Times 27/7/18 : Peter Ball: the sinful bishop and a very English cover-up
Peter Ball escaped justice for decades, at a terrible cost to his young victims, thanks to his many establishment friends, argues Sean O’Neill
The tale of the paedophile bishop and the heir to the throne — private prayer sessions, gifts of money and a 20-year correspondence — is the stuff of a conspiracy theorist’s dream. Except that the story of Peter Ball and the Prince of Wales is not a theory. It is a key element in a real, modern-day account of how powerful people in Britain formed a protective shield around a predatory sex offender.
This Very English Scandal is not yet the stuff of a TV drama like the recent dramatisation of the Jeremy Thorpe affair. It is too raw, too real and too recent — a scandal that involves not just the prince but also an archbishop, a senior judge, government ministers and MPs, public school headmasters and the country’s top prosecutors and policemen.
They did what they did because he was one of their own. He was educated, articulate, plausible and his word was taken at face value while the young men who said he abused them were condemned as “mischief-makers”.
Despite strong evidence and a police desire to put him on trial for serious offences in 1993, some of his influential friends helped Ball to escape with a caution in return for resigning his ministry. Those friends then spent two decades rehabilitating him in the Church of England and the upper echelons of society before justice finally caught up with him and he was jailed in 2015.
A handful of key players have appeared this week at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. We have seen the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey of Clifton — a man who wrote a few months after Ball admitted guilt that he believed the bishop to be “basically innocent” — stumbling through hours of public questioning.
Also giving evidence was Wayne Murdock, the police detective who investigated Ball in 1992, recalling how the “hot potato” case drew letters and phone calls from bishops, MPs and even a senior appeal court judge.
Much attention has focused on Ball’s relationship with the Prince of Wales, who fought to avoid providing evidence. He hired the law firm Harbottle & Lewis to argue that demands from the public inquiry for “intensely private and confidential material” were a breach of his human rights. In the end, Clarence House insists, the prince gave his evidence voluntarily. His written submission is just seven pages long but remarkable details have emerged about his closeness to the disgraced bishop.
Ball had what was described as a “ministry with the Prince of Wales” and gave him “spiritual counselling”. In return, the prince provided Ball with “small gifts of money” and a sympathetic ear. The Duchy of Cornwall provided a newly purchased house in a Somerset village. Above all, his connection to the prince — which Ball made sure everyone knew about — gave him royal approval for a return to society after his police caution.
Ball relished his royal connections. He preached at the funeral of Bruce Shand, the Duchess of Cornwall’s father, in 2006 and was reported to be a guest at the duchess’s wedding to the prince in 2005. One document suggests he was invited to the Highgrove Millennium Eve party. He also claimed to be a friend of the Duchess of York.
In 1998, Ball wrote to Lord Carey boasting of the number of invitations to preach he was receiving: “I have spoken to 400 voluntary workers in Eastbourne with the lord lieutenant . . . I am shortly to preach to the Grenadier Guards in their chapel; preach at Wellington College, confirm at Radley College and next year preach at Dartmouth to what looks like a full turnout of the royal family.”
Only snippets of his correspondence with the prince have been made public. They are full of self-pity from Ball and lavish support from the prince. In February 1995 Charles wrote to Ball: “I wish I could do more. I feel so desperately strongly about the monstrous wrongs that have been done to you and the way you have been treated.” In 1997 he referred to a “frightful and terrifying man” and added: “I’ll see off this horrid man if he tries anything again.” The prince now says he cannot recall who he was referring to, but Ball had repeatedly claimed that his “accusers” were persecuting him.
The prince admits that his relationship with Ball only ended when the bishop, who cannot be stripped of his title under church rules, was convicted and jailed at the Old Bailey in 2015 for the sexual assault and exploitation of 13 young men. Charges relating to two boys aged under 16 were left on file.
The prince has expressed “deep personal regret” that he was “misled” by Ball. He maintains that he was “not aware until recently that a caution in fact carries an acceptance of guilt”.
That excuse has upset many of Ball’s victims. The Bishop of Gloucester’s resignation after being cautioned in 1993 was a national news story and can hardly have escaped royal attention. The Times reported on its front page that Ball had quit after a formal caution, “a legal step that is taken only after a clear admission of guilt”.
Richard Scorer, solicitor for five of the bishop’s victims, thinks the prince has been afflicted by “wilful blindness”, while William Chapman, counsel for another group of victims, says: “Prince Charles has many advisers — he only had to ask what a caution meant.”
The prince was not alone. The bishop cultivated friends in high places and drew on their support when he was threatened.
As they considered the case against Ball in the early 1990s, Albert Pacey, chief constable of Gloucestershire, and Dame Barbara Mills, the director of public prosecutions, received 24 letters from people in public life expressing support or sympathy for Ball. One letter to Dame Barbara came from Tim Renton, the former Conservative chief whip, who urged that “criminal action” should not be taken against a “man of immense kindness, charity and humour dedicated to serving God in the community”. Renton and his wife, according to inquiry evidence, “decided to write on House of Commons headed notepaper about Peter Ball, precisely so that they would get a more elevated and serious response”. CPS policy was that letters from MPs “had to be responded to at a senior level and required internal investigation and briefing at this stage from the DPP”.
Matthew Parris noted this week that “it’s friendship not money that most corrupts British politics”. The same is true of the corruption of public life and, in this case, the thwarting of the proper process of criminal justice.
Ball’s “helpers”, Mr Chapman argues, assumed “that as members of the establishment they are entitled, even duty bound, to weigh in on behalf of their establishment friends accused of serious crimes, even when they are not sure of what’s been alleged”.
