Colin Podmore reflects on the cases of two bishops condemned for abuse

2015 was not a good year for the episcopate. Bishops were jailed in England and America, and two deceased English diocesans were declared guilty of abuse. Their stories give cause for concern. This article will focus on the cases of two of the four – Peter Ball and John Satterthwaite.

Sexual and spiritual abuse

In October Bishop Peter Ball was sentenced to 32 months’ imprisonment, having pleaded guilty to two charges of indecent assault against young men, and to misconduct in a public office between 1977 and 1992. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) did not proceed with charges of indecent assault on two boys aged 13 and 15: for them, justice has been denied.

Mr Justice Wilkie’s Sentencing Remarks repay study and prompt reflection*. Ball’s guilty plea accepted ‘that you obtained sexual gratification from the deliberate manipulation of vulnerable young men’ (some 16 in all), and ‘abused your position… by making suggestions to your victims that their religious or social life would be improved by engaging in the acts you suggested’. This was ‘a deliberate and informed exploitation and distortion of [their] religious and spiritual needs’. The judge summarized the offences as follows:

Using the authority of the public office of a Bishop of the Church of England, you used this scheme [‘Give a Year to Christ’] to cause certain young persons so to fall under your influence and tutelage that you were able to persuade them to stand naked before you or to join you in being naked, on occasions in a place of worship, in front of the altar. On occasions you persuaded some of them to permit you to embrace them whilst you were both naked. Those activities frequently resulted in your sexual arousal, occasionally to ejaculation. You persuaded some of them to permit you to anoint them whilst naked which you did for your sexual gratification, you persuaded others to allow you to beat them with the similar selfish, sexual, motive.

Ball had acknowledged that his earlier claim that his conduct reflected teachings of St Francis of Assisi was untrue. He was sentenced on the basis that there was no genital sexual contact, but the spiritual and psychological damage inflicted was profound. In 1993 he had accepted a caution in relation to an offence of gross indecency on a 17-year-old novice: in 2012 the victim took his own life after being told of the renewed investigation – in the Judge’s words, ‘unable to cope with the pain of these memories coming to the fore again’.

One interesting aspect is the recognition of the Church of England as more than just a ‘faith community’. Because most of the actions complained of involved consenting adults, they ‘did not amount to the commission … of any substantive sexual offence’. A Roman Catholic bishop could not have been charged with them. It is because the Church of England is the Established Church that Ball could be found guilty of ‘misconduct in a public office’.

When Peter Ball was considered for appointment as Bishop of Gloucester in 1992, his relationships with young men ought to have led those responsible for the process to enquire into his character and reputation, but they seem not to have done so. Whether their lack of curiosity was culpable is open to question. By contrast, the decision to grant him permission to officiate in the Diocese of Bath and Wells in 2001, when his past behaviour towards significant numbers of young men was common knowledge, seems indefensible.

The CPS has said that the decision not to prosecute in 1993 was wrong. Letters sent at the time by Lord Carey and others have now been published and do not make happy reading. The present Archbishop of Canterbury has commissioned an independent review of how the Church of England handled the case. Lord Carey has expressed regret that ‘we dealt inadequately with Peter Ball’s victims and gave too much credence to his protestations. In the past we failed many victims and allowed abusers to flourish in ministry.’ There will doubtless be further lessons to be learned from the review.

One striking feature of Mr Justice Wilkie’s Sentencing Remarks is his comment that ‘My task is to seek to achieve justice not only for your victims and for the public interest but also for you, a man who has, often during the same period, done so much good but also so much harm.’ A criminal court, we learn, is a forum in which justice is done not only for the accuser but also for the accused.

Justice for the dead?

Where the accused is dead, there can be no criminal trial. Not only can the accuser not obtain justice: the accused cannot obtain it either. The accuser cannot see punishment given for wrongdoing; the accused has no opportunity to vindicate himself. Where the accused is still alive, the Church can rely on the criminal courts or on its own disciplinary tribunals to ensure that justice is done for both accuser and accused. Where the accused is dead, those in authority in the Church are forced to take upon themselves the burden of striking that balance. Recent cases raise questions as to the mechanisms and criteria for achieving that. In 2016 discussion of the case of George Bell continues not only in the church press but also in national newspapers and online, so in this article I will look instead at another case in which a bishop has posthumously been declared guilty of abuse – that of Bishop John Satterthwaite of Gibraltar in Europe.

