Most Secret Crime 3: The Church prays with its eyes shut…

The Guardian, June 4 1998

When Coventry police investigated the Rev Phil Aspinall’s behaviour with young boys, they cleared him of breaking the law. He had committed no offence. But for the Bishop of Coventry, the priest’s behaviour raised a different problem. Three adolescent boys separately had complained that Aspinall had made sexual overtures to them. Child protection experts had warned that he was guilty of inappropriate behaviour. In any other job, they said, he would have been suspended. The Church of England, however, tried to turn the other cheek…..

On Palm Sunday last year, the Rector of St Peter’s Anglican Church in east Coventry ended his service with a brief housekeeping announcement: his assistant, the Rev Phil Aspinall, he said, had been forced to take leave of absence due to pressure of work.

The congregation filed out of the church and back to their homes all unaware that they had just been misled. The Rector had not wanted to mislead them, but his superiors had told him he must. The truth he could not tell was that the Rev Phil Aspinall was absent from church that day because he had been arrested by Coventry detectives who were investigating allegations about his involvement with children.

The church had been struggling with the behaviour of Phil Aspinall for years. Colleagues and other members of the Coventry East parish had been worried by the priest’s activities with young men. He had been caught with a collection of pornography. Three teenaged boys in different places at different times had accused him of making sexual overtures to them. The NSPCC and local Social Services had warned that he may be a risk. And yet the Church had left Phil Aspinall in post.

The Anglican Church is being accused by many within its ranks of mishandling complaints about its priests’ involvement with children, of failing to follow the kind of procedures which are now commonplace in other organisations, and, above all, of placing the interests of the suspect priest or even of its own reputation above those of the child.

There are some cases where the Anglican church has compromised with priests who were guilty of brutal child abuse. The Rev Terry Knight, for example, was jailed for three and a half years in March 1996 – ten years after parents first complained that he was indecently assaulting young boys. The Rev David Crossley was said by the Archbishop of York to have been ‘disqualified from all further exercise of his ministry’ after being convicted of indecency with a 12-year-old boy. Within two years, however, he was allowed to resume church duties, officiating at services in Oldham in Lancashire. The Church, they say, prays with its eyes closed.

In the case of the Rev Phil Aspinall, however, the church was faced with a more demanding problem. This was a priest against whom there was no evidence of any offence; who was twice investigated by police and cleared on both occasions; but who was, nevertheless, the object of a pattern of complaint, which suggested that, even though he was innocent of any crime, he was certainly guilty of inappropriate behaviour towards young boys.

The church is particularly vulnerable in this area. Priests are trusted, more than any other professional. They are expected to work with children, they can run youth clubs and Sunday schools and organise adventure holidays, and yet they alone are exempt from the police screening which now applies to all others who are employed in the care of children.

Following the repeated embarrassment of the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England has recognised the problem by appointing child protection specialists in every diocese but still the charge against the church remains. Essentially, it is accused of organisational dishonesty. Like other organisations, it tends to close ranks. But unlike others, it is also accused of a specific naivety, looking for a chance to forgive a possible sinner by moving a suspect priest into another parish, heedless of the risk that he may cause trouble there. The difficulty is that the Church cannot turn the other cheek without looking away. The result is that it has failed to deal not only with cases of blatant abuse but also with the far more subtle and common cases where no law has been broken and there is merely a cause for concern that it may. Such as the case of the Rev Phil Aspinall.

He had arrived at St Peter’s in Coventry in 1981, a bright and charming 30-year-old who was then a lay reader and who went on to be trained and ordained as an unpaid ‘non-stipendiary’ minister. Only a handful of clergy in the diocese knew his secret – that he had left his previous parish under a cloud of suspicion about his behaviour with adolescent boys in the church choir.

During the 1970s, Aspinall had belonged to Holy Trinity church in the centre of Coventry. It was there that he had become licensed as a lay reader. He had started to preach, helped with the youth club and been a popular supporter of the church, until several people began to worry that he was spending too much time with some of the boys in the choir. The curate had gone so far as to ask him whether he had a problem, but Aspinall had insisted there was nothing to worry about.

