Factsheet: Abuse and the Church of England

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In the past decade, the Church of England has regularly been rocked by cases of child abuse, including many by priests and even bishops. Multiple inquiries and reviews have been carried out, along with wholescale reform to the Church’s safeguarding procedures, culminating in the Independent Inquiry into Child Abuse in October 2020.

On 6 October, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) will publish its report on the Church of England’s handling of complaints about child sex abuse and its record on safeguarding. It follows evidence heard in July 2019 where cases going back years were outlined, and questions asked as to whether the church was capable of dealing with safeguarding issues.

This is the third of three investigations relating to the Church of England. The other two — into the case of Bishop Peter Ball, and into Chichester Diocese as a sample diocese — have already been published.

Latest figures say the church was dealing with 3,287 complaints of of child sex abuse in 2017. This includes instances of physical, sexual and spiritual abuse against adults and children.

In the recent history of the Church of England, reports started emerging in the 1970s of child sex abuse going back to the Second World War, but positive action was not taken until this century.



Bishop Paul Butler, the church’s lead bishop on safeguarding, tells the General Synod that the church has “failed big time” over child protection, and particularly over its response to those who disclosed that they had been abused.

A complainant known as “Graham” discloses that he and others had been abused by John Smyth QC in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The complaint was made in Ely Diocese and in August 2013 is referred to Lambeth Palace, but no further action taken.


A complaint alleging that George Bell, a former Bishop of Chichester, had abused a girl named “Carol” in the 1940s and 1950s, is made to the Archbishop of Canterbury. George Bell died in 1958. A police inquiry says there was sufficient evidence to have arrested Bell and the diocese pays damages and apologises to “Carol”. Lawyers, academics and leading journalists criticise the church’s decision and defend Bell’s reputation. Afterwards, five others make complaints, but police drop the case.


On the recommendation of a group of church abuse survivors, Paul Butler, now the Bishop of Durham, announces the creation of Safe Spaces — an initiative to provide support and counselling for victims of church-related abuse. The scheme is eventually launched in September 2020.

July: Home secretary Theresa May announces the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse in England and Wales. There follows fierce debate over the scope and independence of the inquiry, and the resignations of its first two intended chairpeople.

23 October: A report is published into the church’s handling of the case of Robert Waddington, former Dean of Manchester. Six years after his death in 2007, it emerged that allegations of sex abuse had been made while he was in Australia. Archbishop of York David Hope removed Waddington’s right to officiate but he was not reported to the police. The inquiry, led by Sally Cahill QC, speaks of a systemic failure in the church’s procedures


February: The IICSA inquiry is reconstituted with Dame Lowell Goddard as chairwoman and powers to compel evidence and access classified material.

July: Jeremy Dowling, a former teacher and communications officer for the Diocese of Truro, is jailed for abusing boys between 1959 and 1971. Several bishops in Truro were told but did nothing. The director of public prosecutions decided not to take action. The case came to light when a victim went to the police in 2014.

October: Peter Ball, a former Bishop of Lewes and of Gloucester, is jailed for 32 months for abusing 18 young men over 15 years. These cases came to light in 1993 when he accepted a police caution.

October: A man known in the media as “Joe” (not his real name) is paid £35,000 compensation by the church after he complained that he had been the victim of sexual abuse by a senior cleric in 1976 and the church had done nothing for 40 years.

November: Dame Lowell announces there will be 12 separate investigations, including an inquiry into child sex abuse in the Church of England and in the Church in Wales.

November: Launch of the Truth Project, under which victims of sexual abuse can make statements to the inquiry, either in person to a member of the inquiry or in writing. By August 2020, the inquiry receives nearly 5,000 submissions.


March and July: IICSA Preliminary hearings into the Diocese of Chichester and specifically the case of Peter Ball. (Further hearings are held in 2018 and 2019, the final session dealing with safeguarding in the church.)

August: Dame Lowell Goddard resigns as chairwoman of IICSA. Professor Alexis Jay is appointed in her place.


February: Channel 4 News publishes a report on John Smyth, an evangelical Anglican barrister, alleging that he had beaten and physically abused young men while leading Christian camps, run by the Iwerne Trust in Dorset. Archbishop Justin Welby says Smyth had been “a charming friend” and that he is horrified by the disclosures. The assaults allegedly happened between 1978 and 1982, but were covered up by members of the trust. Smyth had been moved to Zimbabwe, where he went on to abuse at least 90 children, making him the most prolific known abuser in the Church of England. A police investigation into Smyth ensues, but it was never concluded because he died in August 2018.

