The Anglican Bishop of Bath and Wells, the Rt Rev Peter Price, has made an unequivocal apology for the failure of the church to follow its own guidelines on sexual abuse following the conviction of a Somerset priest for repeated offences against children.
The Rev David Smith Clevedon was jailed for five-and-a-half years yesterday after a unanimous verdict at Bristol Crown Court that he sexually abused six boys over a 30-year period.
Mr Smith, aged 52, vicar of St John the Evangelist, North Somerset, had denied all 12 charges. The two week trial heard that two complainants expressed their concerns to the church, first in 1983 and again in 2001. But the matter was "dealt with" as an internal concern, and Smith continued to abuse boys because he was not reported to the police.
The Church of England’s clear policy is to report potential sex abuse to the authorities. It is backed up by advisers, information and training. The call for a proper investigation is bound to be renewed following a similar verdict involving negligence against ex-choirmaster Peter Halliday, aged 61, earlier this week.
The attacks perpetuated by Smith happened between 1976 and 2005 and involved six boys under the age of 16. Sentencing him the judge said: "You were a father figure and a mentor to these boys. One felt largely humiliated by the experience, you added to their distress."
In a statement made in writing and on TV by the Bishop of Bath and Wells, Peter Price, the church declared: "The Reverend David Smith has been found guilty of a number of very serious charges. We are shocked and horrified that he has fallen so far short of the very high standards expected of priests in the Church of England."
He continued: "We apologise sincerely to David Smith's victims, their families, the parish and all involved in this case. We're very sorry that these offences were committed by a man in a position of trust. We have taken all necessary steps to do all in our power to ensure there is no repetition of this situation."
Church of England insiders do not believe the church faces charges of the kind of systemic abuse by priest that has wracked the Roman Catholic Church, but it is acknowledging that there is no room for complacency.
Available statistical evidence suggests a similar level of offending within the church as in other sectors of society.
An expert told Ekklesia: “The good news about this is that it undermines charges that religious institutions are uniquely or disproportionately culpable in this area. But that does not mean that there isn’t a clear religious dimension in church cases. And the bad news is that it suggests that churches are failing in their vocation to be distinctive moral communities. There is much to be done.”