A choirmaster has been jailed for sex offences against minors in the 1980s, raising again the issue about adequate strategies for combating sexual abuse – with the BBC saying the church covered the problem up at the time, and the Church of England stressing that the culture has changed and that its present policies are demonstrably robust and vigilant.
Peter Halliday, aged 61, from Farnborough, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison earlier today, after pleading guilty to sexual abuse of boys in Hampshire.
BBC Radio 4’s Today programme reported this morning that Mr Halliday had admitted to the offences 17 years ago. But he was allowed to leave St Peter’s Church in Farnborough on condition that he had no more contact with children, and without the matter being reported to the police - as it should have been. He then went on to abuse other boys.
A Church of England spokesperson declared: “Today, quite simply, this would not have been allowed to happen. Any such allegations would be immediately investigated and the police would be informed as a matter of course. Over the past twenty years, the Church of England - like all other organisations that work with children - has had to radically review the processes and procedures that accompany the appointment and monitoring of all those who have contact with young people.”
Its statement continued: “We will be reviewing the details of this case, and seeing what further lessons can be drawn from it to help inform the continuing development of diocesan and national policies on child protection.”
The Church of England added that whenever cases such as this come to light, “we are deeply saddened that the trust placed in the Church by young people and their carers is broken in such a damaging way. Such incidents can have a devastating impact on the child concerned, as the statements from some of those affected by this case vividly illustrate.”
A Diocese of Guilford spokesperson, the Rev Mark Rudall, confirmed those sentiments of deep regret.
He added: "We are completely satisfied that what was done at the time was the way things happened in those days when child protection awareness was on the cusp of serious change. Church officers at every level acted in good faith in accordance in what they perceived to be in the best interests of child and family - at that time, in that setting - before the law and government guidelines were as they are today.”
“Since then, systems and sensitivities have changed because it was realised that they'd sometimes not been the best for the victim - and many in the Churches were in the forefront of all that. It's also a process that carries on changing because no two instances of this kind of thing are ever the same”, said Mr Rudall.
He concluded: “To the victims themselves it's hard to say anything adequate - save that I trust what's happened today has provided some kind of closure for what must have been many years of background distress to their lives. We pray that they can move forward from here.”
However an independent charity, the Churches Child Protection Advisory Service, says that it is “a complete red herring” to claim that “the law was different back then”. It says a forthright apology and acknowledgment of error is needed.
It said today: “CCPAS was shocked to hear of this case and the damage that was done to these children. It now appears that a number of others were subsequently placed at risk from a man who was known to have offended against children. In our view this situation was seriously mishandled by the Church and the victims will best be helped now by those responsible making a full acknowledgement of these failings”.
The Churches Child Protection Advisory Service continued: “CCPAS’ child protection Help Line was established in the late 1980's. Had we been contacted by the church authorities then we would have had no hesitation in telling them to go straight to the police. Of course, there was also nothing to stop them from taking advice from police or social services at the time.”
It added: “Although the Children Act 1989 was not implemented until 1991 and most denominations did not establish child protection procedures until some time later, it was well known even then that serious crimes against children had to be reported to the police. The Church had a clear responsibility to take effective action to ensure that a known risk was prevented from having any further contact with children whatsoever.”
But the agency recognizes the significant difference made by the Church of England’s current Child Protection Policy and its training programme, which highlights the need for a very different response to the one taken in Farnborough.
Back in 1990 a young chorister at St Peter's Church in Farnborough told his parents his choirmaster had abused him repeatedly during a period of several years, and he was not the only victim.
His parents told the vicar, who consulted the bishop. But instead of calling the police the church advised Halliday he should leave quietly and agree to have no more contact with young children.
One of the boys Halliday abused, who was 10 years old at the time, told BBC News: "It was both when I was alone with him and there were others there. It happened in his house when I was alone with him having individual tuition, but it also happened on trips. It even happened when I was in dormitories with other boys. When your first sexual experience is a 40-year-old man forcing himself on you it's pretty horrific.”
Detective Sergeant Alison Heydari of Hampshire Police, handling the case, said Halliday's actions had "had a devastating impact on his victims and their families".
Simon Barrow of the UK Christian think tank Ekklesia commented: “The Halliday case makes it clear that there is absolutely no room for complacency over sexual abuse. It is also important for churches to admit how wrong they got it in the past – often by taking a ‘pastoral approach’ which failed to recognize the true nature of abuse and its consequences if unchecked.”
He added: “It should also be acknowledged that the Church of England, ecumenical bodies and other churches have made best practice in this area a priority in recent years. A careful review of the Halliday case is now needed, with outside representation, published results and further recommendations if necessary. There must be no 'cover up' accusations."
"It is vital to ensure that churches at all levels implement proper background checks on staff and volunteers, child protection training, rigorous anti-abuse policies and awareness of the law. That is what present church policies are about. Recovering victims and their families need to be heeded and better supported, too", said Barrow.