Ball was always an odd member of that establishment. Born in 1932, he was educated at Lancing College and Cambridge University, and became a priest in 1957. His identical twin, Michael, also entered ecclesiastical life and became Bishop of Truro.
The brothers seemed, however, to have stepped outside the establishment ranks when they set up their monastic order, the Community of the Glorious Ascension, in 1960. Arguing that the Church of England had “gone soft”, they practised an austere form of worship. The order and its bizarre ceremonies became the cover for Peter Ball’s sexual offending through naked prayer and flagellation, which he falsely claimed were in the tradition of St Francis of Assisi.
Although he professed to live in near poverty, Ball loved the high life. Household bills during his short period as Bishop of Gloucester from 1992 until his resignation in 1993 were astronomical. Staff at Bishopscourt, his official residence in Gloucester, said that after he arrived “household expenditure on food and alcohol increased significantly and the house was expensively decorated and furnished”.
Ball had important friends and liked to entertain them. As suffragan Bishop of Lewes, he had made contacts in the Conservative Party. Mrs Thatcher was impressed by him and he was invited to No 10. When the see of Gloucester became vacant, the Downing Street appointments secretary Sir Robin Catford, a friend of Ball, ensured that he was picked.
He told John Major, then the prime minister, that Ball had been a squash blue at Cambridge and possessed “a quite extraordinary sparkling personality, impish humour and an unrivalled ability to communicate”. He was also “terribly good fun”.
Ball’s new post allowed him to enlist his most powerful friend when his enthronement at Gloucester Cathedral was attended by the Prince of Wales. He became a frequent visitor to Charles’s home at Highgrove where he administered Communion, prayed with the prince and advised him. Charles is adamant, and previous inquiries have concluded, that he did not interfere with the legal process or in Ball’s campaign to have his ministry restored after accepting a police caution in 1993. He has, however, conceded that he discussed Ball with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Lord Carey, the prince recalls, “was supportive of Peter Ball and thought him a good man and priest”.
Even before Ball was arrested in 1992, Lord Carey had telephoned Sir Peter Imbert, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, to ask what was going on. After Ball’s arrest, six people wrote to the archbishop with further allegations against him, some detailing abusive conduct. None of the letters was passed to detectives and Lord Carey called for prayers that the investigation “will clear [Ball’s] name”.
After Ball’s resignation in 1993, the church offered nothing to his victims but gave him thousands of pounds from the archbishop’s discretionary fund. Within two years he had been given permission to conduct services again. By 1997 Lord Carey, who had Ball to stay as a house guest at Lambeth Palace, had given him permission to carry out bishop’s duties again. Ball also asked for and got the archbishop’s blessing to conduct confirmation services at public schools. Ball said the pastoral support of the archbishop was “the light that sustained me at times”.
Well-placed friends rallied round to campaign for Ball’s return to the senior ranks of the church. There was even talk of a legal challenge to his caution, despite the fact he had admitted being guilty of a criminal offence. Prominent in the campaign was Anthony Lloyd, by now Lord Lloyd of Berwick, a law lord. Lloyd was perhaps Ball’s most cavalier supporter. Despite being an appeal court judge at the time of the 1990s investigation, he intervened in a criminal case by writing to the chief constable of Gloucestershire and the DPP. He told them Ball was “the most gentle upright and saintly man” who now found himself in an “appalling situation”. He also telephoned the lead detective on the case, musing in his “very posh” voice: “I know the DPP, I would like to influence her but I won’t.” The policeman made a note of the words in is diary.
Lloyd was one of what a Lambeth Palace aide described as a “powerful group of friends . . . coming to Peter’s aid”. He was still fighting Ball’s corner in 2013 when the bishop was under investigation by Sussex police. Lloyd, who denies any impropriety, wrote three letters to the Sussex chief constable demanding to know why his friend had been “manhandled”, why there was any need for an investigation and why the case was taking so long.
Sussex police said Prince Charles’s office was also in contact with them in 2013, wanting to know if they had seized from Ball any “material that may be embarrassing to Prince Charles or the monarchy in general”. The police responded that nothing to embarrass the prince had been found.
Lord Carey, too, was still in the Ball camp. He gave a witness statement for Ball’s defence rather than accept the invitation to be a prosecution witness. A police officer noted after a meeting with Lord Carey that he “feels PB has been punished enough”.
The judge, the prince and the archbishop maintained their contact and belief in Peter Ball until he finally admitted his multiple offences in 2015. He exerted a hold over these powerful people and exploited their influence — spoken and unspoken — to deny his victims justice for decades.
Thirty-two men have now complained of abuse by Ball — the true number is thought to be much higher. The first complainant, Neil Todd, who was 17 when Ball targeted him in 1992, left Britain to try to escape the trauma and rebuild his life in Australia. When the Ball case was reopened in 2012, and he was contacted by police and the media, the trauma returned and he took his own life. Mr Todd and his family had first come forward in 1992 fearing that there would be a cover-up. Their fears proved to be well founded. Ball, for his part, was released on licence in February last year after 17 months in prison. Now 86, he lives in Somerset with his twin brother Michael.
The notion of the establishment cover-up has been discredited in recent years in the aftermath of Scotland Yard’s botched handling of lurid and unfounded allegations of child abuse and murder against Lord Bramall, Harvey Proctor and the late Lord Brittan of Spennithorne. The Peter Ball affair is a reminder that, sometimes, extraordinary stories can also be true ones.
Sean O’Neill is chief reporter