A Church of England bishop used his position to carry out “appalling” acts of sexual abuse against vulnerable children and young people for more than 15 years, an independent investigation has found.
The former Bishop of Chester, Hubert Victor Whitsey, “groomed his victims, and often their families to enable this abuse”, according to the report, frequently targeting orphans or children abandoned by their parents.
At least 18 victims have been identified, but investigators said “we are conscious that there may be more”.
Whitsey’s campaign of abuse ran from 1966 until after he retired in 1981. He died without facing justice in 1987, aged 71.
The probe found that victims’ disclosures were mishandled by church officials right up until 2012 – nearly 50 years after the abuse began. The church had missed opportunities for justice since the late 1970s, the report found.
The findings will make “deeply uncomfortable reading for the church”, said the report’s authors – retired judge David Pearl and former Sussex Police detective inspector Kate Wood.
They concluded that victims’ suffering was “clearly made worse by the poor response of church officers at different times when they had the courage to come forward”.
"[Whitsey] used his position in the church to abuse both prospective ordinands, and children and young persons, many of whom were particularly vulnerable as they were experiencing personal family difficulties, such as the death or departure of a parent," they said.
Whitsey abused his first known victim nearly a decade before he was consecrated as Bishop of Chester in 1974, sexually assaulting four people while serving as vicar at Langley All Saints and Martyrs in the years prior.
One victim, who was abused in the late 1970s, said they want “the church to have more accountability”.
“We want them to go towards mandatory reporting and a regulation that is independent of the church,” they said in a statement issued through their lawyer Slater and Gordon.
“At the moment it is like the church are marking their own homework.”
The current Bishop of Chester expressed “horror and shame” at the report’s findings, adding: “Our apologies, which are freely and sincerely given, must be backed up by action”.
“I am grateful to all those who have already helped us start to change, to Judge Pearl for this report, and most of all to the incredibly brave survivors who have spoken up and made us listen,” Mark Tanner said.
The Church of England first apologised in 2017, after a police investigation was launched into Whitsey.
Earlier this month, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) found that the church forgave paedophiles after they expressed remorse and allowed them to carry on working instead of protecting children.
The inquiry found that between the 1940s and 2018, nearly 400 clergy members or people in positions of trust were convicted of child sex offences, concluding that “the culture of the Church of England facilitated it, becoming a place where abusers could hide”.
One person abused by Whitsey in their teens said in 2017: “When I met Victor Whitsey I was young, innocent, and naive. I longed for his blessing to achieve my wish of a future as a vicar, serving God and the community.
“He told me he agreed I had a calling from God. He also told me he had the power to give me everything I wanted in life and the power to take it all away. He then proceeded to abuse me sexually and psychologically. I was powerless to stop him.
“Twenty years after my abuse, I suffered a complete mental nervous breakdown which included attempted suicide. Because of the sexual abuse I suffered at the hands of Victor Whitsey I lost my faith, my chosen life as a vicar, my self-belief, my freedom from worry and my dignity,” they added.
“I cannot see my abuser face trial in a court on earth but I hope that by a public acknowledgement of what Whitsey did to us, the church can learn that they need to adopt a new culture of openness.”
Responding to the report, the church’s lead safeguarding bishop, Jonathan Gibbs, said: “Our focus must lie today with the survivors and victims of Whitsey, recognising the impact that this horrendous abuse has had on their lives, and with deep gratitude for their courage in engaging with the independent review.
“We are taking action to ensure that the church is a safer place for all and we will be using these recommendations to help us drive change – and some of these already link up with existing work.”
He added: “We will be taking very seriously criticisms in the report about how and where we failed to respond, and we recognise that an urgent response to the identified failures in safeguarding practice is necessary. We commit ourselves above all to doing all we can to support the victims and survivors of Whitsey’s abuse in the future.”
Additional reporting by Press Association