Chester Police Complete Sex Abuse Investigation into Victor Whitsey, Former Bishop of Chester

From the website of Chester Police (emphasis in original):

Assistant Chief Constable Nick Bailey said:  “Cheshire Constabulary has published a report into the findings of an investigation into allegations of non-recent sexual abuse made against a former Bishop of Chester.  Operation Coverage focused on allegations made against the late Bishop Hubert Victor Whitsey, which date back to the 1970s and 1980s.  They relate to 13 victims (5 male and 8 female).

“Allegations of this nature are taken extremely seriously.  The police have a duty to carry out a proportionate investigation into all allegations of sexual abuse – even if the alleged offences took place many years ago and the person being accused has since died.

“Following a thorough investigation and taking into account all of the information available, it has been established that, if Bishop Whitsey were alive today, as part of the investigation process he would have been spoken to by police.  This would have been in order to outline the details of the allegations made and to provide him with an opportunity to offer an account of events.

“It is important to remember that this is not an indication of guilt – this is a key part of the investigation process and this happens regularly as part of a case to obtain an account whether this leads to further action or not.  It is not the role of the police to judge whether someone is guilty or innocent.

It is contradictory to refer to “victims” while denying “an indication of guilt” (I’m assuming we can discount the possibility of mistaken identity), but the word is used here in accordance with national policing guidelines; the recent Operation Conifer Summary Report into allegations against Edward Heath followed the same practice.

However, it is important to note the general principle in the last paragraph above: when it was recently announced that Wiltshire Police would have interviewed Heath under caution over child-sex abuse allegations, it was erroneously inferred by many to mean that there was a strong case to answer. This was also the impression created when Sussex Police said last year that they would have arrested Bishop George Bell following an allegation that the Diocese of Chichester had investigated, were not for the fact that Bell had died in 1958. In fact, though, any superficially plausible allegation might lead to such an interview, with the threat of arrest if the invitation is declined, and as such it seems unwise that the police keep placing such an emphasis on this detail in their hypothetical conclusions.

In this instance, however, the Archbishop of York and the current Bishop of Chester have issued a joint statement in which they state that the investigation into Whitsey has been “comprehensive”, and in which they apologise “to those individuals who have come forward to share their account of abuse”.

Although I know of an instance where a church apology was issued based on one person’s allegation against a deceased vicar ahead of any investigation (either internally or by police), in this case it is reasonable to assume that the apology follows the careful consideration of credible testimony. The dead cannot defend themselves from false allegations, and in law the accused is innocent until proven guilty, but that does not mean that there can never be circumstances in which someone is exposed as a criminal after their death, or at least reasonably suspected. I prefer to avoid the rhetoric of “belief” or “disbelief” in such matters, but see no reason to treat testimony such as this with scepticism.

According to the Summary Report, the police’s enquiries with the Church of England found no archival information “that supports or undermines the disclosures made by the witnesses within this investigation.” However:

Through the enquiries conducted with the Church, it is clear that those who reported abuse had previously disclosed details of their allegations to the Church…  It has been established that [victim] (M2) reported the abuse they alleged to representatives of the clergy the day after the alleged abuse occurred (1981) and… was able to provide the police with letters they had received from the Church appertaining to the events surrounding the alleged abuse. 

Further:

It has been established that (M3) reported the alleged abuse to representatives of the clergy in 1992 and between the years of 2000-2002. On both occasions, due to their wishes, no further action was taken by the Church. 

This was alluded to in a statement written by Richard Scorer that appeared on the website of Slater and Gordon last month, although the page is not currently available. Scorer wrote:

A lengthy and careful police investigation has revealed that Victor Whitsey, the former Anglican Bishop of Chester, was almost certainly a prolific abuser of children.

…It appears that the police investigation has revealed that others in the Church may have been aware of Whitsey’s involvement in child abuse whilst he was still working as a Bishop. It is understood that the Church of England may shortly be announcing an independent review into the case.

Despite this, though, no-one has been arrested for anything, and so we must again wonder about the wisdom of police spending their energies on matters where a suspect is deceased and cannot be brought to trial – particularly when allegations are decades old. Although the police of course have special legal powers to gather evidence, there must come a point where these kinds of allegations about public figures are more properly the domain of historians and journalists.

The Summary Report includes a justification:

Whilst there cannot be a criminal justice outcome in respect of Right Reverend Hubert Victor Whitsey this does not detract from the obligation for the police to conduct an investigation into alleged criminal conduct and the force is committed to conducting a thorough yet proportionate search for the truth to:

– Ensure that, as far as possible, the facts are established
– Expose culpable and discreditable conduct and bring it to public notice if in the public interest
– Dispel unjustified suspicion of deliberate wrongdoing
– Correct dangerous practices and procedures
– Safeguard and protect individuals

One wonders about a police mission to “expose culpable and discreditable conduct” when “it is not the role of the police to judge whether someone is guilty or innocent”. However, it is worth imagining how the crimes of the elderly Bishop Peter Ball might never have been exposed had he not been (un)lucky enough to live into old age and the police had declined any interest in a dead man.

But the decision as to whether something “proportionate” or not is subjective, and this list of aims seem ambitious when contrasted the modest outcome, which is simply that Whitsey would have been interviewed had he not died 30 years ago.

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