Church of England offers 'unreserved apology' after harrowing Panorama investigation into child sexual abuse

Kevin Bennington (R) spoke to Panorama the horrific details of his abuse at the hands of a former teacher and choirmaster at Lincoln Cathedral School(Photo: BBC)

The Church of England's lead safeguarding bishop Peter Hancock has offered an "unreserved apology" after a harrowing BBC Panorama investigation into the Church's handling of child sexual abuse. 

Two former bishops of Lincoln were accused in the programme of failing to act on information regarding child sexual abuse.

In 2015, Lincoln Diocese gave police 53 names of concern, the investigation revealed.  Rick Hatton, Deputy Superintendent of Lincolnshire Police, said that the number of people on the list "was a surprise to say the least". 

"We whittled it down to about 25 names, whereby we either knew that they'd committed offences or there was some issue around risk to members of the public from them," he told the programme.

"There was the ongoing concern that actually those people were working with children. Potentially there was still a risk."

Three people were eventually convicted in relation to historic child sexual abuse in Lincoln Diocese as a result of the police investigation. 

They included Roy Griffiths, the former deputy head teacher and choirmaster at Lincoln Cathedral School, who last year was jailed for six years and seven months after admitting to charges involving the sexual abuse of boys in his care between 1963 and 1970. 

One of Mr Griffith's survivors, Kevin Bennington, said: "It should have been dealt with right away and the Church should have instructed the police [...] and they didn't, they just turned a blind eye and moved on."

Another of his victims, Mark Wheeler, described Mr Griffiths as "cold and frightening".

"He was just all powerful," he said. 

Mr Bennington, who now lives in Canada, said that when the abuse escalated during a school trip in 1969, his mother reported it to the then Bishop of Lincoln, the late Rt Rev Kenneth Riches.  Another complaint was made against Mr Griffiths the following year. 

Despite the reports, the programme said that the police were not informed and Mr Griffiths left the school a few months later.  He moved to Papua New Guinea where he took up a new teaching post at an Anglican boys' school. 

A second former Bishop of Lincoln, the Rt Rev Robert Hardy, was reportedly informed in the 1990s by then Director of Education, John Bailey, that he had inappropriately touched a female as a "one-off" in the past. 

Bishop Hardy told Panorama that no one had contacted him at the time or subsequently to complain about Mr Bailey.  He claimed that had they done so, he would have investigated it further. 

Mr Bailey was prosecuted in 2017 following Operation Redstone, in which he admitted to 25 counts of indecent assault against three girls.  He was sentenced to six years in prison. 

In 2007, the Church of England had ordered a national review of staff and clergy files going back decades to assess whether there more safeguarding failings. 

Some 40,000 records were examined as part of the Past Cases Review (PCR) but the Church did not speak to survivors of the abuse. 

At the end of the review, the Church of England concluded that only 13 cases required further action. 

"I thought it was fundamentally flawed," Phil Johnson, chair of Ministers and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors, told Panorama.

"I just thought, this is not credible," he added.

The Bishop of Buckingham Alan Wilson agrees.

He told Panorama, "I'm very disturbed now to have found out that there seems to have been quite a process of whittling down the numbers by changing the criteria of what was being looked for. And I think there was a lot of massaging going on at the centre that was deeply suspect."

Asked whether the Church had put its own interests before the needs of survivors, Bishop Hancock told Panorama investigators: "I think there was too much concern about the reputation of the Church and there was not enough care for those themselves who are victims of abuse."

In a statement issued after the programme aired on Monday night, Bishop Hancock said that the PCR was "well-intentioned" but "in hindsight clearly flawed". 

"It has been harrowing to hear survivors' accounts of their abuse - shared on BBC Panorama - and we issue an unreserved apology for how we have failed them," he said.

In light of a separate independent report last year by by Sir Roger Singleton which also highlighted the failures of the PCR, Bishop Hancock said a second past cases review was now being carried out in which the accounts of survivors would be heard. 

"We fully acknowledge that it was a serious mistake not to work with and hear from survivors during the original PCR," he said.

"The new review will ensure survivors voices are heard. We are aware of the courage it takes for survivors to come forward knowing that the effects of their abuse are with them for life.

"I would urge anyone affected by the Panorama programme to call the NSPCC helpline number 0808 800 5000."

The Rt Rev Dr Nicholas Chamberlain, Bishop of Grantham and lead bishop for safeguarding for the Diocese of Lincoln, said the diocese was now working closely with the police to ensure that suspected abuse is properly dealt with.

"The Diocese of Lincoln wishes to acknowledge that past matters have not been handled well," he said. 

"The diocese is committed to learn from its mistakes. I am very sorry that it took so long for justice to be served."

Responding to the Panorama programme, Church of England priest Peter Ould told Christian Today that senior bishops needed to ensure safeguarding was being properly implemented right the way down through the Church. 

"The revelations in tonight's Panorama are distressing and add to the evidence that the Church of England have failed in the past to act properly in these matters," he said.

"It should be incumbent on all senior leaders in the Church to enact immediately all safeguarding and safe recruiting requirements that they have agreed and to be held fully to account if they fail in this." 

Former Dean of Durham Michael Sadgrove said the findings were "deeply troubling". 

"How can we have been so blind about child abuse?" he tweeted.

The Bishop of Grantham's statement on the Panorama programme in full: 

Whilst some matters remain under investigation it is not possible to comment specifically on the questions that have been posed to the diocese by the BBC.

The Diocese of Lincoln wishes to acknowledge that past matters have not been handled well. The diocese is committed to learn from its mistakes. I am very sorry that it took so long for justice to be served.

The past abuse that our safeguarding team brought to light, through our revisiting and review of past cases, is all the more appalling given what the public deserve and are fully entitled to expect, which is the highest level of conduct from clergy and all those involved in leadership in the church. All people are made in the image of God and abuse of any kind is contrary to that belief.

It is as a result of our commitment to ensuring justice is served, that our safeguarding team have developed an effective partnership with Lincolnshire Police, working together on Operation Redstone. Together they have worked tirelessly to ensure that convictions were secured where possible and where this was not an option, that risk was managed appropriately. Throughout all recent processes our hope is that victims and survivors have felt heard, and been well supported and cared for, although we acknowledge we may not have always got this right.

Every effort is being made to ensure that safeguarding is part of the DNA of the Diocese of Lincoln. There are high levels of confidence in our safeguarding practitioners from Lincolnshire Police and statutory authorities. There is mandatory safeguarding training that is externally audited and independently validated with support from Lincolnshire Safeguarding Children and Adult partnership boards. Our safeguarding team have delivered face to face training to 3296 people in the past five years.

As a diocese we promise to offer support to anyone who contacts us about issues of harm or abuse and are committed to ensure that churches are a safe place for all.

With best wishes, The Right Reverend Dr Nicholas Chamberlain
Bishop of Grantham