The Church of England has been accused of dismissing or ignoring serious complaints about priests’ conduct which are being made by their own wives.
An investigation by The Telegraph has identified instances where Church authorities failed to take action over allegations including sexual abuse, domestic violence and adultery, even when handed apparently compelling evidence.
On Friday evening one of the women who accused her husband of rape and marital violence said the Church was “turning a blind eye to abuse and immorality in its own ranks”.
She said: “They have absolutely been ignoring abuse. The clergy just want to protect themselves. They cover for each other and it comes from the top down.”
Victims told The Telegraph that when their complaints were channeled through the Church’s disciplinary process they encountered difficulties because it imposes time limits on claims and places the emphasis on complainants to prove their case.
The Church said on Friday that it was conducting a wide-ranging review of its disciplinary processes which Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has admitted is “not fit for purpose”.
Most allegations from clergy wives arise after their marriages break down, leaving the spouse facing the prospect of being ejected from their husband’s clergy home.
Broken Rites, a support group for former clergy spouses, said that its 140-strong membership was expanding, with an increasing proportion of women complaining of abusive marriages.
The Rev Dr Margaret Wilkinson, spokesperson for Broken Rites, said: “This is a systemic problem. As with the children who were sexually abused by the clergy, we too have not been listened to.”
The allegations are embarrassing for church leaders and will fuel calls for a root and branch review of its processes.
Last year its disciplinary procedure was described as ‘flawed’ by the inquiry into child sex abuse.
Cases identified by The Telegraph include a woman who repeatedly told the church her curate husband was abusing her emotionally, physically and sexually, and a second woman who accused her vicar husband of raping and threatening to kill her.
He remains in post.
A third woman said her husband, a senior clergyman, remained in place despite admitting he had been simultaneously conducting a relationship with a parishioner.
Much of the criticism centres on the apparent inadequacy of the Church of England’s disciplinary procedure. Since 2003 the Church has been punishing priests using the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM), with cases presided over by a single bishop or tribunal.
Last year a report by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse strongly criticised the CDM as ‘flawed’ and ‘an inappropriate means by which to address safeguarding concerns.’
Complaints are only considered if offences occurred within the last year, unless it concerns a child or vulnerable adult. One of the former wives said: “I think the way forward is to put in place an independent complaints body, similar to the Independent Police Complaints Commission.”
Bishop Chris Goldsmith, The Church of England’s Director of Ministry, said: “The welfare of clergy spouses and partners, particularly when relationships break down, is taken very seriously by the Church.
"I am truly sorry if there are cases where spouses or partners feel they have been let down and not supported.”
Sandra's story: 'He would hit me quite often, maybe once a month'
It wasn’t long after she got married that Sandra realised her husband was not as virtuous as she had first thought.
Despite being a Church of England priest who charmed his congregation with effortless ease, Sandra claims Bill was a different man in private.
Behind the doors of the vicarage, Sandra says she was subjected to a regime of violence and intimidation, locking her in the bedroom as a punishment and forcing her to have sex with him.
Nor was she the only object of his attention: when he wasn’t administering pastoral care and spiritual guidance, he might be visiting a paramour in the parish.
“He would hit me quite often, maybe once a month,” Sandra said. “He would use his fist, hit me in the head and it would make me go dizzy and I could feel the strength draining out of my legs as I fell.
“The first time he hit me we were in the bedroom and I remember there was a look of curiosity on his face as if he was wondering “what’s going to happen now?””
The answer, it turned out, was nothing much. Sandra was desperate not to let her marriage fail and she had their two children to consider. So she endured, even after he drove her to a secluded spot one Saturday and threatened to kill her.
Sandra recalled: “He had his arm around my neck and I really thought he was going to do it. He looked out of the window and froze and after a while he just released me without saying a word and then drove us home.
“I was absolutely terrified. Looking back, I think the reason he hesitated was that he was working out if he could get away with it.”
Even when Sandra summoned the courage to finally end her abusive marriage she found Bill was apparently beyond justice. She went to the police about him having raped her, but although he was arrested he was never charged.
Then, following their divorce, she complained directly to the Church of England about his physical abuse and the fact that he had been having an affair with two married parishioners.
The method of complaint she was obliged to use is known as the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM), used by the church to hold priests to account. In practice, however, it is riddled with constraints which make it hard for a complainant to gain satisfaction.
The inadequacy of the CDM in dealing with complaints such as child sex abuse by priests has been identified. But, with the emergence of cases like Sandra’s, it is now also apparent that even some of the clergy’s own wives have been stymied by it.
The process places the burden of proving accusations upon those who are making them, even if the nature of the offences, such as rape or domestic violence, are inherently unlikely to have other witnesses.
Furthermore, the complaint can only be made in writing and all supporting evidence must be supplied at the same time. The results of Sandra’s complaint were unimpressive.
A few months later, the Right Reverend Dr Alan Smith, the Bishop of St Albans, gave his written determination. Although he had never spoken to Sandra, he waved away most of her allegations, predominantly on the grounds that there was no “corroborating evidence”.
Bishop Smith decided that while he “could not dismiss the allegations altogether”, there were insufficient concerns to warrant removing Bill from his parish post. So he gave the vicar a five-year “conditional deferment”, which meant that as long as he behaved himself during that period no action would be taken against him.
He concluded: “I do not find the claims of serious misconduct in [Sandra’s] complaint proven, nor am I satisfied that a further period of formal investigation is likely to produce such evidence.”
However, a month later a piece of evidence was produced when the husband of one of the women with whom Bill was accused of having an affair made a statement. The Bishop ruled the statement was out of time as the matter had already been decided.
