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Bishop Wallace Benn – all complaints dismissed

PUBLIC STATEMENT by Rt. Revd. Wallace Benn

Bishop of Lewes between June 1997 and October 2012

Dismissal of all actual and attempted Clergy Discipline complaints

As of 10 May 2013, all complaints against me under the Clergy Discipline Measure have come to an end without any misconduct of any kind having been established. No complaint against me has been allowed to proceed beyond the preliminary stages of the process.

Since November 2011, the Safeguarding Advisory Group of the Diocese of Chichester, its Chairman (Mr Keith Akerman) and the Diocesan Safeguarding Adviser (Mr Colin Perkins) have tried to make a number of complaints against me under the Clergy Discipline Measure.

All their efforts were misconceived and unjustified, as has now been established. The decisions that none of the complaints should be allowed to proceed have been made in part by the Archbishop of York and in part by the Right Honourable Lord Justice Mummery, sitting in his capacity as President of Tribunals. Some of the complaints have been dismissed on their merits and the rest on the basis that they have been made outside the time allowed under the Clergy Discipline Measure and where no good grounds exist for any extension of time.

All the facts relating to my conduct about which complaint was sought to be made were known to the Diocesan Bishop or Diocesan Safeguarding Advisor in office at the time of the conduct in question or both, yet nobody saw any grounds for complaint at the time, either against me or against any other Diocesan official.

Comments on media reporting

Since the first attempt to complain against me was made in November 2011, I have declined to make any substantive public or press comment on the matter. I have done so on legal advice and in light of the Code of Practice issued under the Clergy Discipline Measure, which states (at para 264):

The media may be particularly interested in complaints of misconduct against the clergy. Unfortunately, media coverage in advance of any determination of the complaint can be speculative and misinformed, which can damage not only the complainant and the respondent, but also the local church or community and the wider church. For this reason, it is advisable for anyone involved in a complaint who is approached by the media to refer the enquirer straightaway to the appropriate communications officer…

It is a matter of deep regret that some of those with knowledge of the fact of and the substance of the complaints against me have repeatedly chosen to leak information, much of it partial and inaccurate, during the formal legal process.

Apart from an admission by Lambeth Palace in November 2011 of a leak to a journalist by a member of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s staff, the source of the leaks has not been identified amongst the small group privy to the relevant information. After November 2011, the leaks did not stop. This has led to repeatedly unfair media reporting, in circumstances where, on advice, I have been unable publicly to defend myself.

The media coverage during the process did not escape the attention of Lord Justice Mummery. With the process complete, I can now quote from Lord Justice Mummery’s decision letter dated 29 January 2013 addressed to Mr Akerman and Mr Perkins by which he refused to allow the bulk of their complaints to proceed. He said this, under the heading “Coverage in the media”:

I should add that this letter is sent only to the persons directly concerned with its contents. It is an impartial judgment on disciplinary matters. It is made by an independent judge. The decision is based on a full and careful consideration of the relevant evidence submitted and the legal arguments advanced.

I cannot emphasise too strongly that this is not an interim, final or comprehensive report prepared for publication, such as would follow a full public inquiry.

In particular, the decision is not intended to be used to further the one-sided and unjust process of trial in the media by the dissemination of unproven, possibly unfounded, allegations. It is absolutely contrary to basic principles of justice that the media should be used to judge the cause; that anyone, however well intentioned, should be a judge in their own cause; and that any person should be condemned in the media or elsewhere without being heard.

However, I write and send this Decision Letter on the realistic assumption that, in some form or other and by some means or other, it is likely to receive a degree of media exposure, possibly selective. Indeed, I have very recently been informed by you, when inquiring into the progress of your applications, that you are “aware of a number of pending and new cases, which may result in extensive media coverage in the very short term with the potential for adverse consequences for the Church.”

I do not know who is responsible for the media coverage. As there is a fundamental right to freedom of expression there is nothing that can be done to prevent it. Those responsible for the “extensive media coverage” of unproven allegations may wish to consider at some point how they would react if they were on the receiving end of the full glare of a media circus.”

From my perspective, these last 18 months have certainly involved, as Lord Justice Mummery described it, a one-sided and unjust process of trial by media. I and, at times, my family have indeed been on the receiving end of a media circus, orchestrated by unknown people with, it seems, no interest in the truth or the ministry of the church.

Comments on the complaints

Lord Justice Mummery commented that the various applications made to him by and on behalf of the Safeguarding Advisory Group were “the most time-consuming matters brought under the Clergy Discipline Measure since it was introduced.

The incoherence and complexity of the Safeguarding Advisory Group’s attempts to mount complaints against me served to delay the resolution of even the preliminary stages of the matter and to obscure the fundamental absence of any evidence of misconduct on my part.

To expose with clarity the unfairness of the complaints against me and the absence of any misconduct on my part was a task which occupied my legal team for many hours and I am grateful to God for their efforts and for the success of those efforts.

In a recent private letter to a survivor of sexual abuse by Reverend Roy Cotton, which was made public by the BBC, the Bishop of Chichester said that there was “deception and cover-up” and “ineptitude and irresponsible lack of professionalism” in the Church’s handling of Mr Cotton. I agree; and it is a matter of great regret.

The Bishop of Chichester has confirmed publicly and in writing to me that he did not, and did not intend to, refer to me or any conduct on my part. I have never met with Mr Akerman or the Safeguarding Advisory Group – despite my

requests to do so. I regret their decision to seek to pursue misguided disciplinary complaints against me without first taking the trouble to invite me to address their concerns at a meeting.

Conclusion

The actions of clergy who have engaged in the abuse of children appal me and the ongoing effect on survivors is of the highest concern to me.

Throughout my time as Bishop of Lewes I have at all times tried to assist the

Diocese to deal appropriately with safeguarding issues. I have also welcomed and given my full support to the efforts made and being made to improve the practices and procedures within the Diocese for safeguarding children and vulnerable adults.

But none of what has happened in the past can justify the attempts which have been made to cast me in the role of a scape-goat without regard to where the truth lies and where the blame ought to lie.

11 May 2013


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