‘Wilful blindness’ existed towards Church child abuse in Sussex, inquiry hears

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is taking place in London
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is taking place in London

A damning image of ‘wilful blindness’ in historic cases of sexual abuse of children who were ‘terrified and silenced’ by clergy in Sussex has been set out at a public inquiry.

Fiona Scolding QC, lead counsel to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), said abuse that left an ‘indelible scar’ on children was often ignored or forgiven.

Lead counsel for the inquiry Fiona Scolding QC

Lead counsel for the inquiry Fiona Scolding QC

In one segment, Miss Scolding described abuse by a Reverend Colin Pritchard: “There have been suggestions about the culture of abuse operated by Reverend Pritchard and that Bishop Peter Ball turned a blind eye to that abuse.”

Reverend Pritchard, who was vicar of St Barnabas in Bexhill, pleaded guilty in 2008 to seven counts of sexual assault on two boys and was jailed for five years.

Speaking on behalf of the Diocese of Chichester and Archbishops’ Council for the Church of England, Nigel Giffin QC said the Church’s response to abuse in the last few decades was ‘not nearly good enough’.

The IICSA inquiry in London will look into how far institutions failed to protect children from sexual abuse within the Anglican Church. It focusses on abuse within the Diocese of Chichester, which covers all of Sussex, as a case study.

Richard Scorer spoke on behalf of many of the victims

Richard Scorer spoke on behalf of many of the victims

Members of the public heard about dozens of offences in Sussex over the last 50 years.

Miss Scolding said: “As a society we have over the past 10 years had to examin some uncomfortable truths about our wilful blindness to such abuse.”

She noted the convictions for sex offences of Michael Walsh, Terence Banks and David Bowring, who were associated with Chichester Cathedral and local schooling.

Miss Scolding also told the inquiry how Reverend Roy Cotton, who was convicted in 1952 of gross indecency with a child, was at one point an ‘alleged abuser hiding in plain sight’.

She added: “Despite his conviction the Bishop of Portsmouth considered him suitable for ordination as a man of ‘considerable ability’ free of any trouble for 12 years.

“Because of his criminal record the then Bishop of Portsmouth ensured he did not have to undertake the usual recruitment processes.”

The handling by the Church of allegations made against Chichester’s Bishop George Bell will be discussed later in the inquiry, but not the truth of them or otherwise.

Richard Scorer, speaking on behalf of many of the victims, said: “If you want to abuse children there is no more effective way of terrifying and silencing your victims than to claim to have God on your side.

“The Church of England claims to offer moral guidance to the country yet clerical sexual abuse cases powerfully undermine the claim. This leads to the cover-up of abuse.

“The question is whether the Church of England can be trusted to put its own house in order.”

In a statement read out this afternoon, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said: “The failures that we have seen are deeply shaming and I personally find them a cause of horror and sadness.

“That children have been abused within the communities of the church is indeed shameful.”

The inquiry continues.