The husband was instead required to make a fresh complaint which he later dropped for “personal reasons”. A second complaint from Sandra, this time with fresh evidence of Bill’s adultery, also fell on stony ground.
Today Bill is still employed as a vicar for the Church of England. During recent months he has been spotted breaching the lockdown by visiting a third woman most evenings.
A spokesman for the Diocese of St Albans said it took domestic abuse ‘extremely seriously’ and was ‘always willing to learn lessons from the accounts of survivors.’
He said that in this case there had been a proper safeguarding response. ‘We rigorously followed the CDM procedures as set out in legislation and guidance. Like all dioceses we are obliged to follow the CDM process as it stands,’ he added.
“The whole CDM process was a waste of time,” said Sandra.
The Rev Margaret Wilkinson, spokesperson for Broken Rites, a support group for clergy spouses, said one problem is the Church is divided into 42 separate dioceses and some are better at helping people than others.
She said: “Even when a priest is censured, we find that in many cases there is a lack of support for the spouse and children.”
Jane's story: 'Physical, mental, verbal, financial and sexual abuse'
Jane’s experience of marriage breakup is illustrative of that. Her husband Peter was an assistant curate assisting the vicar of a busy metropolitan parish.
She claims he liked to belittle her both in private and in front of his friends.
“He would push me, degrading me and calling me all sorts of things. It was so much I was losing weight. I cried every night,” she said. The abuse wasn’t just verbal either. Some of it was physical and sexual.
“In the middle of sleep there was being turned over and having someone just jump on you. I was just tense, holding myself tense.
“He would hold me by the neck a number of times and then go to my sister and say I was one who was violent to him.
"One day he told me he would do something and no one would ever find me.”
At one point the police were even called to their home but, with both Jane and Peter accusing each other, no action was taken against either.
From 2015 onwards, Jane says she tried to tell the church about the true nature of her husband. She said that when she spoke to the dean, “he was furious, rebuked me and told me to take off my clothes and go in the shower and pray for my husband. He said stop crying and stop the drama.”
She says she was not told to make a complaint, or even mentioned the possibility of using the CDM. She felt her cry for help was ignored by the Church. What finally brought about Peter’s comeuppance was his one of his own acts of duplicity.
Throughout their marriage he had been using online dating websites to see other women. When one of them found out he was not the eligible man he had portrayed himself to be, she made a complaint.
Peter was subsequently removed from his position and suspended from working as a priest for a year. But that meant Jane and her teenage daughter would have to leave the vicarage too.
She said: “We became homeless for six months. I was sofa surfing at my sister’s house.”
Jane had made contact with her local authority’s domestic violence unit who in June 2017 twice wrote to the Acting Bishop of London notifying him that since 2014 her husband had been ‘physically, mentally, verbally, financially and sexually abusive towards her.’
Neither letter received a response, let alone take any action against Peter, who was now serving his suspension. When Broken Rites contacted the Archdeacon on Jane’s behalf, he responded in July by acknowledging that “no one in the diocese is questioning the facts of [Jane’s] abusive marriage”.
But again, no action was taken. Jane also wrote to Pete Broadbent, the Bishop of Willesden and Acting Bishop of London, making it clear that she was no longer in a relationship with her husband, although Peter had painted a different picture due to his ‘controlling and coercive behaviour.’
‘It puzzles me that despite telling the church about the abuse that I have gone through the church senior members continue to treat me as if I was still living with [him] as a couple,’ she wrote. Bishop Broadbent emailed back insisting that the Church had given her ‘a lot of support.’
“Our view is that we have done all that we were able to do in accordance with our own policy and guidance,” he wrote. That included a total of four months permission to stay in the vicarage following the date of her husband’s suspension. Now Jane is working in the care sector and living independently with her daughter.
The Diocese of London said it had provided Jane with ‘a range of support’ from 2016 and that police and social services had decided there were no safeguarding issues.
A spokesperson said that several months of rent-free accommodation had been granted in the vicarage and the diocese had worked with the local authority to provide longer term housing for Jane and her daughter.
Carla's story: "I’ve had my spiritual life stolen"
Carla is another former spouse of a clergyman who considers the Church of England to be “a law unto itself”. One morning her husband Arthur, a chaplain and former rector of a parish deep in the shires, announced that after several decades of marriage he wanted a divorce.
She said: “I said there must be someone else and he said “no” and off he went. He phoned me later that night and said he had met someone else.”
It later transpired he had been effectively living a parallel life with the other woman - one of his parishioners - for the previous four years. In response to an approach by Carla, the woman penned a letter in which she wrote that the priest was “a liar” and “a cheat”. She understood he was separated from Carla.
When her divorce was finalised two years later, Carla complained to the Church using the CDM and including a copy of the letter from her husband’s mistress to support her allegation of adultery.
But after a few months’ cogitation, the bishop wrote to say that as Arthur “has now decided to retire” his “feeling is that no useful purpose would be served by taking formal disciplinary action now.”
The diocese which dealt with the matter told The Telegraph that it had taken the complaint ‘very seriously,’ but that by the time the process was concluded the priest had resigned from his post.
However, a spokesperson insisted, he was also ‘censured for his behaviour which fell well below that of expected of the clergy.’
Carla remains unimpressed. “It’s an old boys’ network really. They just close ranks.” Whatever happens, she won’t be returning to the pews.
“The fact is I’ve had my spiritual life stolen. I have not lost my faith, but I would not step foot in a church ever again.”
The names of the women who made allegations and those of their husbands have been changed for legal reasons.