they endured. We extend this apology to wider family members affected from this past abuse. We are so sorry that this ever happened."

The review, known as Past Cases Review 2 (PCR2) is the most significant file review ever undertaken in the Church of England and was carried out by 65 independent reviewers. It looked at more than 75,000 files relating to all living clergy, some dating back to the 1940s. 

It has taken three years and was commissioned after an independent scrutiny team concluded that a previous Past Cases Review (PCR) in 2007 was not a thorough process. That review had found only 13 cases and was strongly criticised by for changing reporting criteria. 

In 2020 the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) found that the Church of England had failed to protect children from sexual abuse, and created a culture where abusers "could hide". It also criticised a culture of deference which made it difficult for survivors to report abuse. 

Despite this, the PCR2 reviewers found a 'culture of deference, protectionism and bias' which still exists in the Church.  

The review also found inconsistencies in managing and recording safeguarding cases, a lack of understanding of data protection and safer recruitment policy which had not always been followed. It said safeguarding policy and guidelines were not always applied across the Church and that record keeping was weak. 

Bishop Mark Sowerby chairs the PCR2 National Project Board. He told Premier that all living clergy and church officers would have been reviewed this time around even if they had previously been looked at in the original review:

"I think that everything will have been looked at again. The reviewers should not have felt that they couldn't comment on something because it was reviewed last time. Because if there was something that would have passed muster in 2008, but these days it wouldn't, I think the sign of risk there and then would be flagged up as a concern." 

Bishop Mark went on to explain the different types of cases: "It may sound very worrying, but it might be a little less worrying if you understand what registers as a case. Something at the top end would be something that was a very serious risk, or where somebody had been seriously abused, whether it was a criminal offence. But there's a whole range of new cases and some of those things will, for example, be that something was not properly recorded, or that proper procedure wasn't followed. None of those are good and acceptable. But there's a very considerable range between something not being done to the standards of best practice, and something where somebody has been seriously harmed.

"I believe the Church will be a safer place as a result of this report and more being brought into the light and concerns being addressed by the dioceses and safeguarding advisors and their teams in the diocese." 

Phil Johnson who's a survivor of clergy abuse in the Diocese of Chichester and the Bishop Peter Ball case has been giving his reaction to Premier :

"I'm quite shocked that so many cases have been identified, particularly as the previous review, which was published in 2010 concluded that there were only 13 cases of abuse that hadn't been dealt with correctly since the Second World War. 

"Now, it does raise serious concerns, I think because these new 383 cases that have been identified, the majority of which do still relate to children, and vulnerable people. 

"Does that mean that those cases have arisen in the last 12 years since the publication of the original Past Cases Review, or have all dioceses gone back and tried to revisit all of the original files to try and identify old cases? 

"Other things that seriously concern me is there is still currently risk and there is still a culture of deference and a culture of keeping things in house and trying to avoid reputational damage. So as long as that persists, there is still going to be risk and people are going to put the church's public interest ahead of safeguarding and the protection of vulnerable people."

The report lists 26 national recommendations including establishing a charter to ensure the voices of children are heard.

The review concluded that :"Although practice and culture show some positive signs of improvement, the Church is still at risk of failing others in the future unless there are further significant changes of culture and attitude as well as adherence to more detailed and effective safeguarding practices."

In a statement, Rt Rev Jonathan Gibb, the Church of England's lead Bishop for Safeguarding said: "I believe that this national report, summing up the findings and recommendations of each diocese has real integrity and goes a very long way to correct the deficiencies of the first PCR process, and overall means that the Church will be a safer place as the recommendations continue to be


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