It was shortly after that, that one of the choir boys reported to his parents that Aspinall had taken him back to his flat and showed him magazines with sexual pictures. The boy, who was 14 at the time, said that the magazines had strange pictures of naked people and that Aspinall had talked to him about sex and whether some people might be homosexual.

The Coventry diocese had dealt with this problem in classic fashion. They had made no attempt to discover whether other choirboys had been approached, whether any of them had suffered any harm, they conducted no formal inquiry at all, they did not call in the police or the social services, they simply shuttled the problem into another parish – St Peter’s. Which had no choir. There, the rector laid down the law to Aspinall and made it clear, among things, that he was not to work with children. However, nobody in the Church did anything to ensure that Aspinall obeyed this instruction. They did not even keep a written record of it. And so, a few years after arriving at St Peter’s, when the then rector had moved on and his instruction had been all but forgotten, Phil Aspinall started his own youth group.

There is no evidence that anyone in the parish or the diocese expressed any anxiety about this. There was a clear need for such a youth group. St Peter’s stands in a deprived area of Coventry, Hillfields, which is notorious for crime and vice and which houses many families who suffer deep social and emotional problems. Aspinall’s group soon attracted some of the children from these troubled homes.

Aspinall’s colleagues in the Coventry East parish had two other reasons for supporting him: firstly because he was working without being paid, living off his salary at Courtauld’s, the textile company; and secondly, because he was gay and quite open about it, and his colleagues were pleased to be able to show that they suffered no prejudice. Years passed without controversy before, early in 1995, in an unrecognised echo of the forgotten incident at Holy Trinity, some of Phil Aspinall’s colleagues began to worry that he was spending too much time with some of the boys in his youth club.

They noticed that he was giving late-night lifts to some of them. In particular, he seemed to spend a lot of time with a 13-year-old named Jimmy X, who came from a deeply disturbed family with a history of sexual abuse. Aspinall was regularly taking Jimmy swimming and buying him meals and, according to some reports, drinks in pubs. The new rector, Rev David Berryman, decided to have a word with Aspinall, to warn him that his behaviour was ‘open to misunderstanding’ and, although Aspinall insisted that there was nothing to worry about, Berryman asked one of his team, Rev Nick Blackwell, to draw up some guidelines to help Aspinall in the future.

However, the trickle of anxiety continued to flow. There were worrying reports from the youth club, where Aspinall had appointed a deputy who seemed to be quite unable to cope, a young man who had a history of mental illness and who was occasionally reported to be spending time with a rent boy. One day, the whole club ran riot when Aspinall went off and left his deputy in charge. On another occasion, parents complained that the deputy had set up a game of spin-the-bottle in which children were pressed to talk about their sexual experience. One 13-year-old boy, at whom the bottle pointed, was told that as a forfeit he must go off with his girlfriend and ‘do it’.

When a long-standing member of the congregation at St Peter’s came forward to explain how it was that Aspinall had come to their church in the first place, the trickle of anxiety started to run a lot faster. One of Aspinall’s colleagues traced the former vicar and curate of Holy Trinity and confirmed the story. The colleague was worried but conscious that he had no evidence of any wrong-doing and so he asked for advice from the paediatrician who had recently been appointed as the child protection advisor for the diocese, Dr Elizabeth Penlington. She asked the Social Services and the NSPCC in the city to make discreet inquiries.

Over the next few weeks, the inquiry team spoke to other children in Aspinall’s youth group and discovered that Aspinall had asked one of them, a boy of 14 with learning difficulties, to come on holiday with him. They found, too, that a notorious rent boy had been to the police “to report an association with Aspinall and his deputy at the youth group”. They found that Aspinall had been spending time with a man who had been ousted from a church post in Birmingham and they noted that he had started his youth group even though he knew he had been asked not to work with young people. They concluded that there was no evidence that Aspinall had broken any law, but that his behaviour clearly indicated risk.

A small group of those who were worried about Aspinall now went right to the top of the diocesan tree, to the Bishop of Coventry, Simon Barrington Ward. This group included Social Services and the NSPCC, and they argued that Aspinall should be suspended, in the same way as a teacher or social worker who was thought to be a possible risk to children. It soon became clear that the Church lacked the strict procedures which had been forced on other organisations by bitter experience.

