Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, yesterday promised that independent reviews would be set up in every diocese to investigate outstanding allegations of child abuse against clergy and other church workers.
Dr Williams also apologised for the Church of England's past mishandling of accusations of child abuse in the wake of the imprisonment of a clergyman and a former choir master.
The Rt Rev Nigel McCulloch, Bishop of Manchester, has already asked an independent lawyer to review 850 files on complaints against clergy in his diocese alone. The church is reviewing its codes of conduct guidelines for the third time since they were introduced in 1995.
Dr Williams, who has a school-age son, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the allegations of victims made painful listening: "It is a record of the church letting people down in various ways over a long period and some of the weaknesses identified - well, worse than weaknesses, the real errors identified - from the early 90s for example are exactly the kind of things that prompted the drawing up of [our] current guidelines, issued in 1995.
"I fully acknowledge that errors were made in the period that is being discussed; certainly before 1995 practice was very variable, very uneven and often not very competent or well informed about the law or best practice."
The church's response has uncomfortable echoes of the convulsions that have rocked the Roman Catholic church and forced it to make enormous payouts in compensation to past victims in countries from the US to Australia, following revelations of a worldwide culture of cover-up and the moving of priests when complaints were made against them in the past.
Other religious denominations, including the Jehovah's Witnesses, have also also been charged with ignoring complaints or even victimising the young complainants.
The archbishop's appearance followed accusations of complacency against previous speakers put up by the church to defend its policies.
Two recent cases have highlighted inadequacies. The Rev David Smith was jailed for five and a half years this month for grooming and molesting six vulnerable youngsters over a period of nearly 30 years, having been allowed to continue in ministry despite concerns being raised about his behaviour in 1983 and 2001 - the latter some time after the church's guidelines were introduced.
Last month similar claims of a cover-up were made after Peter Halliday, a former choir master, was jailed for two and a half years.
Dr Williams said: "What we need to do quite clearly ... is to take advice from the church's central safeguarding liaison group on how we should best conduct a review. We don't just want to look good, we want to do it properly and so we need to have the best professional advice on how we might review these historic cases."
The church has similar guidelines in place to the Catholic church in England and Wales which instituted its own review six years ago.
Catalogue Of Shame
The choirmaster was jailed for two-and-a-half years last month for abusing three boys at St Peter's church in Farnborough between 1985 and 1990. In 1990 he admitted to the church he had abused one boy; he was forced to leave his job but the police were not told.
Last month the vicar of St John the Evangelist church in Clevedon, Somerset, was jailed for five-and-a-half years on 12 counts of indecently assaulting boys over 30 years. Church of England officials were twice alerted but no action was taken.
The Church of England priest was jailed for eight years in November 2004 after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a choirboy at All Saints' Church in Exmouth. In 1999 he received a two-year suspended sentence for abusing boys in the 1970s.
In July 2003 the vicar was jailed for five years on seven counts of assault against two girls in the early 1980s. Some of the abuse took place in the vestry of his church in Castle Donington, Leicestershire.
In 2000 he was convicted of performing a sex act on a boy at his Derbyshire vicarage and jailed for six months.
He was jailed for three-and-a-half years in 1996 for abusing seven boys when he was a priest in Portsmouth between 1975 and 1985. There were complaints in 1985 but nothing happened for 10 years until one victim went to police.
No responsibility or liability shall attach itself to either myself or to the blogspot ‘Clerical Whispers’ for any or all of the articles placed here.
The placing of an article hereupon does not necessarily imply that I agree or accept the contents of the article as being necessarily factual in theology, dogma or otherwise.