Churches Accused of Cover-up over Sex Attacks

By Antony Barnett
The Observer [Britain]
July 20, 2003

British church authorities stand accused of covering up a catalogue of sexual assaults on women by clergymen.

An investigation by The Observer has uncovered more than 60 cases where women have alleged they were abused by clerics from all denominations. Many victims claim the churches have ignored their suffering while allowing the offenders to go on preaching from the pulpit. These allegations include:

A woman raped by a hospital chaplain in a cemetery lavatory;

A woman, who was training to be a cleric in London, was repeatedly raped by her supervising priest in his family home;

A senior magistrate was sexually abused by a priest who collected used tampons from a girls' school.

As the row over gay bishops continues to rock the Church of England, the revelations of sexual abuse threatens to plunge the Church further into crisis.

One case investigated by The Observer calls into question the role played by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, when he led the Church in Wales. This newspaper has established that early last year, Williams became involved in attempts by a priest, who sexually assaulted a female vicar, to find another job in the church leader's then diocese, Monmouth.

Williams knew that Geoff Hewitt, the canon of Bangor Cathedral, had been disciplined following accusations of sexually assaulting female vicar Dr Tanya Jenkins and sexually harassing another female church worker.

Over the past four months The Observer has worked with Margaret Kennedy, a former social worker who was a pioneer investigator of child abuse in Christian churches.

In the past two years she has been contacted by more than 100 women who claim to have been sexually assaulted by clergymen.

In a study yet to be published, she has obtained more than 60 testimonies from women who claim to have been abused by clerics across many denominations: more than 50 in the Anglican and Catholic Churches alone. Five of them fear for their lives and are in hiding

The Observer has spoken to many of the women who claim they were sexually abused by their priests, many of them speaking for the first time. Their stories have extraordinary similarities, with vulnerable women who have suffered from a personal tragedy or have been abused as children turning to their ministers for support only to find themselves victims of another crime.

Most complain that Church authorities failed to deal with their complaints, preferring to hush things up.

Kennedy said: 'This is the great taboo subject of the Christian Church which it must now face up to. For too long it has been hushed up by the authorities and caused terrible trauma for many women. My fear is that these cases are just the tip of the iceberg and there are hundreds more women out there too scared to come forward.'

In the case involving Williams, the female vicar who was assaulted has been so psychologically damaged she has been unable to work again. Yet her attacker, Hewitt, was not dismissed by the Church. However, the outrage of the local community meant Hewitt could no longer preach in Bangor and needed a new job.

Williams has admitted to having a phone conversation with the disgraced priest, informing him he 'would not stand in his way' if he applied to be vicar of Rhymney, which was in Williams' Monmouth Diocese.

A spokesman for the Archbishop said: 'I have been made aware of a telephone conversation which took place between Geoff Hewitt and Archbishop Rowan Williams between March and May 2002...The content of that conversation was that Rowan Williams told Geoff Hewitt that, since he was no longer under discipline, he would not stand in his way were he to make an application for the post.'

He said the fact that Hewitt had not been dismissed meant that Williams was not in a position to reject the application in advance.

Hewitt was not, in fact, given the job after parishioners in Rhymney found out and complained. It has since emerged that Hewitt has found a new post in a church in Chippenham, Wiltshire.

Williams has denied allegations from parishioners in Bangor that he was in any way involved in this latest appointment.

Welsh Assembly member, Helen Mary Jones - a former deputy director of the Equal opportunities Commission - has demanded answers from Williams.

She said: 'Rowan Williams has staked his reputation on social justice and he must now make it clear what precise role he has played in helping a priest who had sexually assaulted a fellow minister. If the priest had been a social worker or teacher he would have been sacked. This case illustrates that senior figures in the Church do not take these incidents seriously.'

She called on Williams to take a lead and develop open procedures for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse.

The spokesman said the Archbishop and the Church of England took the issue of sexual abuse of women very seriously. Williams gave a statement to The Observer, which was from a contribution he made last year to a report into Church abuse called, 'Time for Action'.

It said: 'Few, if any issues in recent years have so stained and compromised the credibility of various Church institutions and hierarchies as the record of ignorance and evasion over questions to do with the abuse of children and adults by Christian professionals, especially clergy.

'Honesty about this is painful but essential for the Church's health and the Church's mission.'


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