Almost everyone else who works with children is now covered by ‘safety first’ protocols which have been agreed by local authorities, police and social service across the country. Any child-worker who is accused of inappropriate behaviour with children is asked to stop working while the allegation is investigated. The idea that a suspect might continue in post is part of the bad old days before the public sector acknowledged that the problem even existed.

The bishop and his advisors resisted the move to suspend Aspinall. There was no evidence, they said, and they might be sued. They knew Aspinall was gay and that the Gay and Lesbian Christian Movement was willing to go to court on behalf of gay priests who were victimised. Those who were worried insisted that this was nothing to do with the man being gay, but to do with their concern about risk to children. Finally, the bishop agreed to close the St Peter’s youth club and to write new guidance on child protection, but he would not agree to suspend or withdraw Phil Aspinall’s licence as a minister at St Peter’s.

Neither side in the debate could now be sure who was right. When the youth club was closed, Aspinall’s supporters in the parish complained that he was the victim of rumour and over-reaction. However, his critics feared that the diocese had pulled its punch and that children might now continue to be at risk from a man whose dog-collar earned him a special trust in the community. It was several months later, in the summer of 1996, that Jimmy X’s elder sister took him to hospital with an injury.

A lot of people at St Peter’s were aware of Jimmy, not simply because Phil Aspinall had been spending so much time with him, but also because the boy’s family was a notorious source of grief in the community, a rat’s nest of sexual tensions in which the mother, the eldest sister and various of the sons had all complained of being raped by the father and other male members of the family. Now, Jimmy X, who was still only 14, had turned up at the hospital and started to complain that various men had made sexual overtures to him. One of those he named was the Rev Phil Aspinall. The police began an inquiry.

Among the small group of people who knew about this, there was now real concern. They pressed the Church to act. They argued that they were dealing with a man who had been the object of suspicion from three separate sources – from his former colleagues at Holy Trinity, from parishioners and some colleagues in Coventry East, and now from Jimmy X. This was a man who previously had been identified by the Church as someone who should not work with young people. But the Church said they would take no action, they would wait for the police to make their inquiries.

One of those who tried to persuade the Bishop of Coventry to act had no doubt that the Church were being weak. “If Aspinall were in social services and he were behaving inappropriately, there would be a case conference and he would be suspended. Even if there were no hard evidence of any misbehaviour, he would have to stop working with children. Aspinall’s behaviour was inappropriate. But the Church are rather far behind in their understanding of these issues and they are also very afraid of being sued.”

The police and social services were called to deal with Jimmy X, but the case rapidly disintegrated into chaos. The hospital had tried to divert him to a second hospital but, impatient and fearing some plot, Jimmy’s sister had stormed out, and no evidence had been collected of Jimmy’s injury. In his statements, the boy was unclear about all of the detail of his story. He had a criminal record, he would clearly perform badly in court and, as if to guarantee confusion, in the midst of the inquiry, Jimmy himself was accused of sexually abusing his disabled 12-year-old nephew. The police interviewed Aspinall, who denied any wrongdoing. Late in 1996, the Crown Prosecution Service ruled there was insufficient evidence to proceed. Aspinall remained in post. The Church took no further action. But the problem refused to go away.

A few weeks later, at the end of January 1997, the diocese yet again was informed about a boy who was involved in controversy with Phil Aspinall. Sam Y came from an actively Christian family. His mother sat on several parish committees and her children regularly attended churches in the city. It was she who had met Phil Aspinall several years earlier and who had suggested that her eldest son, Sam, who was then 14, might like to go to Phil’s youth club.

Sam’s family had thought it was odd, how much time Phil Aspinall spent with their son, how he took him swimming and bought him meals and drove him into Birmingham and bought him CDs. They thought it was odd how Sam always seemed to have money in his pocket and how he treated Phil Aspinall like dirt, ringing him up to order him to come round and pick him up, swearing at him. But they had not been worried until one morning in January when Sam, now aged 17, came home from school unexpectedly and started packing his bags.

