29 October 2020 | Comment | Article by Alan Collins

How the Church of England Failed Victims: Bishop Hurbert Victor Whitsey and a betrayal of trust

This week, the Church of England has hit the headlines again due to serious sexual and emotional abuse committed by the former Bishop of Chester, the late Hurbert Victor Whitsey. Whitsey was found to have abused children and vulnerable adults for over 15 years between 1966 and 1981.

The report ‘A Betrayal of Trust’ is based on an independent review compiled by retired Judge David Pearl and former Sussex Police Detective Inspector Kate Wood.

It found that Whitsey groomed his victims, and often their families, to enable his abuse. He used his position in the Church “to abuse both prospective ordinands, and children and young persons, many of whom were particularly vulnerable as they were experiencing family difficulties such as the death or departure of a parent”. Whitsey gave victims money which he called his "discretionary fund" and younger victims were given money to buy sweets as part of the grooming process.

Whitsey’s reign of abuse only ended when he retired in 1981. He died in 1987 without facing justice, aged 71. Sadly, this is a common story. Not only was justice not obtained for his victims because investigations were not undertaken by the Church of England at the time, but he also remained in a position of trust to continue to abuse more and more victims.

The report found church officials mishandled victim disclosures and missed opportunities to intervene after it was revealed some victims told senior members of the church about the abuse as long ago as  the late 1970s, early 1980s and as recently as 2012.

Whitsey abused his first known victim nearly a decade before he was consecrated as Bishop of Chester in 1974. He also sexually assaulted four people while serving as vicar at Langley All Saints and Martyrs in the years beforehand. The involvement of the retired Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, and the veracity of the Bishop of Beverley, the Rt Revd Glyn Webster, come under particular scrutiny in the report.

The Church of England first apologised in 2017, following a police report which said Whitsey would have been questioned under caution in relation to 10 of the witness allegations had the abuse been reported.

There have been at least 18 victims who have come forward to date, although the true number of peopled abused by Whitsey is unknown and it is likely to be much higher due to the period of known abuse in question.

The church’s lead safeguarding bishop, Jonathan Gibbs, said: “Our focus must lie today with the survivors and victims of Whitsey, recognising the impact that this horrendous abuse has had on their lives, and with deep gratitude for their courage in engaging with the independent review” and “We are taking action to ensure that the church is a safer place for all and we will be using these recommendations to help us drive change – and some of these already link up with existing work.” He added: “We will be taking very seriously criticisms in the report about how and where we failed to respond, and we recognise that an urgent response to the identified failures in safeguarding practice is necessary. We commit ourselves above all to doing all we can to support the victims and survivors of Whitsey’s abuse in the future.”

The present Bishop of Chester, the Rt Revd Mark Tanner referred to the “wickedness” that had been perpetrated. “There are no words to express my horror and shame as I read this report; and, even if there were, words alone are not enough. Our apologies, which are freely and sincerely given, must be backed up by action. I am grateful to all those who have already helped us start to change, to Judge Pearl for this report, and most of all to the incredibly brave survivors who have spoken up and made us listen. It is with them and all victims of abuse that my thoughts and prayers rest today as I commit myself and the diocese of Chester to respond in word and action to this report.” The diocese was very aware of the dangers of “marking our own homework” in response to the report, and that, he promised, would not happen.

The Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, said: “That a bishop should not have been able to go on abusing young and vulnerable people over such a long period without ever being held to account for his actions is a matter of deep shame for the Church of England. On behalf of the Church I apologise, and say I am deeply sorry to all who suffered as a result of his behaviour. In addition to making this apology, I also want survivors to know that, if you wish it, my colleagues and I will be here to offer you real and ongoing support. Meanwhile, we must ensure that these challenging lessons are learned, so as not to repeat the errors of the past.”

The report comes only weeks after the publication of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) report on the Church of England’s failings which found the church ‘allowed child abusers to hide’. The report confirmed 390 clergy members and other church leaders were convicted of abuse between the 1940s and 2018.

The IICSA within this report made several recommendations, including:

  • the Church of England should improve how it responds to safeguarding complaints - by, for example, reintroducing a rule to expel any member of the clergy found guilty of child sexual abuse offences
  • responsibility for safeguarding should be taken out of the hands of diocesan bishops and given to safeguarding officers employed by the central hierarchy of the Church
  • the Church of England and Church in Wales should share information about clergy who move between the two institutions
  • both Churches should introduce policies for funding and support of survivors of child sexual abuse whose perpetrators had a connection to the Church

As we have previously advised, the Church of England will shortly roll out a redress scheme which will look to compensate victims who were abused by those within the church and are currently testing a pilot scheme with 10 victims. Once the full details of the scheme are published, we will comment further on this.

We encourage anyone who has concerns about sexual abuse to get in touch. You can contact Alan Collins at alan.collins@hughjames.com or Danielle Vincent at danielle.vincent@hughjames.com.

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.

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