Former Bishop of Durham the Most Rev Justin Welby spoke of the investigations into clergy going back more than 60 years
The Archbishop of Canterbury has spoken of how hearing directly from the victims of the Church of England’s “total failure and betrayal” over historic sexual abuse caused him to break down in public.
In a frank assessment of the scale of the scandal, the Most Rev Justin Welby conceded that investigations into clergy going back more than 60 years would show that “there is more that has not been revealed”.
The Archbishop, who was Bishop of Durham, said he was “passionate” about exposing past failings after telling the mother of three boys sexually abused by the head of a CofE school that there was undoubtedly a “very significant legacy of unacknowledged cases”.
Abuse had been “rampant” across many institutions and the church was taking “all necessary steps”, he said in the letter seen by the Exaro News investigative website, adding that the historic “failure to face the misdeeds of those in its service is inexcusable”.
“The betrayal of Christ in such behaviour is complete,” he added, and apologised “most sincerely and with deep sorrow”.
Face-to-face meetings with victims are part of the Church’s response to the scandal, with Mr Welby attending along with senior figures.
At a Westminster lunch, he told journalists that the harrowing accounts he heard at one encounter still haunted him later in the day when he was asked about the issue at a talk at a theological college.
“To my intense surprise, because I don’t normally do this kind of thing, I broke down completely.
“It was the shredding effect of hearing what we did, what we did, to those people and the sense of total failure and betrayal.
“So we are taking it, and I am passionate about this, as seriously as we are able to do.”
He added: “It is beyond description terrible. When you abuse a child or a vulnerable adult, you mark them for the rest of their lives,” he said.
Churches fall within the scope of the major review into child sex abuse within state and non-state institutions ordered by Home Secretary Theresa May.
“Many institutions failed catastrophically, including in the media, children’s homes, foster parents, all kinds of areas,” he said.
“But the church is meant to hold itself to a far, far, far higher standard and we failed terribly.”
Every “blue file” personnel record since 1950 – including those of dead clergy – was being closely examined for “anything in the file that would suggest at all that there is anything that needs following up”.
In nine out of 10 cases such concerns proved unfounded or involved cases where all involved were now dead, he said, but the inquiry team, headed by the Bishop of Durham, would bring the rest forward “transparently and openly”.
The process was being overseen by an external body to avoid any claims of a cover-up, he stressed.
“The rule is survivors come first, not our own interests,” he added.
“However important the person was, however distinguished, however well known, survivors come first.”
The Archbishop also spoke about highly-controversial moves to examine whether the confidentiality rules should be relaxed to allow clergy who heard confessions about sex abuse could alert the authorities.
A General Synod measure to initiate a study on the issue was an “incredibly radical move which challenges more than 1,800 years of church tradition”, he said.
“We haven’t decided what we are going to do with it yet but we are starting to look at how we could deal with that.”