Comments: Archbishop’s Chichester Visitation – Final Report Published

There is much good stuff in this report, but I was expecting something rather fuller. The issue of certain clergy officiating under PTOs (as Roy Cotton did at Sedlescombe, Whatlington, Ninfield and Hooe) was not addressed, although this formed a material element of the Butler-Sloss Report.

One thing that has occurred to me is that, although Cotton started his career in Chichester at South Harting on the Surrey/Hampshire border and there is the Denford/Mytton case at Burgess Hill (Mytton having had a prior criminal career at Uckfield), much of the abuse occurred at the relatively neglected easternmost end of the diocese. Cotton was at Brede with Udimore; Colin Pritchard was at Sedlescombe and St Barnabas Bexhill.

The structures of the Chichester diocese are largely the creation of Eric Kemp, whose episcopate was very long (1974-2001) and decreasingly effective. Whilst his immediate predecessors, George Bell and Roger Wilson, had been capable administrators, they had struggled with the fact that the Palace is at one extreme end of Sussex, and - as is so often remarked - there are some parishes abutting Romney Marsh that are closer to France than to Chichester; for this we must blame St Wilfrid for having established the diocese out of Selsey. Chichester is not unique in this (viz., Carlisle, Peterborough, etc.), but it has been a recurrent problem for the diocese. Bell had tried to confront it by spending much of his time resident at Hove. Kemp based much of the diocesan bureaucracy at Hove, but this created an unsatisfactory situation with some of the administration remaining at Chichester and some at Hove. This could have been overcome if Kemp had been a capable administrator - but whatever his gifts were as a canonist and historian - he seems to have had little aptitude for administration. The Butler-Sloss Report refers to blue files housed at Chichester being poorly kept, and the Meekings Report referred in passing to administrative disarray within the diocese.

Another Kemp innovation was the creation of episcopal areas: he delegated (some might say abdicated) an unusual degree of authority to his suffragans of Horsham and Lewes, whilst retaining a portion of West Sussex for himself. This meant that the bishops of Horsham and Lewes became de facto diocesans, and the area covered by Lewes was that of a substantial diocese in its own right. For much of the time during which the abuse occurred the bishops of Lewes were Peter Ball (1977-92), now facing legal difficulties of his own, the late Ian Cundy (1992-96) and the controversial Wallace Benn (1997-2012). It is possible that, if there had been more effective central control from Chichester, some of the errors of judgment made at the suffragan level might not have occurred.

Whilst the appointment of Martin Warner was viewed with apprehension in some quarters - on account of his refusal to ordain women, and because of the desire of many to have a non-party man - he seems to have overcome many of these misgivings by having made such a fine start. He has defused some tensions by undertaking to secure the appointment of a bishop of Lewes who will ordain women (I understand that the appointment has been made and will be announced shortly). He has got a firm grip on the diocesan administration. He is tackling the need for overdue pastoral reorganisation. Above all, he has taken the step - revolutionary by Chichester standards - of not only visiting every deanery but staying in each one for a period of time, and therefore acquainting himself thoroughly with conditions at the parochial level. He has thus made himself truly peripatetic, at least for the time being, after the model of St Wilfrid and his immediate successors. In any event, the eastern end of the diocese - where the Church has been historically quite weak - is finally receiving long over-due attention. It is to be hoped that this excellent model of pastoral care will make it much less likely that the sort of criminal activity we have seen, and which has made the diocese a byword, will recur.

A question for the Boundaries Commission: Should parts of East Sussex be detached from Chichester and annexed to Canterbury and/or Rochester? It is worth noting that the archbishops once had an extensive peculiar jurisdiction in Sussex (the deaneries of [South] Malling and Pagham and Tarring), so there is ample precedent for this.

Posted by J Drever at Saturday, 4 May 2013 at 12:36pm BST

Interesting note on page 10 (footnote 7) which appears to be weak in its view that there should be reconsideration of the issue of the seal of the confessional. It doesn't quite say that, but a number of these cases must have been hidden through a penitent priest seeking absolution. It would be interesting to hear the views of the clergy on this. Some countries are seeking to impose a strict duty to report regardless of a confession. Withholding absolution may be the device necessary, but surely the priest should go to the police, not his or her bishop.

Posted by Anthony Archer at Monday, 6 May 2013 at 8:23am BST

I have heard a (now retired) Bishop, and one who as a priest had had a considerable ministry as a confessor, offer this view:
When a confession of this kind is made, then the penance set should include a requirement on the penitent to go, with the confessor, to the police. Not only is the completion of that penance a condition on the absolution, but an unwillingness to complete the penance demonstrates that this was not a true confession, and the seal of the confessional no longer applies.
I am not sure how comfortable I am myself with this interpretation, but such a policy being known would certainly prevent the confessional being abused.

Posted by Edward Prebble at Monday, 6 May 2013 at 9:22pm BST

As the report states, it does not pursue the issue of ongoing complaints under the clergy disciplinary measures. I imagine that this is why there is nothing further here about the role played by Bishop Wallace Benn.

Posted by Richard Ashby at Tuesday, 7 May 2013 at 2:04pm BST

Anthony: 'Interesting note on page 10 (footnote 7) which appears to be weak in its view that there should be reconsideration of the issue of the seal of the confessional.'

At the very least, the phrase 'his own life may be called into question', in the unrepealed Proviso to Canon 113 of the Code of 1603, needs to be updated to 'he may himself be held guilty of an arrestable offence'. It seems to me that it was only by an oversight that this wasn't done in the schedules to the Criminal Law Act 1967 - but what a dangerous oversight.

Posted by Feria at Monday, 13 May 2013 at 12:42am BST
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