An Exercise in the Fundamentals of Muddying Waters

The latest blog post from Colin Coward of Changing Attitude on the Winchelsea affair is an exercise in obfuscation that anyone with half a forensic mind will be able to see right through.  Once again Changing Attitude attempt to combine two issues in order to both engage in character assassination of a Bishop they don’t like AND to distract attention from the real issues at hand. Let’s fisk shall we?

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.”

Up to this point there’s nothing wrong with the piece. The facts of the matter are very simple. Rev Page was refused a PTO because he refused to give the Bishop the relevant assurances that his relationship was non-sexual. Despite Rev Cocks knowing this he still invited Rev Page to preach, lead and preside at the Eucharist when he had no permission to do so. In doing so both men clearly broke Canon Law.

Now however Changing Attitude start to throw mud around to see both how dirty they can make the lens through which these simple facts can be viewed and to see if they can make any of it stick to Bishop Wallace Benn.

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.

OK. That last paragraph seems a bit worrying, so let’s go and look at what the Butler-Sloss report said. First, the time-line from the addendum which was added after the “extra information” came to light.

1) Cotton retired on the 31st January 1999. He applied for and received PTO in May of that year. He moved to Sedlescombe shortly after retirement, although the exact date of that move is not known.
2) Cotton took the following services in 1999:

  • Ninfield & Hooe – 28 services
  • Christ Church St Leonards – 23 services
  • St George’s, Brede – 8 services
  • Sedlescombe – 19 services
  • Whatlington – 5 services

3) Cotton took the following services in 2000:

  • 9 services: 3 in Jan., 1 each in March & April, 3 in August and 1 in Sept. (unsure of location – believed to be Sedlescombe)

4) The events of 2001 are produced in more detail below:

  • Service taken in Sedlescombe in February
  • Service taken in Sedlescombe in March
  • May: Cotton written to from Bishop Wallace’s office requesting that he fill in a confidential declaration form. Letter sent to his home address in Sedlescombe.
  • May: Cotton replies declaring the 1954 conviction. Letter sent from his home address in Sedlescombe.
  • September: Cotton took two services at Whatlington and one in Sedlescombe.

5) Cotton took a wedding in February 2002 in Sedlescombe.
6) Between 2001 and 2003, Cotton spent some periods in hospital, dates unknown. They were apparently for a few weeks at a time. But he remained resident in Sedlescombe. He was increasingly ill over this period.
7) Cotton went into the nursing home in Sept ’03. He had been in hospital for a few weeks before that. He was reluctant to go in at this point, but was persuaded by Colin Pritchard and another friend. His stay in hospital prior to going to the home was no more than a few weeks, according to Pritchard.
8) He remained in the nursing home until his death in 2006. His health deteriorated further, necessitating an amputation of a leg at some point shortly before his death.

Let’s be very clear on the timeline. Cotton applied for a PTO in 1999 and at that time the Bishop (Wallace Benn) was not informed by others in the Diocese who knew about previous concerns about Cotton. Remember, page 8 of the BS Report makes it perfectly clear that although the Bishop of Chichester was aware of the 1954 conviction he did not inform Bishop Benn of it and he intimated that he expected a PTO would be granted. The concurrent police investigation into Cotton was closed and no charges or even a warning had been made.

It was only in 2001  that Cotton wrote a letter declaring his 1954 conviction following a report in the local newspapers naming Cotton as a paedophile, but even then Bishop Benn did not see a copy of that letter. The letter was sent not to Bishop Benn and instead went to the Bishop of Chichester. Bishop Benn did not receive any further information from this and, crucially, when a new list was published by the DOH POCALS (Dept of Health, Protection of Children Act List) which Bishop Benn would have seen, Cotton’s name was not on it.

In all this it has not been demonstrated that Bishop Benn knew that Cotton had a conviction in 1954. The conviction was in the Blue File prior to 2001 but Bishop Benn was not shown it. On top of this, Cotton’s disclosure in 2001 of the 1954 conviction went not to Bishop Benn but to the Bishop of Chichester’s office and it was not shared with Bishop Benn.

It was only through Cotton actually telling Bishop Benn face to face later in 2001 that Bishop Benn finally knew.

In 2001 WB was told by RC of his 1954 conviction. RC had lied to his Bishop and I would have expected WB to be seriously concerned about it but he had retired, was ill and in a nursing home and it was believed that he could do no harm. WB told me that, after discussion with NR, they felt it was unnecessary to stop RC taking Eucharist in the nursing home where he was resident but imposed stringent conditions. That was an inadequate step to deal with this serious situation which should have dealt with more robustly and openly by immediate suspension. The stringent conditions, however, probably provided at the time a sufficient safeguard to meet the potential risk.

