Winchelsea and the Clergy Discipline Measure investigation of Bishop Wallace Benn

The Bishop of Lewes, Wallace Benn

The BBC has now published a report about David Page, Fr Howard Cocks and David’s lack of a PTO although he has been preaching and taking services at St Thomas the Martyr in Winchelsea, as reported on Wednesday by Changing Attitude.

The Diocese of Chichester said that Mr Page had been ministering even though he had not been granted a Bishop’s licence or Permission to Officiate. In a statement, the diocese said: “This is a requirement of canon law and may not be disregarded. This is now the subject of internal disciplinary proceedings.”

The Bishop of Horsham, the Right Reverend Mark Sowerby, told the BBC: “The Church of England lays down very clear regulations concerning those who officiate in our churches. These regulations should not be disregarded even in the case of sincere disagreement with bishops. Apart from considerations of canon law this is central to the integrity of our safeguarding policy.”

Bishop Mark Sowerby’s invocation of the diocesan safeguarding policy is breathtaking. Bishop Mark’s colleague in the Diocese of Chichester is Bishop Wallace Benn, Bishop of Lewes.

The Diocese of Chichester invited The Rt Hon Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss to conduct an independent re-examination into the Past Cases Review conducted in the Diocese of Chichester in 2008-9. She had been asked to look at the cases of two priests serving in the diocese who were the subject of historic child-abuse allegations which occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. Bishop Wallace Benn is implicated in the report, because he had granted a PTO to one of the priests and had misled the enquiry by reporting events inaccurately.

The report looked into the cases of Roy Cotton and Colin Pritchard, who abused children in the 1970s and 1980s. Pritchard served as the vicar of St Barnabas, Bexhill, until 2007 – after he was arrested over sex abuse claims. In 2008 he pleaded guilty to sexually abusing two boys and was jailed for five years.

Cotton was ordained in 1966, despite having a conviction for indecently assaulting a choirboy in the 1950s, and went on to abuse at least 10 boys from Eastbourne. Cotton died in 2006, two weeks before Pritchard was arrested. In 1999, the year when Cotton retired as a priest, Bishop Benn gave him permission to continue with his priestly duties.

Apparent inaccuracies in the Butler-Sloss review came to light after a BBC investigation. The bishop told the baroness that he had given Cotton permission to officiate in 1999 to permit him to celebrate communion in the nursing home where he was then living but the BBC discovered he was not admitted to the nursing home until September 2003.

It seems the Bishop of Lewes gave Cotton a PTO after he had been convicted, knowing that he was officiating in parish churches, and didn’t report this truthfully to the Butler-Sloss review.

On 3 November 2011 the BBC reported that the Bishop of Lewes may face disciplinary proceedings for alleged misconduct. The safeguarding advisory group to the Diocese of Chichester had written to Lambeth Palace stating its intention of making a complaint against the Rt Rev Wallace Benn under the Clergy Discipline Measures.

On 10 November 2011 the BBC reported that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office was set to investigate the complaint made against the Bishop of Lewes. On 22 December 2011 the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams set up a visitation of the operation of the Church of England’s Child Protection policies in the Diocese of Chichester. The Archbishop of Canterbury appointed Bishop John Gladwin (a patron of Changing Attitude) and Chancellor Rupert Bursell QC to carry out the enquiry.

I was told earlier this week that the Bishop of Lewes wants to retire after his name has been cleared, though his retirement is due next month.

The Diocese of Chichester has taken instant action to inhibit and investigate David Page for officiating in churches without a PTO. He was refused a PTO by Wallace Benn because he declined to answer intrusive questions. David is in a civil partnership and was not prepared to discuss the nature of his relationship.

The Diocese of Chichester, having failed to protect vulnerable children from abuse by priests, and Bishop Wallace Benn having failed to take appropriate action against priests he knew had abused children, is now taking action against David,who is gay and in a civil partnership, because the vicar and PCC of his parish church enthusiastically supported his application for a PTO and authorised him to officiate when Wallace Benn refused to grant it.

This would not be happening if the Church of England was not in a total mess over same-sex relationships and the ministry of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender clergy (of whom there are over 1,500) and laity in the Church.

Some bishops grant licences and PTOs to lesbian and gay clergy in civil partnerships (without asking intrusive questions) and some don’t. British society doesn’t understand why to be gay or in a civil partnership is wrong and punished by a minority in the Church.

David and Howard’s case represents a national failure of Church teaching and policy. Gay clergy in civil partnerships should not be refused a licence or PTO in any diocese by any bishop. They should not be subject to Clergy Discipline procedures. This case will have the effect of intimidating other partnered clergy who fear their bishop will act against them if he discovers they are partnered or in a civil partnership.

As Changing Attitude told the House of Bishops’ Review Group last week, a change of policy is desperately urgently needed, welcoming couples in civil partnerships and celebrating them in church.

Comments

  1. Philip Gardner says

    Excellent article, Colin! Just one small correction: the 4th paragraph from the end is missing a crucial ‘not’. It should of course read “This would not be happening if the Church of England was NOT in a total mess over same-sex relationships and the ministry of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender clergy (of whom there are over 1,500) and laity in the Church.”

  2. Richard Ashby says

    Thank you Colin. Exrtraordinary the Bishop of Horsham’s comment about the safeguarding policy. Didn’t Iread somewhere that David Page had been CRB checked? He certainly would have been in his parish post. And why is the Bishop of Horsham confusing the issue of a cdm with the issue of child pretection? Muddying the waters or is there still lurking something about gays being child abusers. It’s all very nasty.

    • Colin Coward says

      Richard, you are right, David has indeed been CRB checked. Another amazing fact about the Diocese of Chichester, Wallace Benn, and the action taken against David is that about 100 clergy are temporarily restricted from exercising their ministry after a CRB checks discovered that some of them had not been renewed in the past 5 years, mostly due to ‘adminstrative oversights’.

  3. David Page says

    A delightful irony of this, picked up in today’s ‘Church Times’ report, is that I do in fact have relevant CRB clearance. It was obtained as part of the abortive 2008 PTO application process. There are absolutely no safeguarding issues. I also have separate and even more recent CRB clearance in my role as Chair of Governors of the church primary school.

  4. Richard Ashby says

    In which case this must be deliberate muddying of the waters to divert attention from the plain fact that David was refused his PTO only and solely on the grounds that he refused to answer intrusive questions about the nature of his relationship. It is the requirement for the intrusive questioning which is at the heart of this, The CDM will presumably be tried by clerics and their legal officers and could very well result in ‘conviction’ because canon law requiring a PTO has been broken but the world will see that it is natural justice has been breached. Isn’t there something scribes and pharisees and the law and things like that somewhere? Or have I been reading the wrong books?

  5. Richard Ashby says

    So Wallace thinks it is ok to grant a PTO to a convicted child abuser but not to a priest in a civil partnership who refuse to answer intrusive questions? It stinks!

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