Church may end abusers’ ‘cloak of secrecy’

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The centuries-old secrecy of the Church of England confessional should no longer be used as a “cloak” to protect child abusers and keep their admissions confidential, according to the Archbishop of York.

Dr John Sentamu has backed calls for a change to the Church’s position after admitting he was “deeply ashamed” by its failure to ensure children were not abused by Robert Waddington, the former Dean of Manchester.

Waddington, who is accused of abusive acts towards a teenage boy at his home in York after retiring to the city in 1993, is also said to have abused boys in Manchester, London, Carlisle and in Australia as long ago as the 1950s.

A report by Judge Sally Cahill QC and commissioned by Dr Sentamu found there were “systemic failures” by the Church in its handling of allegations of sex abuse against Waddington, who died from cancer in 2007.

It said the actions of Dr Sentamu’s predecessor, Lord Hope of Thornes, meant “opportunities were missed” to start an investigation after the first allegation was made in 1999 which may have led to a prosecution while Waddington was alive.

The judge said it is not possible to say what the consequences would have been if Lord Hope had acted differently. But she said: “Our conclusion, having heard his evidence, is that his concern for the welfare of Robert Waddington seems to have been paramount in his response to these allegations.”

Lord Hope has denied suggestions that he covered up allegations against Waddington, but offered a “personal and profound apology” to the victims if they felt they had been denied justice.

Dr Sentamu said: “Although the report notes no-one has come forward to say they were abused by Robert Waddington after the first complaint was made in 1999, what stands out is that between 1999 and 2004 those in senior positions responsible for taking decisions in these matters were ‘not qualified or sufficiently experienced in child protection’.”

Dr Sentamu added that he had “every sympathy” with the view expressed by one victim that admissions of abuse made during confessional should no longer be confidential.

For centuries the secrecy of the confessional has been sacrosanct, but the Church of England may now relax the rules to allow clergy to reveal serious crimes such as child abuse.

The Archbishops’ Council has commissioned work exploring whether the position should change, and proposals could go before the General Synod.

Dr Sentamu told The Yorkshire Post: “I, for one, say the confessional with regard to safeguarding of children, really must not be used as a cloak of covering up and protecting people who have abused children.”

Among the claims of abuse made to the report’s authors were from a choir boy, one of three who regularly visited Waddington’s house in York as teenagers in the 1990s. The report said the acts were “abusive and... could be deeply emotionally damaging to a teenager aged 13”.

Opinion: Page 12.