Solicitor agrees to leave roll over advice to disgraced bishop


Gloucester Cathedral: Solicitor acted for diocese and bishop

A solicitor who acted in a conflict of interest when advising a then bishop over allegations of sexual misconduct was “partly” to blame for the Church of England not taking stronger action against him, the Solicitors Regulation Authority said yesterday.

Peter Ball went on to commit further offences before finally being jailed in disgrace.

Christopher George Peak has agreed with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to remove himself from the roll of solicitors and never reapply – or seek to work in any capacity for a law firm without the SRA’s permission.

The SRA said it would have referred Mr Peak to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, but as he was now retired, this was a proportionate outcome. The National Secular Society said it lodged the complaint against him.

According to a regulatory settlement agreement, Mr Peak acted as the registrar, or legal adviser, to the Diocese of Gloucester between 1985 and 2012. This is a public office in which he had a solicitor-client relationship with both the Bishop of Gloucester and the diocese, as he would also advise other members of the clergy.

In December 1992, Mr Ball, the then bishop, was arrested and charged with allegations of sexual abuse following a complaint from a member of his congregation. Mr Peak agreed to act for Mr Ball in a personal capacity, which the SRA said put the solicitor in conflict with his duties towards the diocese.

The agreement said: “If the allegations against Mr Ball were true, then he presented a real risk to the congregation and it was in the diocese’s best interests for him to be removed from the Church altogether, whereas it was in Mr Ball’s best interests to receive as lenient an outcome as possible and return to his ministry…

“Mr Peak accepts that he explained the definition of the offences of indecent assault and gross indecency to Mr Ball when he advised him and that Mr Ball confirmed that he had committed those offences.”

In February 1993, Mr Peak wrote to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), encouraging it to issue Mr Ball with a caution. He said Mr Ball had signed a deed in escrow confirming that he would resign as bishop and assured the CPS that this would be put into effect if he was cautioned.

Mr Ball was duly cautioned and resigned the same day. But the Church took no disciplinary action against him and did not add him to its list of clergy about whom there were concerns, the effect of which would have been to curtail his future ministry within the Church.

The SRA recounted that, as a result of campaigning by Mr Ball and his brother, Mr Ball was gradually allowed to carry out services within the Church in his capacity as a retired bishop. This included working with children and young men.

“In 2012, the Archbishop of Canterbury decided to recall all the information about Mr Ball to Lambeth Palace so that it could be reviewed centrally. As a result of the review, some reports were located which had referred to Mr Ball’s abuse of boys and young men.”

These were referred to Sussex Police, which opened an investigation. When the police informed the original complainant that they were looking at the matter again, he committed suicide.

Mr Ball was arrested in November 2012 but subsequently de-arrested over concerns about his age and health. The resulting publicity caused a number of other victims to come forward.

The SRA said Mr Ball used various legal challenges to delay his trial until late 2015, when he admitted to two indecent assaults and a charge of misconduct in public office. He was sentenced to 32 months in prison. Mr Ball was released on license in February 2017 and died in June 2019.

In mitigation, Mr Peak said there was no evidence that he deliberately broke the rules and there had been no other reports or complaints about his conduct during his career. Further, he had now retired and so the risk of repeat misconduct was low.

The SRA said removal from the role was an appropriate sanction. “Although Mr Ball had resigned as bishop, he was gradually allowed an increasingly prominent role in the Church, which eventually included school visits.

“It appears that there was at least one further victim after Mr Ball was cautioned, which indicates that he still presented a risk to parishioners.

“The victims who had complained to the church or police before the caution had to wait years to see any real justice, which will have caused significant emotional distress.”

The Church’s failure to take effective action against Mr Ball was “partly attributable to Mr Peak’s inability to advise them to do so because of his conflict of interests”.

Two independent reviews have investigated why Mr Ball was not convicted sooner. Both “discuss Mr Peak’s involvement in some detail”, including the role he played in pressing the CPS for a caution and his conflicting duties.

“This will have had a significant detrimental impact on the standing of the profession,” the SRA said – Mr Peak “wilfully or recklessly disregarded the risk of harm and his regulatory obligations when agreeing to act in a conflict (or alternatively failing to properly consider the risk of a conflict arising)”.

Mr Peak will also pay the SRA’s costs of £1,350.

One of the reviews was the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. This used Peter Ball as a case study to investigate how he was able to offend so widely and for so long.

It recounted that Mr Peak “accepts the possibility of a conflict of interest but maintains this did not colour his advice to Peter Ball. Furthermore, Peter Ball had access to a solicitor within Mr Peak’s firm without links to the diocese to secure impartiality, and also instructed an experienced senior barrister who had criminal expertise”.

It continued: “Mr Peak maintained that the caution and resignation were in the best interests of both Peter Ball and the Diocese of Gloucester.”

Photo by user:geni, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81790907




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