June: An independent review into the Bishop Peter Ball case, chaired by Dame Moira Gibb, says the church had failed to respond appropriately to his misconduct over many years, and had colluded with Ball’s efforts to protect and promote himself. Among those she criticises are the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, who is asked to resign from his honorary position as an assistant bishop in the Diocese of Oxford.

November: A group called Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors (MACSAS) says its research suggests that adult women were three times more likely than children to be sexually assaulted by male clergy. They claim they have been receiving up to eight inquiries a week relating to the sexual abuse or harassment of women.

December: The House of Bishops publishes Promoting a Safe Church and Church of England Safeguarding Overview, saying the church will appoint a safeguarding officer in each parish. Every cleric or church officer dealing with children or vulnerable adults must have enhanced criminal record checks.


March: IICSA holds public hearings into the Chichester diocese study, including the case of Peter Ball, part of the Anglican Church inquiry. Ball, a former Bishop of Lewes, was jailed for 32 months in October 2015 for abusing 18 young men. He was released on licence after serving 16 months. He was one of 15 clergy from the Chichester diocese convicted of child sexual offences. Allegations had first been made against Ball more than 20 years earlier. In 1993, he accepted a police caution and resigned as bishop but was allowed to continue officiating.

June: The Church of England publishes a review into the review of Past Cases (PCR1) of abuse that was commissioned under Archbishop Rowan Williams and completed between 2007 and 2009. The review was found to have been inadequate, inconsistent and too small in scope. Seven dioceses were asked to conduct a fresh review.

July: IICSA resumes its hearings and is told that members of the Establishment, including the Prince of Wales, Lord Carey and a senior member of the judiciary, had rallied to Ball’s support. William Chapman, representing victims, said: “The story of Peter Ball is the story of the Establishment at work in modern times. It is the story of how the Establishment minimised the nature of Peter Ball’s misdeeds . . . and silenced and harassed those who tried to complain.”


April: The Social Care Institute for Excellence, in a report commissioned by the church, discovers that 59 out of 60 complainants are unsatisfied with the church’s response to their abuse disclosures. The report recommends that the church should no longer allow its 42 diocesan bishops to carry out safeguarding. Instead, services should be centralised and run by a more experienced national team. But the church rejects the suggestion, saying local bishops should remain in charge of the process.

In the light of the inadequacies of PCR1, the church launches a second review of past cases of abuse (PCR2). This will have a wider scope — it includes, for example, cathedrals and theological institutions. It is due to be completed in 2021.

April: Archbishop Welby is interviewed on Channel 4 News about John Smyth. He claimed, among other things, that Smyth had not been an Anglican, and that he had written to the Archbishop of Cape Town in 2013 to warn him that Smyth was in his diocese. Both of these claims were later revealed to have been untrue.

May: IICSA publishes its report into the Peter Ball case, saying that the church had put its own reputation above the needs of Ball’s victims, with a serious failure of leadership by Archbishop George Carey. Prince Charles and other members of the Establishment had been misguided in their expressions of support of Ball. IICSA makes five recommendations to improve safeguarding, some of which were already being implemented by the church. The inquiry had earlier been told that the church’s spending on safeguarding had increased from £1.6 million in 2011 to £5.1 million in 2018.

In his evidence to the inquiry, Archbishop Welby said the church was in the process of training about 30,000 parish safeguarding officers. He also told the inquiry it had been horrifying to read the evidence of the survivors. “I want to put on record — I don’t know how to explain it adequately — how appalled I am and how ashamed I am of the church for what it did to those who are survivors and who are coping with this,” he said.

21 June: Peter Ball dies at his home in Somerset after a fall. He was 87.

28 June: The Rev Jonathan Fletcher, retired vicar of Emmanuel Church, Wimbledon, where he had served for 30 years, and a renowned evangelical preacher, faces allegations of harmful behaviour to young men, The Daily Telegraph reported. Fletcher was a speaker and leader at the Iwerne camps where John Smyth allegedly abused young men. Complaints were made to police but no action was taken. It emerged that Fletcher’s permission to officiate had been withdrawn by the Bishop of Southwark, but that he had been allowed to carry on ministering within his network.

July: The IICSA inquiry begins its third and final session of public hearings investigating safeguarding in the Anglican Church. The session lasts for two weeks. Professor Jay says the aim of the hearings is to examine the views of victims and survivors of the church failures; reparations and insurance claims; safeguarding policies and practices; whether the current structure of safeguarding is fit for its purpose; how the church handled allegations of non-recent abuse and against deceased clergy; and whether the current system for external scrutiny is capable of highlighting deficiencies in policy or practice.

The lead counsel to the Anglican inquiry, Fiona Scolding QC, said: “Behind all these specific areas lies the biggest question of all: whether the current culture of the Church of England and Church in Wales is capable of dealing with these issues.”