His mother had tried to find out what he was doing, where he was going, how he would look after himself when, to her surprise, Phil Aspinall had turned up in his car and loaded Sam’s bags into the boot. She had pleaded with the priest. “Why are you doing this?” she had asked him. But he had given her no answer. That evening, Sam’s father had called Aspinall who had admitted that he had known for some time that Sam was planning to leave. He refused to tell where Sam was.

It was several months before Sam’s parents traced him, to a bedsit on the other side of Coventry, and when Sam finally sat down to talk to them, their anxiety rocketed. Red-faced and tearful, Sam told them that he hated Phil Aspinall, that he was disgusting. He started to tell them how one day he had been in Aspinall’s flat, using his computer, when Phil had told him he was popping out to the shops for a few minutes. And then Aspinall had added: “And when I get back, I want you in that bed.” Shaking, Sam refused to say any more.

The police once more investigated Phil Aspinall. They went to his home with a search warrant and in amongst the paraphernalia of his ministry, they found a collection of pornographic photographs. They arrested him and questioned him about his relationship with Sam Y. He admitted suggesting that Sam should get into his bed, but he said it was a joke and he insisted that he had done nothing wrong.

Alerted to the arrest, the Bishop of Coventry returned to the city early from a trip. What action would he take? Would he withdraw Aspinall’s licence? Would he at least suspend him? Would he at the very least say something to warn the families whom Aspinall had been dealing with? The answer was No. Rev David Berryman was told to tell the congregation that Aspinall was absent through pressure of work; the church once again waited for the police; and when the police once again reported that there was insufficient evidence to justify criminal proceedings, Aspinall himself was allowed to set the pace.

He volunteered to break his link with St Peter’s and to go elsewhere – just as he had done years earlier when he left Holy Trinity. The Bishop accepted his offer. And that was all. Phil Aspinall remains a priest, entitled to preach and run youth clubs, to wear his dog collar and to enjoy the trust which it inspires. Somewhere else.

Sam Y’s father was enraged. He wrote to the Bishop of Coventry to tell him that his children would go to none of the churches in east Coventry while Phil Aspinall remained a minister. When he failed to get action, he wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s head of staff, Bishop Frank Sargeant, at Lambeth Palace. The bishop replied that he had spoken to his opposite number in Coventry: “From what he has told me, I am entirely satisfied that all appropriate action has been taken.”

Sam’s father threatened to camp outside the Bishop of Coventry’s home with the local press unless the bishop agreed to meet him. When finally they met, the new suffragen Bishop Anthony, insisted that there was no evidence that Aspinall had done wrong. Since Aspinall had now left St Peter’s, he added, he was no longer their problem.

Sam’s father was furious: “Just because the bishop turns round and says this man is not working in the diocese any more, doesn’t mean it won’t happen again. This has really shaken my faith in the Church of England. We have lost Sam now, we haven’t seen our son since April. He might be just another kid on the street to the bishop but he is very precious to us. It makes us feel that nobody cares what happens to our kids. It makes us feel that a vicar can get away with anything. I think they are very afraid that the church is going to be seen in the light they deserve over this issue. They are sweeping it under the carpet.”

Some of those who were involved with Phil Aspinall remain deeply uneasy about the church’s handling of the affair. One member of the church asked: “Why were we behaving in this way? Haven’t we learned anything from the troubles in the Roman Catholic Church? Why has protection of the church’s reputation been a motive for the hierarchy by and large not to grasp the nettle that they ought to? Certainly, the main motivation in this case was to keep things as calm as possible.”

In an outspoken letter to the Times in January, Monsignor J. Joyce of the Portsmouth Diocese Child Protection Team complained that the Catholic church had still not dealt with its problem. “There are still bishops who say that victims are lying when they accuse priests, whatever the truth of the matter, and bishops who are so protective of those so accused that the needs of the victims are pushed to one side.”

Last week, senior sources in the Anglican Church confirmed two aspects of what had happened: that Aspinall’s behaviour had been ‘inappropriate’; and yet that they had no formal mechanism for relaying a warning about a suspect priest from one diocese to another. The Rev Aspinall declined to talk to the Guardian.

* The names of Jimmy X and Sam Y are false to protect the privacy of the two boys.