It has not been a good week for the Church of England. We were warned as much by our Lead Bishop for Safeguarding, Peter Hancock, when he led the safeguarding presentation to General Synod in February. Indeed, he predicted a rocky path for the next two years. Although he did not say so, we probably deserve it after years of institutional neglect and lethargy. This week is perhaps the start of the purging of complacency.
The opening of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) into the deficiencies of the Established Church will take the headlines, but other stories have also arisen. The poor handling of Fr Matt Ineson’s complaints against five bishops was featured in the BBC Inside Out programme, and the substance of it appeared on the BBC website. It was covered by Christian Today, and, as so often, His Grace offered a strong and incisive contribution.
Further stories are beginning to emerge which have not yet been published but will add to our institutional woes. I was talking to Chris, the victim of Bishop Peter Ball who was helped by the generosity of His Grace when the inflexibility of the church’s National Safeguarding Team (NST) obstructed his access to the post-abuse counselling which he desperately needed. Chris reports that he has started his counselling and has found it hugely beneficial already – thanks be to God. While telling his story to Radio Cornwall, he learned that the NST plans to outreach to survivors and discuss their concerns. Unsurprisingly, it appears that the majority of survivors will not be taking up that offer. Of 75 core participants at IICSA, I am told that 68 have already indicated that they want nothing more to do with the NST as currently constituted.
Perhaps two years ago things might have been different, but plainly that boat has already sailed and it is hard to blame the victims for their scepticism. They will not put their faith in those that have pastorally failed them so many times, for so long. Both of the lawyers representing victims at the Inquiry said so in plain terms. Richard Scorer explained that the NST has simply lost the confidence of survivors. He quoted another of Peter Ball’s victims, the Rev’d Graham Sawyer, who said:
“I forgive Bp Peter Ball from my heart and wish him no ill will whatsoever. I also have absolutely no doubt about the personal integrity and compassion of Bp Peter Hancock as lead bishop for safeguarding. That said, the cruel and inhuman treatment I have received from the National Safeguarding Team in Church House, and others in the Church of England hierarchy, makes what Peter Ball did to me pale into insignificance. We cannot move forward as a church with truth, reconciliation and peace until the National Safeguarding Team has been abolished.”
Those who have not experienced the church’s response as a victim might initially be shocked by such sentiments, yet you do not have to spend much time talking to victims before you might understand that this is a wholly understandable view.
There may be much that the NST has done which was necessary, complex and competent. We need to acknowledge that, but will always have to return to the victim perspective as the final voice of judgement on the status quo. If you end up re-abusing victims, you have forfeited the right to be considered fit for purpose.
Nevertheless, let us record that from an extraordinary low starting point, the Church of England needed to put in place a lot of core policy which has been drafted and established over the past five years. This is in an institution which has only had a National Safeguarding Team since 2014, the structure of which was described to IICSA as ‘Byzantine’ in its multi-layered and diverse complexity. Some criticism of the policy is well-founded: it was was probably reactive to the crisis of absence it inherited; some think it overly difficult to implement in practice, and others say it is probably misdirected because of insufficiency of expertise.
The training and establishment of vetting through the DBS processes by the NST has been essential, as was the initiating of safeguarding auditing of every diocese. We might cavil at the lack of victim engagement in the process, but it is nevertheless a step forward. Nor must we overlook the colossal work needed to have coordinated the material to be placed before IICSA, and inquiries like that into the Bishop Bell failures: Lord Carlie paid tribute to the co-operation he received. The last five years have seen much work and progress in getting a complex organisation up-to-speed and into the modern world on these issues.
Yet if all is not exactly “rotten in the state of Denmark”, one of its core functions is plainly being done very badly indeed. What else is one supposed to conclude when victims are more outraged by the actions of the NST than they are by the violations of their original abusers? How bad does the NST have to be in this area of its work before the wider church cries ‘enough’?
Previously the reality would have been that the church would have held all the cards in the unequal battle between individual grievance and institutional reputation management, yet surely, if the rapid growth of effectiveness by the victim lobby has demonstrated anything, it is that the analogue thinking of Church House cannot survive in the digital world.
Those of us in the General Synod seeking transparently fair procedures and responses from the church – whether for deceased accused Bishop George Bell or the troublesome priests Fr Matt Ineson and the Rev’d Graham Sawyer – can no longer be successfully stymied by the procedures designed by and for the benefit of a patrician mindset. We may still have minimal time and procedural strictures constraining us on the floor of General Synod in our task of holding the House of Bishops to account for its manifest failures to ensure proper victim care, but the digital age has brought a speed and flexibility into campaigning which is beginning to redress the balance.
Not only can victims and Synod members communicate on a daily basis, but material from IICSA is rapidly placed in the public domain. Once very few people could follow, comment or respond to what is said there. Now we can watch it daily via the live feed, take it in turns to monitor what happens there, and draw each other’s attention to the implications of what is said if its significance is missed by those present. The full transcript of every day’s evidence is published overnight, and can be scrutinised by anybody.
The movement for justice within the church is a good example of a digital insurgency to which Church House will have to become increasingly accustomed. What once took weeks to develop into a coherent campaign can now happen within hours.
When Bishop Peter Hancock warned Synod that it needed to brace itself for two years of uncomfortable revelation, he plainly (and could only) have had in mind that which was already known to be on its way into the public domain, having been formally admitted into evidence at IICSA. What else may arise as a consequence of the hearing and the publicity of cases such as those of Matt Ineson, Graham Sawyer, Chris and many others, remains to be seen.
Be reassured, however, by the fact that previously unknown unknowns have already started to be made known, and the Byzantine procedures will not hold them in check.
The tragedy is that a combination of evil, naivity, complacency and misplaced loyalty has plunged the Church of England into this mire. It matters not that we are accompanied in this record of abuse by many other faith, media and sporting institutions, for as the Counsel to the Inquiry, Fiona Scolding QC, indicated at the outset, we still hold a unique and broad position within English society and culture.
How we handle the IICSA revelations will be crucial. We have learned from the comprehensive evidence of the Secretary General of the General Synod, William Nye, that the oft quoted aphorism that we are “Episcopally led but Synodically governed” is inaccurate: so much of the work of the church, especially in the safeguarding field, is for the House of Bishops to undertake. Anyone who has tried to press for significant change from the Synod floor learns this very quickly.
Richard Scorer, who happens to be the Vice Chair of the National Secular Society, offers us sound advice: “The fundamental problem in the Church of England is that bishops are not accountable. A bishop is king in his diocese. If a bishop is resistant to safeguarding there is no real way to overcome this.”
We in the Established Church need to address this issue. We could join the Bishops and plan to hunker in the bunker, trying to brazen our way out of the crisis asserting ‘lessons have been learned’ and using the methods of ‘reputation management’, but I doubt that will serve us well. The alternative is to embrace real transparency and accountability, accepting the short-term pain for hope of a greater prize. If that means a significant Mea Culpa, or even resignations on the basis of contrition or principle, so be it.
We are currently hearing of past failures, but scapegoating the dead and the retired is not enough. It is the current House of Bishops which bears responsibility for the collapse of confidence in the NST so graphically expressed in Andrew Graystone’s powerful booklet of victim experiences ‘We asked for bread but you gave us stones‘.
Accountability of those principally responsible for the stewardship and governance that oversaw this lamentable state of affairs must mean something. It appears that the buck effectively stops with the Bishops. They must sort it out now.