So let’s be totally clear. Up till 2001 Bishop Benn was not aware of Cotton’s previous convictions so he had no reason to deny PTO. Once Bishop Benn knew about the 1954 conviction he immediately placed a severe restriction on Cotton’s PTO allowing him to only officiate in the nursing home / hospital he was currently in (he spent the next two years in and out of hospital / nursing care) or in Seddlescombe parish, but only Home Communions. According to the timeline in the BS Report, the only service that Cotton undertook after being granted this restrictive PTO was a wedding in Seddlescombe Church.

So let’s look again at Changing Attitude’s claim.

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.

This is factually incorrect. Bishop Benn, believing Cotton to be dying permitted him to officiate only in home environments in the parish of Seddlescombe (i.e. Home Communions to the elderly) and in the nursing home he was in. From the granting of that 2001 PTO Cotton was not “officiating in parish churches” and indeed only presided at one service, a wedding, which it is clear his PTO did not give him permission to do. It is abundantly clear that the terms of the PTO in 2001 were a far cry from the impression Changing Attitude give of Cotton being give a remit to continue as before. Indeed, Bishop Benn went as far as to say

 Roy Cotton could not thereafter carry out any public ministry.

Back to Changing Attitude.

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.

Here are the facts. A charge (possibly two I believe) under the Clergy Discipline Measure has been laid against Bishop Benn and this is being investigated by Bishop John Gladwin and Chancellor Rupert Bursell QC. No outcome to that charge has been published and it is presumptive to assume it will result in any particular outcome. Until the panel report we cannot assume either way. That however doesn’t stop Changing Attitude flinging mud.

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.

I’ve highlighted those two sections because they are egregious in the extreme. The first, in red, claims that the Diocese failed to protect vulnerable children from abuse by priests. This gives the impression that the Diocese not only knew that it had clergy that were child abusers but also, and this is key, that the failure to act on this led to actual cases of abuse that could have been avoided. This is completely untrue. As the BS report clearly states, at no time did any of those who were accused of child abuse commit such abuse during the period 1999 to 2007 which is under investigation. There is simply no evidence that any failures of process (and there were such failures in the Diocese) led to any child being abused. To suggest otherwise is potentially libelous.

The second statement claims that Bishop Benn failed to take appropriate action against Cotton knowing about the 1954 conviction. However, this depends whether one views the restriction of Cotton’s PTO to Home Communions and Eucharists in his Nursing Home as “appropriate”. One might very well argue that he shouldn’t have even been permitted this, but Bishop Benn did allow him to undertake such appropriate restrictive ministry out of a desire to be graceful to a dying man. It is for the panel investigating the Charge under the CDM, not Changing Attitude, to decide whether it was appropriate.

And so to Changing Attitude’s conclusion.

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.

Changing Attitude might not like the law as it currently stands, but objecting to it is one thing and disobeying it is another. Both Page and Cocks disobeyed a very clear instruction from their Bishop that Page should not officiate in any public or private manner whatsoever, given that Page had been refused a PTO and that Cocks knew this. For a period of over three years they appear to have consistently ignored that instruction in open defiance of the Bishop. Why now do they complain when a charge is laid against them when they have admitted in public their offence? Not wanting the law to be what it is is not a valid defence.

The whole blog post attempts just to throw mud at Bishop Benn and to accuse him of things which have yet to be proven or are outright misrepresentations of the real facts. By trying to drag in the issues that the Diocese of Chichester have had with Child Protection they attempt to obfuscate the real issues at hand which is two clergyman blatantly and openly defying their Bishop’s clear, legally binding instructions. The two issues have little connection.

Or do they? Let’s read once again what Butler-Sloss wrote in her report.

WB reminded me that he” did immediately take action after the conviction was known about in 2001. Having consulted NR he instructed him to visit RC to tell him his permission to officiate publicly had been withdrawn. …He could only administer communion within his residential care home and nowhere else. This was a specific limitation on the PTO and effectively withdrew it except for occasional services in the home.” WB told me that RC could not thereafter carry out any public ministry.

As I learnt after I completed my Review, this restriction upon the PTO was not observed by RC.

In 2002 Bishop Benn had a local priest on whom he placed a highly restrictive PTO once that priest had stopped being dishonest with him. That priest then disobeyed that restriction but only on one recorded occasion. In 2012 we have two priests, the first of whom was the incumbent of the parish in which the other resided and the second being a priest who was refused a PTO because he refused to be honest with his Bishop. Both priests involved in 2012 disobeyed that restriction time and time again over three years.

There is nothing new under the sun.

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