Cliff James decided to speak out after his friend Neil Todd committed suicide. In 2012 Sussex police had reopened a historic investigation into Peter Ball, the former Bishop of Lewes and of Gloucester and the most senior Church of England figure to face claims of child abuse. Todd, who like James had been abused by Ball as a teenager in the early 1990s, killed himself shortly after Ball was arrested.
“He never had closure,” says James, speaking publicly for the first time. “He never got over it. And he might have if only the church had investigated things properly at the time and not tried to cover everything up.”
Last week 83-year-old Ball changed his plea at the last minute and admitted to offences against 18 teenagers and young men between 1977 and 1992. Under a deal struck with prosecutors to avoid a trial, he will not face charges for the two most serious counts against two boys aged 12 or 13 and 15.
The extent to which the Church of England attempted to protect itself from scrutiny and scandal over the case can now be reported. It has emerged that when Todd first told police about the abuse in 1993, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, sought assurances from the Crown Prosecution Service that Ball would escape with a caution.
“That was unforgivable. Carey should be ashamed,” says James. The late Bishop of Chichester, Eric Kemp, reportedly told Ball to “stop inviting young men” to his house. But when Kemp wrote his memoirs, he described the boys who spoke out about their abuse as “mischief-makers”.
“Like Carey, Kemp’s job as a Christian was to protect the vulnerable,” says James.
“But they only wanted to protect powerful people in the church.”
James was 17 in 1991 when he learnt of an unofficial “youth scheme” developed by Ball, a close friend of the Prince of Wales. The “bishop’s young men” spent a year living with the cleric, doing chores and quasi-monastic work in his opulent house in East Sussex.
“I thought if I became a monk then nobody would ask me when I was going to get married,” says James, who knew he was gay but was too ashamed to act on his feelings. His father attended National Front marches, sometimes taking his son with him.
Ball’s scheme seemed the perfect way out. The bishop, who enjoyed wearing a medieval monastic habit, had taken vows of poverty, obedience and chastity. James says he lived by none of them: “Ball was an abuser and hypocrite.”
James could not have known that the bishop had engineered his programme to molest dozens of young people. He says he had concerns as early as the first interview, when Ball told him that he would have to have cold showers every morning, supervised by the bishop. “He wouldn’t give way on that,” says James. “I’d never been naked in front of another person and it really scared me.”
But Ball promised him that he might one day become a saint if he did as he was told. The showers duly took place and gradually, says James, the “mind games and manipulation” increased, leading to beatings, always under the guise of religion, and increasingly sexual demands.
“He told me that Christ was humiliated in the Garden of Gethsemane and that entering into the same suffering would bring me closer to God,” says James.
“I would offer to kneel and pray naked in thorns and nettles instead of doing anything sexual with the bishop, but it was never enough. He had a terrible power over all of us.”
After months of abuse James confronted Ball: “He physically recoiled from me: I think he was terrified I might speak to someone. He said he was worried about it all getting into the papers and he kept saying that everything had been consensual.”
Ball promised he would never behave like that again. But shortly after James left the scheme, Todd joined it. “He suffered even worse before he went to the police,” says James.
The disgraced Ball went to live in a large house in Somerset lent to him by Prince Charles. He continued working in the church until 2010 and read the homily at the funeral of the father of Camilla Parker Bowles in 2006.
In the aftermath of his ordeal James abandoned religion and later worked for the British Humanist Association. Surprisingly, he does not want to see Ball imprisoned at the sentencing next month.
“What would it achieve?” he asks. “He’s a frail old man. No one is entirely bad or good: he just had a screwed-up sexuality that was enmeshed in religion. I’m moving forwards now — I just regret that Neil will never have that chance.”