Andrew Lord from the abuse team at Leigh Day asks whether we can have faith in the Church of England investigating its own failures which many believe led to the abuse of children

Earlier this week the Archbishop of Canterbury commissioned an independent review of the Church’s own handling of allegations of sexual abuse against Peter Ball, former Bishop of both Lewes and Gloucester.

But with such public interest in understanding the true extent of the ‘cover up’ the review will be charged with investigating, can or should the Church of England be charged with investigating its own failures in tackling sexual abuse?

Bishop Ball is beginning a 32-month prison sentence after pleading guilty to two counts of indecent assaults on two complainants in their late teenage years, and also misconduct in public office relating to abuse of 16 more teenagers and young men between 1977 and 1992.

He stood accused of manipulating the complainants, who were either considering future ministerial positions or exploring their spirituality, into engaging in sexual acts by informing them he needed to test their commitment.

Two further counts of indecent assault, relating to children aged 12 and 15, were not admitted and shall lie on file.

One of many disturbing factors in this case is that in 1993 the Criminal Prosecution Service (CPS) had sufficient “substantial and reliable evidence” to charge Ball with sexual abuse, but senior members of the police and CPS decided to issue a police caution in relation to one count of gross indecency rather than proceed to prosecution.

Evidence at recent pre-trial reviews suggests that both Ball and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, were each separately assured that any other allegations of abuse which took place prior to the caution would not lead to a further police investigation.

Incredible as this may seem, Ball went on to explain that a senior police officer at the time assured him “Bishop, this is all over”. 

After receiving the police caution Ball immediately resigned as Bishop of Gloucester, and moved to Manor Lodge, Somerset, which was a property owned privately by Prince Charles.

Additionally Ball was continued to officiate in Church of England ceremonies until 2010, and largely appeared to be unscathed by the allegations of exploitative sexual abuse against him. Bishop Ball ought to have been imprisoned for his evil crimes years ago.

A well-connected man, several interventions in 1993 ensured a prosecution would not be forthcoming.

Evidence at yesterday's sentencing hearing suggested that interventions in support of Ball were made by MPs, a Lord Chief Justice, a member of the royal family and public school headmasters.

In 2012 the police investigation into Ball was reopened, after documents were eventually released from the Church of England to the police.

One survivor of abuse, Neil Todd, whose allegations against Ball were included within the evidence bundle which was considered and disregarded by the CPS in 1993, was unable to see Ball face justice today, as tragically he took his own life after the police investigation was reopened. Such was the injustice for those directly affected by Ball’s offending.

Yesterday’s sentence is cause for stark reflection of the CPS, the investigating police forces and the Church of England.

There are significant criticisms surrounding how such organisations disregarded survivors of sexual abuse, allowed abhorrent crimes to go unprosecuted and considered it appropriate to allow such a despicable person to remain unpunished, and it is in the public interest that these institutions be held to account.

In an attempt to make amends, three days ago Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, ordered an independent review into the Church’s handling of the case of Bishop Ball.

In particular the review will consider whether the risk that Ball posed to others had been adequately assessed, and whether the evidence was passed to the relevant authorities in a timely manner.

Whilst the mechanics of the review are yet to be announced, we are assured that the review shall be “without fear of favour”.

So can the Church of England be entrusted to perform its own thorough and independent review of such matters, or will there be an element of damage control which will hold back the true extent of their complicity in allowing perpetrators of sexual abuse to go unpunished?

When one considers the robustness of previous ‘independent’ inquiries involving religious institutions it is difficult to not feel disparaging about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent announcement.

Certainly the abusive actions of Ball have already brought to the attention of a previous Inquiry.

A survivor of abuse brought the matter to the attention of Lady Butler-Sloss whilst she conducting her review into abuse within the Church of England’s Diocese of Chichester, 2012.

The survivor alleges that Lady Butler-Sloss' response was that she would “prefer not to refer to him,” and suggested that “the press would love a bishop,” before going on to explain that she “cared about the Church”.

The final report was eventually published without any reference to Ball.

The most recent ‘independent’ report in abuse within religious settings offers little more confidence, as the report was labelled a whitewash by critics.

The McLellan Commission Report, released 18 August 2015, considered the safeguarding measures within the Catholic Church in Scotland; and it conspicuously suggests that there has been abuse of children, that such abuse has previously been ignored and that the Church acts with vitriol towards survivors of abuse whom seek redress.

Despite this, recommendations included a public apology to all survivors of abuse, and that prayers for safeguarding should be implemented. If the report wasn’t so heartbreakingly dispiriting it could almost be considered a joke.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) is the first realistic prospect of uncovering both the true extent of childhood sexual abuse in England and Wales, and who knew what about whom.

One strand of investigations will include “churches, mosques and other religious organisations,” and the case of Bishop Ball is likely to be within their radar.

Irrespective of how much the Archbishop of Canterbury asserts that the Church’s own independent review is the most appropriate method of investigation, it is in the public interest that we understand the true extent of Church’s own complicity in covering up allegations of sexual abuse including against those in high positions with the Church’s hierarchy.

Survivors of clerical abuse require a truly independent review in which they can have faith.