Former Bishop of Lewes, Wallace Benn failed to report paedophile priests to authorities and may have gone so far as to actively protect them, according to evidence heard at an inquiry.
Bishop Wallace, now 70, also threatened to sue his own Church to prevent a report into failings to protect children from being passed to their head of child protection.
While some accusations of this nature against Bishop Benn have been reported before, the scale of them is being revealed as the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse continues.
Richard Scorer, representing many victims, said: “The arrogance which equates the Church with God and which places reputational protection before the interests of victims in our view is encapsulated in the attitude of Bishop Wallace Benn.”
Former Bishop of Chichester John Hind, told the inquiry he was ‘shocked beyond measure’ when in 2010 Bishop Wallace asked him not to pass on a ‘blemished’ CRB check on Reverend Gordon Rideout to the Church’s head of child protection.
By this point, Reverend Rideout had been tried and acquitted in 1972 of indecent assault against three choir girls while he was an army chaplain, lead counsel Fiona Scolding told the inquiry. Four more people came forward after the trial but no action was taken.
Miss Scolding added: “Bishop Wallace Benn accompanied Reverend Rideout to the police station in 2002 to be interviewed. Both Bishop Hind and Bishop Benn were aware of the allegations made against Reverend Rideout from at least 1998 when Reverend Rideout disclosed them.”
And yet despite this, Bishop Benn asked Bishop Hind not to pass on the CRB check, saying that ‘he is a friend and much respected person’, chaplain Ian Gibson recalled.
From May 2013 Rideout was convicted of 34 counts of indecent assault and two charges of attempted rape against 16 victims and jailed for ten years. In December 2016 he admitted another count of indecent assault and was jailed for nine months.
But this is not the only example of Bishop Benn being less than enthusiastic in reporting on priests.
Reverend Robert Coles, who spent time in charge at St Wilfrid’s, Chichester and as curate at St John’s Church, Horsham, was accused in May 1997 of abusing a child. He denied the allegations and no prosecution occurred for reasons which are not clear, Miss Scolding said.
She added: “While much is disputed about who knew what and when, it is accepted that Bishop Wallace Benn accompanied Reverend Coles to the police station when he was arrested in 1997.”
When he decided to retire later that year, he admitted to Bishop Benn, then Archdeacon Nicholas Reade and Janet Hind that he had had sexual activity with a child, Miss Scolding said. She said there is some disagreement between witnesses as to when this took place but all agreed that none of them told the police about it.
Miss Scolding also told the inquiry: “Bishop Benn received a letter from a rector in Chichester referring to Reverend [Robert] Coles fondling two boys in 1979 to 1982.
“This was not referred to the police.”
“Archdeacon Reade and Bishop Benn did inform Reverend Coles that he must not go on tour with a school party in 1999, but did not tell the school that he should not attend the school trip.
“It also appeared that Reverend Coles took school assemblies.”
Reverend Robert Coles pleaded guilty to 11 counts of indecent assault and two of attempted serious sexual assault and was sentenced in February 2013 to eight years’ imprisonment. He pleaded guilty to two further counts of indecent assault and was sentenced to a further 16 months’ imprisonment.
Evaluating risk: what about the burden of proof?
Archdeacon Jones told the inquiry that Bishop Benn struggled to look at allegations ‘on the balance of probabilities’ rather than beyond reasonable doubt when it came to safeguarding.
He added: “His aim always was for forgiveness and reconciliation and a transformed life. Therefore, anyone who had ‘done wrong’ needed to seek forgiveness.
“I always had the impression that in fact he thought along those lines, even in regard to issues relating to safeguarding.”
Shirley Hosgood, former safeguarding advisor for the Chichester diocese, told the inquiry she had found that an individual had told Bishop Benn in 2003 that he had been abused by Reverend Roy Cotton.
According to her evidence (available on the inquiry website), Bishop Benn told the individual that nothing could be done and police were not informed.
She also said in her evidence that another individual came to her in February 2008 to say he was a victim of abuse by Roy Cotton. She contacted police, who said they were aware of the allegations.
Ms Hosgood told the inquiry she found out Bishop Benn had received the information three months earlier and it was not recorded on any files she had access to.
She added: “I was concerned that this was relevant safeguarding information that should have been passed onto me and the police.”
However Archdeacon Jones argued in his evidence: “The context in which Bishop Benn was notified indicated that individual was in touch with the police and, accordingly, he felt he was receiving that information by way of information only.”
Other than a 1954 conviction, Cotton was never found guilty of sex offences before he died in 2006. However Baroness Butler-Sloss, who conducted a wide-ranging investigation into abuse in Chichester diocese, said she believed he had at least ten victims. Her report was referenced in the inquiry proceedings and is available on the Church of England website.
When another priest was leaving the diocese, Bishop Benn failed to alert the receiving parish they were subject to a safeguarding plan, then Archdeacon of Hastings told the inquiry.
In his submitted evidence, Bishop Hind said this may have been due to the Bishops’ Palace sending the file to the wrong destination.
Meekings Report and Bishop Benn’s threat to sue
When Roger Meekings finished his report into abuse in the Church, it contained several criticisms of Bishop Benn’s handling of information about potential abusive priests.
Various witnesses at the inquiry said Bishop Benn threatened to sue to prevent the report being shared more widely, including with victims and Shirley Hosgood, head of child protection.
Archdeacon Jones said: “His reaction to the report was considerable. He found it offensive and reacted very strongly against it.”
Bishop Hind told the inquiry it was this threat of libel action that was behind the decision not to share the report more widely.
Bishop Benn was hauled before an ecclesiastical tribunal in 2012 over two complaints about his approach to safeguarding in the case of Robert Coles, Miss Scolding said, but the complaints were dismissed.
The inquiry continues. Bishop Benn is giving evidence today.