Church of England ‘risked teenager’s safety’ at parish attended by paedophile predator

The Telegraph [London, England]

January 20, 2024

By Steve Bird and Simon Trump

Young organist was hired despite assurances there were no children in congregation at remote Cornish chapel

The Church of England “gambled” with a teenage boy’s safety by allowing a convicted predatory paedophile to worship at the same remote Cornish chapel, the Telegraph can disclose.

In 1998, Michael Copeland, now 75, became the first paedophile in Britain to be banned from churches, all in Yorkshire, after he had been repeatedly jailed for preying on children whom he met at church choirs.

In November last year, the Telegraph reported that Copeland, the grandson of a former Tory MP whose family owned the Spode ceramics company, had been allowed from 2018 to sing in the choir at St Feock by the Diocese of Truro because “there were no children in the church”.

However, a Telegraph investigation has now established that a teenage organist was officially hired in 2021 to accompany Copeland at St Feock.

The case has exposed glaring failings in how the Church of England manages so-called “worship agreements” set up with paedophiles by diocese safeguarding teams, and enforced by volunteer parish officials.

Churchwarden was suspended

The diocese has now launched an investigation with an independent safeguarding consultant “to put in place any changes needed to ensure the church is a safe place for everyone”.

Leaked confidential church documents reveal that a respected and longstanding churchwarden at St Feock was suspended last year after a diocese investigation found a “serious breach of safeguarding guidance and practice led to a heightened risk of significant harm” in connection with Copeland’s worship. A safeguarding officer also resigned.

The file highlights “very serious failings in duty” by the churchwarden regarding safeguarding, specifically the withholding from both the Rev Karen Wilson and the diocesan safeguarding team details about Copeland’s worship agreement and the hiring of a 17-year-old organist in May 2021. The priest joined the parish in July 2021.

It is alleged in the file that there were “changes in the level of risk within the church community and a failure to follow safeguarding policy and processes, and a failure to attend safeguarding training”.

Sources from the parish say tensions are high amid claims the churchwarden has been made a scapegoat by the diocese, which it is alleged did nothing to properly monitor its own worship agreement.

A parishioner said: “For the diocese to have said there were no children in the congregation is ludicrous.”

A friend of the organist’s family said: “Letting Copeland worship at Feock was ridiculous. The church took a huge gamble with their son’s safety.

“The boy has been there for years. He fits the profile of the sort Copeland targeted. The boy had a very lucky escape.”

The talented musician’s “trust in the church” and faith had been “shaken”, the friend added.

“Although he was not a victim, it has had a very devastating effect on him,” he said. “The family is fuming. They were never told about Copeland’s criminal past.”

Both the organist, who is now 20, and his mother, declined to comment.

Predator jailed for third time

Although the warden, whom the Telegraph has chosen not to name, also refused to comment, a parishioner said his safeguarding training was up to date, and he was never fully informed of the threat posed by Copeland, simply told that “30 years ago he was in prison for child abuse”.

Copeland was jailed in 1988 for sex attacks on three choirboys, then imprisoned in 1995 for indecently assaulting a 12-year-old boy.

Last September, he was sentenced to 16 years and six months’ imprisonment for 15 charges of historic sex abuse of a choirboy over four years from the age of eight. All the victims were from the Sheffield area.

After leaving Sheffield, Copeland moved to Cornwall and lived near the £1.2 million Trelissick estate that his grandmother Ida Copeland, a former Conservative MP, donated to the National Trust.

A parishioner said: “Surely it’s the job of the diocese’s professional safeguarding team to ensure any new priest is fully informed about the worship agreement and Copeland’s past, not the churchwarden. What was the Truro diocese playing at allowing a paedophile banned from 200 churches to come to our church?”

A diocese spokeswoman said the St Feock “situation” had been “challenging” but it recognises “the pain and anger felt by the community”.

She added: “The parish hired a teenage boy despite being aware a safeguarding agreement was in place for one of their congregation.

“The diocese was not notified of this appointment by the parish. Had proper protocol been followed, the diocese would have taken action at that point. As far as we knew, there continued to be no children in the church.

“Once we were made aware, by which time the young organist was an adult, we made the appropriate decision to respect that individual’s privacy and not divulge unknown details to national media.”