The Dysfunctional Culture of the Diocese of Chichester and its Paralysed Bishop

Keith Sharpe, convenor of Changing Attitude Sussex, writes about the Chichester report:

The Interim Report of the Commissaries of the Archbishop of Canterbury charged with inquiring into the sexual abuse of children by Churchof England Clergyin the Diocese of Chichester was published on Thursday 30th August. 

It follows on from earlier reports commissioned by the Bishop of Chichester, the Very Reverend John Hind, who felt compelled to act when it became clear that some of the abuse cases could have been avoided were it not for the failure of senior clergy to follow proper safeguarding procedures.  Most significantly this includes the report compiled by Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, the full text of which became available in March 2012, and which led to a grave apology from Bishop Hind:

“I feel deep and profound sorrow for the pain caused to all victims and for the institutional failings of the Church in this Diocese.  I am grateful to Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss for her thorough review”.

The Baroness’s review might have been thorough but it was not, it now emerges, comprehensive. In discussing the historic abuse cases the Archbishop’s Commissaries, Bishop Peter Gladwin and Chancellor Rupert Bursell QC comment:

‘at least two of those from whom we heard were unknown to Lady Butler-Sloss.  The abuse to one of these was by Roy Cotton and continued for a period of about eleven years and far beyond the final date identified in Lady Butler-Sloss’ report, namely until the 23rd December 1997’

The Interim Report is in fact a damning indictment of the Diocese of Chichester and vindicates the decision of the Archbishop of Canterbury to launch the investigation.  Nobody should be in any doubt about the seriousness of this situation.  No such report has been commissioned by an Archbishop of Canterbury for over 100 years.

Right at the outset the Commissaries make clear the gravity of their findings by contrasting the gospel account of Jesus’ safely loving reception of little children:

‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these the Kingdom of God belongs’ (Luke 18:15ff)

with the grotesque ‘appalling history’ of ‘abiding hurt and damage’ caused to children in Chichester by Christ’s holy ministers because local safeguarding measures had fallen ‘woefully short’ for two decades.

They further point out that they have been obliged to publish only an interim report, not a final report, because ‘further allegations have recently come to light and it is in our view impossible fully to respond to our remit until those have been investigated.’

They catalogue in detail the cases into which they inquired and conclude that the ultimate cause of this tragic history is the dysfunctional culture of the diocese.  Earlier reports had identified the significant cultural variations across the diocese in relation to how seriously safeguarding is taken.  There are recent and current examples of a reluctance to investigate allegations and a preference to give the benefit of the doubt to the alleged perpetrator.  Some prevailing attitudes still allow pastoral concerns for the alleged abuser to take precedence over the account of the abused.

It beggars belief that such attitudes can still be held in the second decade of the twenty-first century, after all that has happened in the clerical sexual abuse of children.  The Commissaries attribute the continuance of such outdated and unacceptable practices to a failure of senior management in the context of a maladapted leadership structure.

The previous Bishop of Chichester had been in office for many decades. His legacy was a system of area bishops, with the diocesan bishop having responsibility for the Chichester area, the Bishop of Horsham broadly covering the north of the diocese, and the Bishop of Lewes, the east of the diocese.

In effect these areas were allowed over the past decade or so to become ‘mini dioceses’ and in many senses uncoordinated and out of control.  The Interim Report comments:

‘we were deeply concerned to be told by the outgoing diocesan bishop….that the diocese was ‘dysfunctional’, a description with which others within the senior team have agreed either expressly or by implication.’

Even more extraordinary is Bishop Hind’s admission that because of this situation he felt ‘paralysed’.  This is a quite amazing confession which has had disastrous results.  Here is the man who has overarching responsibility for the diocese, including its safeguarding procedures, saying that he is incapable of doing anything.  In particular he felt as if he had little or no authority in the east of the diocese where Bishop Wallace Benn, a deeply conservative evangelical and former chair of Reform, exercised a quasi independent jurisdiction.

Wallace Benn is currently the subject of disciplinary measures following on from the Butler Sloss report because it is said he had granted permission to officiate to one of the paedophile priests and had misled the judge by not reporting events accurately.

Benn is well known to the LGB& T community. He is an outspoken opponent of gay rights, and his teachings on the sinfulness of homosexual practice have had a pernicious effect on gay lives both here and abroad.  Fortunately he is due to retire very soon, whatever the outcome of the current disciplinary process against him.

It is alleged that he has on occasions demanded to know if single clergy in his area are having ‘genital relationships’ with lodgers or friends, and then threatens to withhold permission to officiate if the answer is yes or if there is a refusal to answer. The current case of David Page in Winchelsea (CA Blog dated July 13th) is a specific case in point.  David is in a civil partnership and declined to answer Wallace Benn’s impertinent question.  Permission to officiate was then withheld but with the enthusiastic support of his vicar and congregation David continued to minister.  Benn then instituted disciplinary measures against him.

None of this paints a pretty picture of the Diocese of Chichester or indeed of the Church of England itself – a dysfunctional institution completely out of touch with the reality of ordinary people, absolutely obsessed with condemning and punishing the sexual practices of loving gay couples and yet through its own incompetence and indifference facilitating the horrific abuse of those innocents to whom ‘the Kingdom of God belongs’.


  1. says

    Culture is best defined as the ‘behaviours that are either encouraged or discouraged by people and systems over time”. It’s about the unspoken messages people receive similar to the unspoken messages picked up in a family or a community or a nation about how to ‘be’.

    To change culture we have to address how people in that culture operate at the ‘Be-Level’ – that is the values, beliefs and feelings that drive behaviours and norms. We know that Cristian institutions have a very principled code underneath but it is only lived out and interpreted through human filters.

    Culture creation in organisations is becoming a hard science. It is about time some of this science was applied to Church institutions.

  2. Richard Ashby says

    ‘The previous Bishop of Chichester had been in office for many decades’.

    Can I point out that this refers to Eric Kemp, president of the Chuch Union and other such bodies, who didn’t retire untill well after the current compulsory retirement age because he had been made bishop before the new rule was instituted.

  3. Rosina Elston says

    Why oh why has a bishop been appointed from the same circle as John Hind and Eric Kemp? If he has any self-awareness, he will step down before taking up the post. I think in politics, this is called ‘considering his position’.

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