The Church of England prioritised its reputation over the safety of children, born from an “arrogance which equates the church with God”, the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse has heard.

Speaking on the first day of three weeks of hearings into the C of E’s handling of abuse cases stretching back decades, the specialist abuse lawyer Richard Scorer said survivors had faced years of institutional cover-up and denial.

The C of E could not be trusted to put its own house in order, said Scorer. “As the established church, [it] claims to offer moral guidance and moral leadership to the country. Yet clerical sex abuse cases and the scandals associated with them powerfully undermine that claim.”

Scorer, who represents 21 survivors, said: “It must be clear now that if you want to abuse children, there is no more effective way of terrifying and silencing your victims than to claim to have God on your side.

“If you combine that with an environment in which perpetrators are routinely forgiven, in which victims are disparaged and in which there is no clear legal obligation to report allegations of abuse to the statutory authorities, then you have the perfect honeypot for attracting more abusers and indeed the perfect environment in which they can flourish.”

Survivors need the inquiry to “to step in and do what only you can do, which is to make the church properly accountable externally for these appalling scandals”.

An independent body should be set up to investigate allegations of abuse and was capable of overriding bishops “unwilling to comply with their responsibilities”, said Scorer. Mandatory reporting of disclosures of abuse should be introduced, he added. “The C of E cannot be allowed to carry on marking its own homework.”

Earlier the inquiry heard that testimonies and witness statements over the next three weeks would focus on the diocese of Chichester as a case study.

Among those expected to give evidence are the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, his predecessor Rowan Williams and a clutch of senior bishops.

In her opening statement, Fiona Scolding QC, lead counsel to the inquiry, said Chichester had been “engulfed” in allegations in the first decade of this century. She listed 15 clergy in the diocese, including the former bishop of Lewes Peter Ball, who had been convicted of child sexual offences, adding that allegations had been made against a further 11.

“The church is the established church of England – the national church. It is a very important and powerful institution within our society. It provides spiritual sustenance for many and is seen as a leader in terms of not just religious questions, but related questions of social justice and ethics,” she said.

Scolding painted a picture of a church which failed to adopt effective protection for children and vulnerable adults until recently. Its national spending on safeguarding increased from £1.6m in 2011 to £5.1m last year.

On behalf of the Archbishops’ Council, an advisory body to the church’s spiritual heads, Nigel Giffin QC acknowledged that the C of E had failed in important respects. Quoting Welby’s witness statement to the inquiry, he said the archbishop found these failures “deeply shaming” and “a cause of horror and sadness”.

But, Giffin insisted, much had changed for the better although a good deal remained to be done.

Richard Smith QC, acting for Ball, who was jailed for 32 months in October 2015 for abusing 18 young men, said he was issuing a “public apology on his behalf to all of those who have been affected by his wrongdoing”.

The inquiry will hold a separate hearing into the church’s handling of Ball’s abuse in July.

At the start of Monday’s hearing, the inquiry’s chair, Alexis Jay, rebuked Welby for breaching confidentiality regarding his appearance at the inquiry after he told journalists at Lambeth Palace last month he would be cross-examined in person, giving the date.

Jay said: “The church has apologised for this breach of confidentiality. Whilst the panel is grateful for this apology, it is most disappointing that the confidential matters were shared by the archbishop, in breach of the undertaking.”

The hearings continue on Tuesday.

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