iicsa report church of england abuse
Church of England

The Church of England – a safer space for abusers than for the abused

The long awaited IICSA report into 70 years of sexual abuse, cover-up and neglect of victims in the Church of England has finally been published. It has been followed by a great deal of media scrutiny and survivor commentary. We have seen the now familiar images of Peter Ball, we have heard the apologies (once again), and the assurances that this time the church means business. It was all rather familiar to the survivor community, but this time it feels different.

It was obvious that things were going to be bad from the flurry of activity in advance. Six different initiatives were announced in the preceding week: ‘That bad?’, speculated my survivor friends. This was not altogether surprising from an institution that has seemed notoriously more concerned with PR than pastoral care. Accordingly, it did its best to lessen the impact of the 170-page report and the painful reprise of failure it contains. For those unable to read the full report, the Executive Summary delivers the essence of the panel’s conclusions. The BBC offers typical contextualisation. A handful of quotes give the flavour of the content:

The culture of the Church of England facilitated it becoming a place where abusers could hide. Deference to the authority of the Church and to individual priests, taboos surrounding discussion of sexuality and an environment where alleged perpetrators were treated more supportively than victims presented barriers to disclosure that many victims could not overcome.

…The Church’s neglect of the physical, emotional and spiritual well‐being of children and young people in favour of protecting its reputation was in conflict with its mission of love and care for the innocent and the vulnerable.

…The Church has failed to respond consistently to victims and survivors of child sexual abuse with sympathy and compassion, accompanied by practical and appropriate support. This has often added to the trauma already suffered by those who were abused by individuals associated with the Church.

…Excessive attention was often paid to the circumstances of the alleged perpetrator in comparison to the attention given to those who disclosed they had been sexually abused or to the issue of the risk that alleged perpetrators posed to others.

…Lasting change will require more than platitudes.

It is important to stress that these failures span 70 years: each and every post-war Archbishop and Bishop owns a portion of the responsibility, and let us not forget the influential General Secretaries and their various advisors inside and outside Church House. Survivors know that much of the power and strategies that oppressed them originated with the eminence grises both within and outside Church House. So what are we to make of the responses to this authoritative confirmation of the survivors longstanding and accurate critique?

One can scarcely underestimate the sense of strategic exclusion experienced for years by those whom the Church of England now hurries to acknowledge and praise. I recall when, as a naive newly-elected member of the General Synod, I wore my lanyard ID pass when I stood with victims in October 2017 at a small, good humoured demonstration outside Canterbury Cathedral. One victim insisted on taking a selfie with me, which I found embarrassing until he explained that he wanted to show it to his family to prove he was not wasting his time. He told me he was a victim of John Smyth and the Iwerne Trust. I was shocked and assured him I would tell the church. They already knew, of course; the luminaries of the Iwerne Trust since 1982, and Lambeth Palace since 2013.

The blog I wrote after that demo is really worth re-reading today, to remind ourselves of what victims were told then and how the trust they reposed in the Church of England was misplaced.

Of course, we must welcome both the report and the various initiatives that have been announced. We should also take heart from the determination expressed by the Lead Bishop for Safeguarding, Jonathan Gibbs, to drive meaningful change. He has won the qualified support of the survivor community, and that is no small feat. He is also realistic enough to know that hard-won trust will be too easily lost if he is let down by his colleagues. So far, so good. But there are three elephants in the room.

First, neither the facts nor the obvious responses to them are new: the victim community and its supporters identified all this at least five years ago. Repentance at all levels, not least by General Synod, is in order. If the church’s representatives had been more willing to call leaders to account, much of this would have been addressed sooner.

Second, the problems of denial and cover-up are neither solved nor historic. We must remind ourselves that the Smyth and Fletcher reviews are still being progressed. These are major miscreants. When these reports are published, they will be equally shocking to ordinary people who don’t understand that the culture of omerta remains in some pockets of the CofE even as I write. That is an ongoing scandal.

Third, we remain inconsistent: Matt Ineson is still waiting for the apology which was promised at IICSA; three months after ‘Graham’ brought allegations of substance against the Archbishop of Canterbury, still no investigator has been appointed, and nobody has been interviewed because of ‘technicalities’ currently incomprehensible.

Whatever the truth or weight of the allegations, this is unfair and unsatisfactory for complainant and respondent alike. Graham seeks to know the truth, and Archbishop Justin should not remain under a cloud indefinitely. This needs proper resolution one way or the other. It is hard to take an institution seriously whilst an inquiry into its most senior figure is stuck in the procedural weeds.

The specific IICSA recommendations and responses to them will need to be carefully scrutinised in detail, but one initial recommendation is especially striking. Bishops will lose executive control over the safeguarding role within their dioceses. This is potentially a major legal-ecclesial change if Bishops of the Established Church surrender authority over clergy discipline to the secular powers. It may be justified, even necessary, but it is not insignificant. Prelates in former times surrendered their lives rather than their spiritual authority, but our Bishops may be so morally weakened that they retreat not with a bang but a whimper.

Yet it may not be quite as clear cut as that. IICSA envisages independent Diocesan Safeguarding Officers reporting to the central National Safeguarding Team, which should have significant independent membership. But to whom will they accountable? Currently that team reports to the Secretary General, and he to the Archbishops’ Council, which has become energised, partly perhaps following the lodging of a complaint to the Charity Commission that it has been failing in its Trustee oversight duties. In his responses to questions on this morning’s Radio 4 Today programme, the Archbishop of Canterbury referenced that “We have become bureaucratised.”

This is precisely what the survivors fear; that under the media spotlight a flurry of activity has occurred – but they wonder what will happen when the media caravan moves on? Within the last month, with all this attention, with all the talk of improvement, and with hope and expectation abounding, two CofE survivors have attempted to take their lives. That is ultimately what this is all about: making life bearable for those the Church’s servants abused – whether they did so in clerical robes or grey suits. This report is a cause of great shame: prostration is the only response.