Child abuse has gone unchecked in the Church of England for decades amid a cover up by bishops, secret papers have revealed.
Information that could have prevented abuse has been "lost or damaged", concerns about individuals have been ignored and allegations have not been recorded. It means that the Church has no idea how many paedophiles are in its midst.
Lawyers warned last night that the Church faces a crisis as catastrophic as the one that engulfed the Roman Catholic Church and cost it millions of pounds in damages.
Richard Scorer, a solicitor who has specialised in child abuse cases, said that the Church of England's mistakes amounted to "an appalling, shocking level of negligence" that is likely to leave it open to claims from victims who have been too afraid to speak out in the past. The Church is to launch an urgent investigation on an unprecedented scale.
It will look at the records of thousands of clergy – including those who have retired – church employees, lay workers and volunteers dating back decades in an attempt to expose those who have previously escaped prosecution and identify those who pose "current risks".
Dioceses will appoint independent reviewers with access to all of their personnel files. These are due to be examined over an 18-month period.
However, the internal Church documents – leaked to The Sunday Telegraph – show that even if churchwardens, who are lay officials, are found to have previous allegations against them, the Church has no power to suspend them.Bishops have called for the review following two high-profile cases last spring. One of the documents, compiled by the Church's Central Safeguarding Liaison Group, concedes that "most serious concerns will have been known by the senior staff at the time".
The Church has been guilty of systemic failures on a large scale, according to the document. "Some records may have been lost or damaged," it says, adding that warnings from psychologists might also have been ignored.
The liaison group was asked to draw up a review policy by the House of Bishops, which discussed the plans at its meeting earlier this month.
Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was at the meeting, has backed the need for a comprehensive review following the two child abuse cases.
"Every parish has got to have a child protection policy and it needs to work properly," he said.
The liaison group is chaired by the Rt Rev Anthony Priddis, the Bishop of Hereford, and includes the Rev Pearl Luxon, the Church's child protection adviser, as well as other clergy with experience in legal, social and probation work.
The bishops agree that "there may well be gaps in the Church's collective memory" that have allowed sex offenders to go unpunished. A confidential letter to be sent out as part of the review, says: "What has emerged is that had proper risk assessments been carried out in the light of concerns that may first have come to light about particular individuals many years ago, subsequent instances of child abuse might possibly have been prevented…
"It is clear that some incidents were dealt with in a way that meant that the ongoing risk posed by the individual was not fully assessed and contained."
The review has been welcomed by one victim. He said he had confided in a bishop – now retired – that he had been abused by a serving vicar, but that no action had been taken against the vicar.
"The Church has persuaded people in the past that they don't have to take it further," he said. "There has been a long-standing tendency to just sweep things under the carpet and cover things up and just move priests on."
While the Catholic Church has been hit by dozens of sex abuse cases, the Church of England had been relatively unaffected until spring this year. But in May, the Rev David Smith, 52, of Clevedon, Somerset, was jailed for 5½ years for sexually abusing six boys over a 30-year period.
Concerns had been raised about him in 1983, and again in 2001. The complainants were assured that the matter had been "dealt with".
In April, Peter Halliday, 61, a choirmaster from Farnborough, Hampshire, was jailed for 30 months after admitting abusing boys in his church choir in the 1980s.
It emerged that leading clerics had been told of his behaviour 17 years earlier, but he had been allowed to leave the Church quietly.
A spokesman for the Church said: "We would hope that in the majority of cases things have been dealt with, but we are realistic enough to admit that mistakes have been made and there may still be some risk attached to those cases." Telegraph U.K.