Peter Ball, the former bishop of Lewes and Gloucester, has been jailed for 32 months after he admitted using religion as a "cloak" to abuse 18 young men over three decades.

The 83-year-old pleaded guilty to indecently assaulting two people in their late teens between 1980 and 1983 and between 1990 and 1991 as well as misconduct in public office by misusing his position in authority to "manipulate and prevail upon others for his own sexual gratification" in relation to 16 men between 1977 and 1992.

Ball pleaded not guilty to two counts of indecent assault against two teenage boys in the early 1970s and 1980s. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decided to keep these charges on file, meaning he will never face trial over the allegations.

His sentence arrived amid claims he was protected from prosecution more than 20 years ago by the establishment for abusing a man who later went on to commit suicide.

Claims of Ball's offences first surfaced in 1993, when he was cautioned but not charged by police for an indecent assault despite the CPS saying at the time there was "sufficient admissible, substantial and reliable evidence" of indecent assault and gross indecency.

Support for Ball from MPs and royal family

The Old Bailey heard how, following his arrest, police received calls of support for Ball from "MPs, former public school headmasters and even a Lord Chief Justice". Bobbie Cheema QC, prosecuting, added members of the royal family also sent letters of support for Ball. During the trial, the court heard how one police officer was alleged to have told Ball "bishop, this is all over" following confirmation he would not face further prosecution over the assault.

However, she added: "I should make it clear that it is impossible to say whether those letters were encouraged and it is unlikely that those who wrote were in possession of the full facts."

The man Ball was later found to have assaulted, Neil Todd, killed himself in 2012 after the police reopened the investigation into his offending. Ball resigned from his position as bishop of Lewes and Gloucester in the wake of the scandal but continued to officiate in churches until 2010, despite several complaints being made against him.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, ordered an independent review into allegations the Church of England covered up the abuse by Bell and if the church adequately "assessed the possible risk that Bishop Ball might pose to others" and how they assess the claims from alleged victims.

Detective Chief Inspector Carwyn Hughes of Sussex Police said: "It became clear that under the guise of his status as a bishop, Ball had systematically abused the trust of the victims, many of whom who were aspiring priests, while others were simply seeking to explore their spirituality.

"He abused that trust and used religion, through his 'Give a Year for Christ' scheme, as a cloak behind which to carry out his grooming activity, the principal aim of which was to satisfy his sexual interest in and desire for young men.

"The outcome of our investigation and scale of the systematic offending that the investigation uncovered demonstrates the importance that we give to allegations of this nature, and reinforces our message that anyone who wishes to report sexual offending will be taken seriously by us and all allegations will be investigated, however long ago the offending is said to have occurred."

Church apology

A Church of England spokesperson said: "We apologise unreservedly to those survivors of Peter Ball's abuse and pay tribute to their bravery in coming forward and also the long wait for justice that they have endured.

"We note that there are those whose cases remain on file for whom today will be a difficult day, not least in the light of the courage and persistence that they have demonstrated in pressing for the truth to be revealed. We also remember Neil Todd, whose bravery in 1992 enabled others to come forward but who took his own life before Peter Ball's conviction or sentencing.

"As the police have noted, Peter Ball systematically abused the trust of the victims, many of whom who were aspiring priests, while others were simply seeking to explore their spirituality. He also abused the trust placed in him by the Church and others, maintaining a campaign of innocence for decades until his final guilty plea only weeks ago. Since that plea was made processes in the Church have begun to initiate formal internal disciplinary procedures against Peter Ball."