In July ‘the Diocese in Europe and the Church of England … formally apologised for the inappropriate and abusive behaviour’ of the late Bishop John Satterthwaite towards a priest, then aged 26. The priest alleged that, over 35 years ago Bishop Satterthwaite invited him to his home, ‘plied him with alcohol, made inappropriate comments to him, embraced him and kissed him’. Closer to the time, Bishop Satterthwaite might have accepted this as an accurate account of what occurred – or he might have said that he offered generous hospitality, made solicitous comments that were misinterpreted, and sent the priest home with a paternal embrace. Two people’s accounts even of a recent event can differ markedly; deciding between them is not always easy. The priest’s account may be correct– but Bishop Satterthwaite might have wished to contest it. Being dead, he cannot do so. Those who remember him with affection have a right to expect the Church that he served to display fairness towards his memory and reputation, while also responding with equal fairness and concern towards the priest who felt abused by him.

It is not clear that that expectation has been fulfilled. There was no judicial process, merely an ‘inquiry’ by two independent safeguarding advisers, who concluded that Bishop Satterthwaite ‘acted inappropriately and in a wholly unbecoming manner’. In a court case the complainant would have given evidence in public and been cross-examined by someone acting for the accused. His testimony would have been weighed against the fact that the alleged incident had occurred over 35 years earlier, without witnesses. In this case, no testimony has been given in public and no evidence has been published. Not only the complaint but even those who have found Bishop Satterthwaite guilty remain anonymous; their qualifications for reaching a quasi-judicial decision on guilt or innocence (as distinct from advising on good practice in safeguarding) remain undisclosed. Bishop Satterthwaite may indeed have been guilty of acting ‘inappropriately and in a wholly unbecoming manner’ in this (alleged) incident, but in the absence of published evidence and public testimony that must remain a matter of opinion. Can it be right for the Church to publish a formal finding of guilt against one of its deceased bishops on such a basis?

Terrible crimes have been committed against children and vulnerable adults by bishops, priests, and lay people who have abused positions of authority and trust – and, in some cases, abused the Christian faith itself for the sake of sexual gratification. Systems and procedures that might have prevented or limited the opportunity for such crimes were not in place. Survivors of abuse by living clerics who could have been brought to justice were fobbed off. Inappropriate behaviour was condoned or made light of. There may have been cover-ups; there was certainly a lack of due process and transparency when complaints were made. There is much cause for shame, repentance and amendment. It is essential that the Church responds much better to complaints of abuse than it did in the past, but in doing so it must set an example of moral conduct and, in Richard Baxter’s words, continue to ‘live as those that believe the communion of saints’.

Peter Ball was jailed following a judicial process. The judge’s reasoned Sentencing Remarks run to eight pages and stress his duty to do justice not only for his victims and for the public interest but also for a convicted criminal who had – albeit belatedly – admitted his guilt. By contrast, the Church of England seems content to proclaim one of its bishops to have been guilty of abusing his position more than thirty-five years ago without any judicial or quasi-judicial process or public testimony, without publishing the evidence, and without an opportunity for anyone who might wish to defend his reputation to do so. It remains unclear by what process the decision was taken, who may have influenced it, and with what motives. In the past, those who complained of abuse were denied justice, and decisions about their cases were taken in ways that were not transparent. Attention has – rightly – now shifted from protecting the accused to responding appropriately to the accuser; but it seems that very little has been learned about either justice or transparency.

One of the duties with which bishops are charged at their ordination is to ‘speak for those who have no other to speak for them’. In today’s Church of England, who will speak for those fellow-members of the communion of saints who can no longer speak for themselves?

Does a church that believes in the communion of saints not owe justice to the dead as well as to the living? ND

Dr Colin Podmore is Director of Forward in Faith.

* www.judiciary.gov.uk/judgments/sentencing -remarks-of-mr-justice-wilkie-r-v-ball)