The Church of England was on Tuesday criticised in a damning report for protecting predatory priests rather than young victims of sexual abuse.

The publication of the government-commissioned Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) detailed the way in which a blind eye was turned to rapists and abusers within the church, and prompted apologies from its two most senior clerics.

"The church's neglect of the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of children and young people in favour of protecting its reputation was in conflict with its mission of love and care for the innocent and the vulnerable," the report said.

The IICSA, which is examining institutions across Britain, blamed a decades-long culture of secrecy and silence that exacerbated victims' suffering.

Church culture "facilitated it becoming a place where abusers could hide," it said.

Some 390 offenders associated with the Church of England were convicted from the 1940s until 2018.

The main insurer of the church has managed 217 claims relating to child sexual abuse between 2003 and 2018.

Its most senior cleric, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, and his de facto deputy, Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell, apologised before the report's release.

"We are truly sorry for the shameful way the church has acted and we state our commitment to listen, to learn and to act in response to the report's findings," they said.

"We cannot and will not make excuses and can again offer our sincere and heartfelt apologies to those who have been abused, and to their families, friends and colleagues."

But the IICSA called on church leaders to enact "lasting change" rather than responding with "platitudes."

It made eight recommendations, covering topics such as clergy discipline, information-sharing and support for victims and survivors.

Welby has vowed more concrete action once the report has been studied.
Welby has vowed more concrete action once the report has been studied. Lambeth Palace / Caroline Welby

The report pointed to entrenched problems, including "deference to authority, taboos surrounding discussion of sexuality and an environment where alleged perpetrators were treated more supportively than victims".

"Another aspect of the church's culture was clericalism, which meant that the moral authority of clergy was widely perceived as beyond reproach."

It highlighted the example of Peter Ball, who in 2015 was jailed for abusing 17 teenagers and young men while a bishop in southeast and western England.

"In that instance, Lord George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, simply could not believe the allegations against Ball or acknowledge the seriousness of them regardless of evidence, and was outspoken in his support of his bishop," the report stated.

"He seemingly wanted the whole business to go away."

Ball was arrested and cautioned by police in 1992 for gross indecency but the church allowed him to return to work.

Other cases studied by the panel included Timothy Storey, who used his role as a church youth leader to groom teenage girls and is now serving 15 years in prison for several offences against children, including rape.

He had admitted sexual activity with a teenager to diocesan staff years before his conviction.

The Church of England acknowledged that apologies were not enough for survivors and vowed to "learn lessons" from the findings, including by tightening up safeguarding procedures.

"While there has been some improvement in recent years, we wholeheartedly regret that in some areas, most importantly support for victims and survivors, progress has been too slow," it added.

The church promised a fuller response once it had studied the recommendations.