Ms Scolding says the inquiry would also examine the C of E’s “inappropriate” responses to allegations of specific cases of recent abuse, among them:

  • Timothy Storey, a former church youth leader, who in 2016 was convicted of three charges of rape and one count of sexual assault, after grooming children and teenagers from his church on Facebook.
  •  The Rev John Roberts, who in 1989 was convicted of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy, but who continued to minister in the Church of England until 2013, eventually becoming a canon of Liverpool Cathedral.
  • Robert Waddington, a former Dean of Manchester. He died in 2007. Six years later it emerged that during his lifetime, allegations had been made that he had sexually abused boys in Australia, where he had once lived, and in Manchester. This had resulted in his right to officiate at services being removed by David Hope, then Archbishop of York. But he was not reported to the police. In a report commissioned by the Church, Sally Cahill QC spoke of a systemic failure in the church’s procedures. In response, the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu (who retired in June 2020), said he was “deeply ashamed that the church was not vigilant enough”. After publication of the report, David Hope, who had become Baron Hope of Thornes, retired from his position as an honorary bishop in the Diocese of West Yorkshire and The Dales.
  • Hubert Victor Whitsey (1916-87), a former Bishop of Chester. In 2016-17, Cheshire police investigated claims that Whitsey had sexually abused children and said that were he still alive, he would have been questioned. John Sentamu, then Archbishop of York, accepted the allegations and apologised to the victims.
  • The Rev Trevor Devamanikkam, who took his own life in June 2017, the day before he was due to appear in court accused of sexual offences.

August: A new director of safeguarding, Melissa Caslake, is appointed to head the National Safeguarding Team.

The Church of England announces a review into the Smyth, Whitsey and Devamanikkam cases. All three reviews are currently incomplete, and past their publication dates.


February: The General Synod votes unanimously to mandate the Archbishop’s Council to create a substantial fund to pay redress to the victims of abuse.

17 March: In evidence to the IICSA inquiry, Richard Scorer, a specialist abuse lawyer representing 21 victims of abuse, calls for an end to religious groups’ self-regulation on safeguarding and says the church’s measures are inadequate. He says there is still no clear obligation on the church to report allegations of abuse to the statutory authorities. He calls on the inquiry to make the church properly accountable externally. He says an independent body should be set up to investigate individual allegations of abuse, and that this body should have the power to override bishops “unwilling to comply with their responsibilities”.

March: The church’s safeguarding rules are weaponised in an attempt to oust Martyn Percy, the Dean of Christ Church Oxford, from his job. He is accused of failing to pass on to the police, or any other safeguarding authority in the university or Church of England, allegations from four former students that they were sexually assaulted during their time at the college. The accusation is investigated by the C of E’s national safeguarding team. Dean Percy is cleared on all counts in September.

May: “Graham” — the original complainant in the John Smyth case — lodges a formal complaint against the Archbishop of Canterbury for failing to respond appropriately to the disclosure of abuse by Smyth.

August: Abuse survivors, lawyers, academics, and members of the clergy and the General Synod write to Baroness Stowell, who chairs the Charity Commission, urging her to intervene to address “the failures of the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England to devise a safe, consistent and fair system of redress” for victims and survivors of abuse.

One of the letter’s signatories, Lord Carlile, says the church has a haphazard way of approaching safeguarding cases. He says it does not fit into any recognisable jurisdictional structure; neither complainants nor people complained against are getting a fair hearing, and numerous conflicts of interest have arisen.

In his response, Bishop of Huddersfield Dr Jonathan Gibbs, the church’s lead bishop on safeguarding, agrees that the system needs “root-and-branch change” to improve its response to abuse survivors, the way in which deals with complaints, and the way in which the culture of the church should change.

September: Before of the IICSA report’s publication, the Church of England announces a number of safeguarding initiatives. The Archbishop’s Council says the church is now committed to independence in safeguarding — though there is no detail about what that means. The council also announces that it has established an interim fund to provide support for survivors until a redress scheme can be established. Again, no detail is given.

In the same week, the church announces that it has commissioned a review into safeguarding associated with Bishopthorpe, the office of the Archbishop of York. It is also announced that Safe Spaces — the service mooted in 2014 — is going live. An advertisement is published for an individual to set up and run a redress scheme for survivors of church abuse.

6 October: The IICSA inquiry publishes its final report on the Church of England, based largely on the third session of public hearings into safeguarding. The most eagerly awaited recommendations will be the inquiry’s view on whether safeguarding in the church should be managed by bishops, or by an outside independent body, and whether the church should be subject to the mandatory reporting of disclosures of abuse, from which it is currently exempt.


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