Are conservative evangelicals more likely to protect child abusers?

There's twisted thread running through the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse - a discomfort that doesn't just come from the revelations of serial failures that resulted in dreadful damage being done.

It is also theological, and goes to the root of the Christian gospel.

The dilemma is this. Should we believe in repentance, forgiveness and transformation? And if we do, how should we show it?

And the painfuly sharp problem that's emerged from the first week of the IICSA hearings into the Chichester diocese is that it's this fundamental aspect of the gospel, adhered to most tenaciously by conservative evangelicals, that appears to have made it possible for one of the worst clerical culprits to continue abusing.

The inquiry is chaired by professor Alexis Jay, second from left.IICSA

Wallace Benn, formerly area bishop of Lewes, is due to appear at the IICSA hearings on Monday, when we will hear his side of the story. However, it's already been claimed that at one point he asked the bishop of Chichester, John Hind, not to disclose information about one abusive clergyman, Gordon Rideout, to the diocesan safeguarding adviser as 'he is a friend and a much respected person' (Hind refused) and that he said, 'You can't write off a good guy because of a bad day.'

According to Archdeacon Philip Jones in his testimony yesterday, however, the reasons behind this may be theological – and that is deeply worrying.

In answer to a question about Benn's conservative evangelicalism, Jones suggested that it was 'principally to do with a rigorous adherence to scripture and scriptural commands and doctrines'.

How, he was asked, did this affect his approach to safeguarding? His answer: 'His aim always was for forgiveness and reconciliation and a transformed life. Therefore, anyone who had, in inverted commas, "done wrong", needed to seek forgiveness, be restored, be reconciled, but also move towards a completely transformed life in a Christian sense. Therefore, when he was faced with anyone who had done anything wrong, disciplinary or not, that's what he expected, and he would apply scriptural principles as to how that was to be achieved.

'I always had the impression that in fact he thought along those lines, even in regard to issues relating to safeguarding.'

Of Rideout, jailed in 2013 for 10 years for 36 separate offences, Jones says: 'He absolutely resisted any suggestion that he was guilty and, as far as he was concerned, I believe, and to some extent what he was saying, both before conviction and after, I believe he took the view that he had been forgiven by God, his slate was therefore wiped clean, but more than that, in terms of his mental approach to it, indeed his psychological approach from a very conservative viewpoint, was that it would be almost as though the events for which he was under investigation and then convicted for hadn't happened.

'So the mental approach is that forgiveness in those circumstances means it's gone.

'Q. Is that unique to Canon Rideout?

'A. I think that may be a fairly prevalent view.'

And that's surely true. Ask any conservative evangelical and they'll major on forgiveness. To be 'justified' means that it's 'just as if I'd' never sinned at all. 'I will remember your sins no more,' God says – and if even God forgets them, who are we to remember?

At one level, this sort of works: the sense of a new beginning – or of many new beginnings – is one for which most Christians with any self-awareness have cause to be deeply grateful. We are blessed to be forgiven.

But it looks, on Jones' evidence, as though this truth has been perverted because it is partial. Whatever an individual's private interactions with God, in terms of their public interactions they are publicly accountable – and not just to the church, but to the representatives of civil society as well.

It looks, on the evidence so far, as though conservative evangelicalism's emphasis on repentance, forgiveness and transformation exposes its adherents to a particular temptation: focusing so intently on the grace of God in the repentant sinner that they lose sight of that sinner's victims. And they also lose sight of the power of sin, which is always 'crouching at the door' (Genesis 4:7), ready to pounce.

If – and his testimony on Monday will be interesting – Benn's theology meant he was soft on repentant abusers, it was shockingly bad theology.

Sadly, there's plenty of it around, on both sides of the pond. Andy Savage, a pastor at Highpoint Church in Texas, received a standing ovation from the congregation after he expressed repentance for a previous sexual assault; his victim said the applause was 'disgusting', but it fits that repentance/restoration narrative precisely.

There are enough resources in conservative evangelicalism to guard against that kind of error. But conservatives need to do their theological homework, as well as ticking the boxes on safeguarding forms, or there will be more of this to come.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods