whitewash child abuse singleton report adequate
Church of England

It is time for General Synod to protest: victims of sexual abuse deserve better than ‘adequate’

Critics of the Church of England’s responses to historic sexual abuse can be fairly generous. Consider the words of David Pearson, founder of the Child Protection Charity CCPAS, who was trusted and chosen by abuse survivors to be the first person to bring their problems to the attention of the church. His doing so led to the initiation of the lengthy Past Cases Review (PCR), along with the related conversations and processes that ensued:

Following CCPAS’s open letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, which called upon him to use his influence to ensure all CofE dioceses review historic cases of abuse, we are pleased that the Church is now actively considering matters at the highest levels… 

In a similar vein, Richard Scorer, who is currently representing many victims of Church of England abuse at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (and is, incidentally, a Vice Chair of the National Secular Society), has previously welcomed the Church’s good intentions in the field, and has been reported by the BBC:

Child abuse lawyer Richard Scorer said in the past the church dealt with allegations internally but things were improving.

“The Churches, both Catholic and Anglican, have not dealt well with child protection, certainly until very recent times,” he said.

“They’ve always had this attitude of dealing with allegations internally. I think that is changing but it has been a problem for many years. Better systems are in place.

Unfortunately, both of these quotes date from 2007.

Eleven years later, we are still hearing emollient words that ‘lessons have been learnt’, and that we are about to see the necessary fundamental changes by which we shall achieve our twin aims: first, that abusers will now encounter a hostile and vigilant organisation; and second, that complainants will experience a serious, compassionate and just response when they bring their stories to us. We are, however, still intent on keeping it largely ‘in house’.

When the General Synod of the Church of England meets this Friday in York, it will be asked to consider a paper stirringly entitled GS 2092, which identifies three ‘thematic priorities’:

Support for and engagement with victims and survivors of abuse

Clergy Selection Suitability and Discipline

Structure Independence Oversight and Enforcement

A number of priorities, principles, plans and proposals are explored, and yet, reading it with one eye on the anger and despair widespread within the disparate victim community, one cannot help but liken this kind of response to an encounter between a man dying of thirst in a desert, who, meeting a cheerful rescuer, is enthusiastically presented with plans for the construction of a major desalination plant to be completed over the next four years.

While much of the analysis and thinking presented for approval may be coherent and necessary, this document, as a response to crisis, has all the hallmarks of being process-driven and managerial, rather than direct, urgent, and practical. The worst feature, however, is that it arrives from Church House, the Archbishops’ Palaces, and the House of Bishops, as if descended from some latter-day Mount Olympus.

I should say that the church has been listening: I personally have been invited to have high-level discussions with significant decision makers, and I’ve had my say. But I have no significant idea what most other Synod members can bring to the discussions. I respect them enough to want to know. Some Synod members share my frustration that members of the Houses of Clergy and Laity have had so little input or opportunity to get to grips with this important subject. We have had but two weeks to read, consult, and consider the paper. That may sound a long time, particularly if you are only expected to rubber-stamp it through, but what if you want to reflect upon it seriously and debate it properly?

There is a huge backlog of past material to review before one reaches any conclusion about the proposals which are now being presented, and whether they meet the exigencies of the case. We have never been given the opportunity to discuss the Carlile Report, the Elliott Report, the Meekings Report or the Singleton Report – about which more anon – the last one only being released after the time for questions by Synod members to be submitted had passed.

No digest of these reports has been circulated to enable less specialist members of Synod to appreciate the problems identified by those inquiries, and which consequently were in need of addressing. Without that background understanding, it is hard to understand what specifically GS 2092 will do to help. Synod members have multitudes of interests; they are not all as focused as I am on this area of concern, nor am I on their priorities. Members needed comprehensive background papers and preparatory debate to make sense of the long history leading to these proposals. I asked for such a debate last year. We never got it.

This is all before we consider IICSA and the evidence heard there. Are the proposals in this paper even going to be relevant once that report arrives?

Victims are even more frustrated. GS 2092 records that the Church of England continues to work with  “with a small group of survivors to develop the ‘Safe Spaces Project’”. That single project began ‘scoping’ in 2014. It had a good budget allocated, and yet, much to victims’ frustration, it has only reached the stage at which GS 2092 tells us at para 34: “The Safe Spaces pilot project is a key part of the NSSG’s approach to improving responses to victims and survivors of church-related abuse. A project plan will be considered in July.” Many fret at the glacial speed of change and the lack of urgency to repair even the simplest of deficiencies.

Victims still complain to me that their letters do not get answered in a timely way. As I was drafting this piece, an email arrived explaining as many do: “I may write to the NST later but to be honest as X  said s/he would contact me when XYZ… and hasn’t, I am getting a bit worn out.” 

We cannot claim to be taking survivors seriously when such a basic matter remains persistently unaddressed. In a commercial context such neglect is discourteous and imprudent; when you are dealing with the victims of a Christian institution, it is cruel and re-abusive. It is also easy to fix, but we don’t see any such practicality in GS 2092.

The best one can say about this document is that it is ‘adequate’. It’s a start, and we have to begin somewhere. However, were it a restaurant it would receive no stars, no crossed knives and forks, and would definitely not be worth a detour.

‘Adequate’ is a term I borrow from the Singleton Report, which we are not going to debate. That report came into the public domain against the publication plans of the church, after details of its findings came into the hands of the BBC. BBC Radio Cornwall journalist Donna Birrell, who has done much sterling work on behalf of victims, tells us that she was told the report was still under revision two hours before it was released. Plainly the church was ‘bounced’ into pre-Synod release, very much against its wishes.

Donna’s blog gives details, and poses an important question:

“…And who is really in charge of the Church?”

Is it Justin Welby or the senior layer of Bishops beneath him? Either way, the structure of the Church needs a serious re-think if trust in the institution is to improve. And the senior layer needs to be held to account and be accountable.

The church does not look as if it is about to change meaningfully in this regard. Consider para 71 of GS 2092, which is presented for approval:

71. Whatever changes may be made in safeguarding operational structures now and in the future, the accountabilities and responsibilities of bishops, priests and Church officers will remain unchanged. No safeguarding structure, whether internal or external, can take over the core role in mission and ministry of bishops and priests. They need to continue to carry out these duties safely and ensure that others do so too.

That paragraph is an assertion unjustified and highly contentious in itself. We could easily debate that alone for an hour-and-a-half if we were to undertake a serious trawl of the past evidence. When exactly did the Bishops do even an ‘adequate’ job in each of our many scandals? Bell 1? Bell 2? PCR? Peter Ball? Matt Ineson? The Dean of Jersey? Etc., etc.

Can anyone name a single bishop or member of the senior leadership who has been suitably held to account during their term of office? It simply doesn’t happen – ever. And there is no reason under these new proposals to think that it ever will. But let’s not talk about that.

No, let’s.

Isn’t the assertion that our Bishops will continue to be in control just a teensy bit contentious this side of IICSA reporting? Is the implied absolution in para 71 being smuggled past Synod representatives in the same way that they attempted to smuggle the Singleton Review past the dates of the York meeting? Or am I just being world weary and unduly cynical?

My own view is that General Synod can and should begin to do their job of holding that senior layer of church leadership to account, simply because of their inadequate responses to the crisis then and now. Perhaps passing this GS 2092 plan is ‘the only show in town’, but a significant abstention vote might be justifiable as a means of Synod members signalling that those in control of the process ‘must try harder’. It may be a small marker of discontent, but it’s a potentially important one.

Significant analysis of the Singleton Report has been undertaken by survivor ‘Gilo’, who, in a succession of tweets, identified how bad the story presented by Sir Roger Singleton truly is. I invited him to expand on these, and here are some edited highlights:

An interesting but overlooked word that features in Singleton’s report is ‘adequate’. It appears in the title: “The Adequacy of the Church of England’s Past Cases Review.” It’s also used to describe one of the Provincial Reviews, but leaves us guessing in which Palace this ‘adequacy’ took place. Reading Elizabeth Hall’s IICSA statement, it’s not difficult to imagine he was talking about Bishopthorpe. Sir Roger tends to apply plenty of emollience for example describing an outright lie as an ‘under-evidenced assertion.’

The reality is that none of this PCR can be described as ‘adequate’. It was deeply and profoundly inadequate. The process was a mix of confusion and cover-up. There was widespread confusion across dioceses… Responses across dioceses varied enormously. One diocese sent a 135 page report, another a 2 sentence report. One Area Bishop did the process himself, another Bishop refused to co-operate.

Ironically, the case of Peter Halliday the organist in Hampshire – which precipitated the PCR – would have been very unlikely to have emerged in this PCR had it not emerged earlier!… The PCR excluded many parish lay workers, volunteers, organists, lay readers, etc – due to confused distinctions between diocesan and parish workers. And anyway the focus was on clergy, not the sidekicks. And deceased clergy did not feature. So my own story for example, did not emerge despite being told to a bishop less than four years before the start of the PCR.

…the memory of bishops and other senior figures appears to be collectively amnesiac. Whether this is selective also, who can say… It was really very galling to be told by one, now a vice dean of a cathedral, who I had worked with for a year when he was a parish priest – “You do realise I’m a very busy man” when I asked for his help in 2015. Some of the responses I met in senior figures weren’t so much denial – but rather, a kind of moral and theological delinquency.

The experiences and voices of survivors were entirely absent from the PCR. This was without doubt its central failing. Whether this was by design, it’s hard to know at this stage until more evidence emerges. But we know that one survivor offered to take part and was refused. There was no attempt made to widen the net and invite victims into the process…

As far as we know – only one professional reviewer across the whole church challenged the process, and that was at Phil Johnson’s (of MACSAS) insistence. Roger Meekings who led the Chichester PCR then led the Meekings review into several cases that had been ignored by the PCR. But the church then promptly suppressed the Meekings Report due to fear that one of the Area Bishops might sue the diocese! A highly respected campaigner was called an ‘Idiot’ by a Lambeth Palace functionary when he was exploring raising a CDM against that Area Bishop.

It is astonishing that not one professional or bishop across the whole of the rest of the church – seemed to recognise that they had taken part in a whitewash. There must have been intakes of breath around the country when the absurd tally of 13 missed abusers was issued. I know from MACSAS that they went knocking on the door of the Church to ask if those 13 included 22 (and rising) in one diocese alone – but MACSAS was totally ignored!

No bishop made any public utterance on the lunacy of the whole thing across the past 8 years. 18 current bishops were involved in the PCR either as diocesan or because they were in the House of Bishops at that time – and not one has expressed publicly across the decade that it was a cover-up – until Bishop Peter Hancock did last Sunday on BBC Radio 4. He has been the first bishop to publicly half-acknowledge what everyone in their right mind knows. This was a giant whitewash! So yes, the whole process was only ‘adequate’ if that term is an act of irony on Sir Roger’s part.

Yet ‘adequate’ – the ‘damning with faint praise’ that Sir Roger attaches to the Past Cases Review – seems to apply equally to the Singleton Report itself in its evaluation of what went on before. It is ‘adequate’ in telling us that the original Past Cases Review was seriously flawed and not only underestimated the scale of the problem, but deliberately whittled down the numbers to a plainly unrealistic figure.

It now appears that it lacked rigour, because the hierarchy commissioning it lacked integrity and understanding. On all levels, they were not up to the task. In her evidence to IICSA, former Safeguarding Advisor Pearl Luxon explained:

“My recollection is that the bishops and the CofE as a whole were averse to exposing themselves to any greater scrutiny than was strictly necessary. The plea for transparency and openness, which Bishop Anthony Priddis put to them at the outset of the proposal, was limited over time and in outcome.”

Yet victims ask if this might also be true about the Singleton Review. Was Sir Roger’s document also too kind to the church in the historical interpretation of these events? The victims I am talking to certainly think so, and they received a boost to that view when CCPAS felt it important to challenge the report’s description of their role in designing the PCR. At point 11 of the Singleton Review, Sir Roger lists organisations which he assumed, concluded or was told assisted the church in establishing the scope of the review and approach to the problem.

Upon publication of the Singleton Review, CCPAS felt moved to issue a statement of clarification of its minuscule role: they plainly wished to distance themselves from the PCR review, and their statement contains a remarkable paragraph:

Mr Pearson accepted the invitation to the group and attended a meeting where he was met with hostility for publicly challenging the Archbishop. Mr Pearson was then asked to leave the meeting, and nothing further was discussed with him.

Please pause.

Re-read that paragraph and think about it. The man who brought the problem to the church was “met with hostility”, and then “asked to leave the room”. That short paragraph lifts the veil on the appalling institutional mind-set at the time.

I have known David Pearson for many years. He and I have been professionally engaged in cases concerning child abuse on many occasions, sometimes on the same side, sometimes in opposition. He is a man of great integrity and not given to exaggeration. If he and the organisation he founded felt moved to make that correction and explain the attitude of the church leadership of the time, it is significant: the decision to put these matters into the public domain would not have been made casually.

Sir Roger plainly is not hostile to the truth: he has done the Church of England and its victims a great service in flagging up the deficiencies of the PCR, but he is a church insider (he sits on the National Safeguarding Steering Group). He does not name the Bishop who declined to engage with the PCR, and nor does he name the Area Bishop who imprudently conducted his own historic review, whose efforts incidentally have subsequently been checked and also pronounced to be ‘adequate’.

Yet surely after all that has happened, our victims deserve better than ‘adequate’. They need to be given confidence in due process by the church, and they need that confidence to be founded upon rigorous questioning of the Bishops’ plans by the Houses of Clergy and Laity, whose members were elected to play an active role in shaping the direction the church takes.

Due process has various components: two important features are real and undisputed independence in our reviewers and in our review processes; and a careful holding to account of the church’s leadership by its representatives.

By giving no prior debate, so little time to digest the material, so little briefing material, and no alternative, the House of Bishops and the senior ranks of the Church of England are treating their General Synod colleagues and victims of abuse with some disdain. It really is time for members of General Synod to do their job and protest.

‘Adequate’ is simply not good enough.