A member of the royal family, a senior judge, cabinet ministers and public school headmasters all waged a campaign to support a Church of England bishop who escaped prosecution for sexual abuse 22 years ago, the Old Bailey has heard.
The scale of the intervention from senior establishment figures when Peter Ball was first accused in 1993 by a vulnerable young man of sexual exploitation and abuse was revealed for the first time on Wednesday.
Ball, 83, was in court to be sentenced for 15 years of grooming, sexual exploitation and abuse of 18 vulnerable young men aged 17-25, who had come to him for spiritual guidance and inspiration between 1977 and 1992 when he was bishop of Lewes.
Jailing him for two years and eight months, Mr Justice Wilkie said Ball had abused his position as a senior member of the established church. “You pursued selected individuals to commit or submit to acts of physical or sexual debasement under the guise of it being part of an austere regime of devotion,” Wilkie said. “These acts were committed at your suggestion for your own sexual gratification.”
Ball, who counted the Prince of Wales as a loyal friend, had first been accused in 1993 by Neil Todd, who had attempted suicide three times as a result of his abuse, and went on to kill himself in 2012.
The police investigated and six other victims came forward. But support flooded in for Ball from within the establishment and he was never charged. Instead he received a caution for gross indecency, resigned his post as bishop and was allowed to continue officiating at ceremonies for many years by the then archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey.
Bobbie Cheema QC, prosecuting, said: “The police report that accompanied the papers sent to the CPS in 1993 after the police had done their work stated they had received telephone calls supportive of Peter Ball ‘from many dozens of people – including MPs, former public school headmasters, JPs and even a lord chief justice’”.
She said there were many more letters of support, including from cabinet ministers and a member of the royal family.
After accepting the caution, Ball resigned and was given accommodation in a cottage on the Prince of Wale’s Duchy of Cornwall estate.
The decision not to prosecute Ball was finalised by the then DPP, Barbara Mills, Cheema said.
At the time of the allegations, Ball told other young men in his charge that Todd’s story was “total fantasy” and tried to deter them from coming forward.
Todd’s sister, Mary Mills Knowles, said in a victim impact statement: “Neil had already made three attempts on his life in 1993 before he summoned the courage to speak out … The church wanted to sweep this under the carpet. They had no concern for Neil’s wellbeing. He was very distressed, vulnerable and distraught. He felt nobody believed him.”
He killed himself in 2012 – unable, she said, to bear the weight of what had happened to him when a new police inquiry began.
Ball was arrested and charged after the 2012 investigation. After months in which Ball attempted to avoid justice by pleading unfit to stand trial and arguing his role as a bishop was not a public office he finally admitted his years of offending last month.
He pleaded guity to misconduct in public office relating to the exploitation of 16 young men and two counts of indecent assault on two young men.
The court heard he ran a scheme to encourage young people to give a year of their life to the church, through which he met his victims, many of whom lived in his home.
Cheema said: “He was highly regarded as a godly man who had a special affinity with young people. The truth was that he used those 15 years in the position of bishop to identify, groom and exploit sensitive and vulnerable young men who came within his orbit.
“For him, religion was a cloak behind which he hid in order to satisfy his sexual interest in those who trusted him.”
The court heard the abuse included beatings, and victims who were in his sway were made to strip naked during baptisms in which Ball also was naked. One victim said he saw Ball as a “living saint”.
Another said: “It seemed to be the better-looking boys, we were taken from the chapel and we would then remove all our clothing and be naked in front of the bishop, in front of the altar, in front of God.”
Defending, Richard Smith QC said the offending was part of the former bishop’s “dark side”.
Bishop Paul Butler, lead bishop on safeguarding in the Church of England, said the case was a matter of “deep shame and regret”. “There are no excuses whatsoever for what took place and the systematic abuse of trust perpetrated by Peter Ball over decades,” he said. “We apologise unreservedly to those survivors of Peter Ball’s abuse and pay tribute to their bravery in coming forward.”
The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has commissioned an independent review of the way the church has handled the case.