A Church of England bishop faces the possibility of being removed from office after an independent report concluded that he failed to act on a disclosure of sexual abuse by another bishop.
Glyn Webster, the bishop of Beverley, told an abuse victim “in effect, to move on”, the report said.
The C of E’s national safeguarding team is considering whether to open formal disciplinary proceedings against Webster and others named in the report. Under church rules, the most severe punishment would be lifetime prohibition from office.
Victor Whitsey, who was bishop of Hertford and then Chester between 1971 and 1981, sexually abused a “large number” of children and vulnerable adults over a period of 15 years, and church leaders failed to take proper action when disclosures were made to them, the report concluded.
Whitsey, who died in 1987, took advantage of his position to abuse at least 18 people. They included young men considering the priesthood, and male and female children and teenagers experiencing personal family difficulties such as the loss of a parent.
One survivor, known as “M1”, said he told Webster at a dinner party in 2012 that he had been abused by Whitsey, but was urged “not to make a fuss”. Webster, who became a bishop the following year, denied this to the report’s authors.
However, the report says: “We are satisfied on a balance of probabilities that there was a conversation about Whitsey at this informal dinner party, that M1 said he had been abused by Whitsey, and that bishop Glyn Webster told him, in effect, to move on.”
In 2016, Webster was accused by another abuse survivor of having failed to respond properly to a non-recent disclosure of rape. The C of E dismissed a formal complaint on the grounds it was “out of time”.
The report, A Betrayal of Trust, was commissioned by the C of E after it issued a public apology to Whitsey’s victims in 2017. It was undertaken by retired judge David Pearl and independent safeguarding consultant Kate Wood.
They concluded that Whitsey “sexually abused a large number of children and young persons, (both male and female from an early age up until late teens) and vulnerable adults during a period from 1966 until after he had retired (which was December 1981). We have identified some 18 victims. We are conscious that there may be more victims who have not come forward.”
They added: “Some of the victims did disclose the abuse on them to senior members of the church, and that opportunities were missed by church leaders in the late 1970s and early 1980s to deal with these matters whilst Whitsey was still alive.”
Their report comes just two weeks after the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse (IICSA) said bishops should be stripped of responsibility to keep children and vulnerable adults safe from abuse after the church had repeatedly protected its own reputation above its “explicit moral purpose”.
Since the IICSA report, the C of E has said it will “move towards establishing an independent safeguarding structure”.
The Whitsey report quotes M1 as saying his abuse by Whitsey began when he was 14 and took place every two to three months until he went to university at 18. In an interview with police in 2016, M1 said the abuse consisted of masturbation and oral sexual contact.
While at university, he rebuffed a further attempt at sexual contact by Whitsey. He told police that the bishop wrote him a cheque for £250 or £350, which he thought was “hush money”.
Jonathan Gibbs, the bishop of Huddersfield and the Church of England’s lead bishop on safeguarding, said the report was a “stark account of the appalling abuse by Whitsey and the church’s failure both to protect these children and young adults”.
He told reporters: “The report raises issues about a number of serving and retired bishops and their actions. Glyn Webster is one of those. The [Church of England’s] national safeguarding team is already in the process of following up on those allegations and concerns … There is already a formal process under way.”
He added: “This is a very serious matter … There are a number of possible outcomes including the prohibition of that person from office.”
Webster declined to comment on the report.
Richard Scorer, specialist abuse lawyer at Slater & Gordon, which represents 12 of Whitsey’s victims, said: “This is a very powerful, forensic report. It’s clear that the church failed victims catastrophically both when Whitsey was alive, and again after his death.
“As the report concludes, bishops urgently need to be removed from any operational role in safeguarding in order for the church to be properly, safely and fairly monitored … Now is the time for action.”