victim believed u-turn
Church of England

Church U-turn on sex abuse: from the victim ‘must be believed’ to being ‘taken seriously’

This is a guest post by Martin Sewell, a retired Child Protection Lawyer.


The recent furore about the Parliamentary ‘sex scandals’ – which I prefer to think of as principally about bullying and the misuse of power – is causing people to ask a question afresh. Is it proper to ‘believe’ such allegations when made, or simply to ‘take them seriously’?

This has been live and topical question within the Church of England.

Not only do we have our own slew of allegations coming to the fore, as female clergy and lay people begin to share their stories every bit as serious and worrying as those of Hollywood and Westminster, but we have recently had the Carlile Report into the Church of England’s handling of the allegation against Bishop George Bell lodged with Lambeth Palace. That was a month ago, on 7th October. Within that report will lie the answer to our question.

Unfortunately, the church has not yet released that report, telling me that it is being ‘finalised’. One wonders quite what processes this implies, and who exactly is ‘finalising’ this for the independent reviewer. Questions have been asked to clarify these matters, so far without substantial success, but that is a story for another time.

One of course accepts the need for victim anonymisation and giving criticised persons due process, but a projected publication date and confirmation of who exactly is doing what would be good to know in a church which is aiming to embrace transparency and accountability.

Yet the core question of how one treats complaints is a very real and relevant one. Lord Carlile will doubtless have considered both the law and the ‘hot off the press’ report of Sir Richard Henriques on police mishandling of this very question. That report is important and has presented usable information right now: what is or is not the law is surely an independent matter of fact. The law reports are quite plain in reiterating and approving the approach of Baroness Butler-Sloss as set out in the Cleveland Report in 1987: the victim is entitled to be ‘taken seriously’.

The alternative view is persistently – and erroneously – attractive.

Statistically, most victims are truthful historians about what happened to them. Anyone who has spent time talking to victims of bullying and/or abuse knows how hard it is for them to find the courage to speak, especially when this truth-telling takes place in an institutionally hostile or defensive environment.

It therefore seems a kindness to offer immediate reassurance and support, which is right and proper. A friend, a confessor, an authorised listener, pastoral assistant or therapist may offer such belief and real good will be done by it, but once one enters the more forensic forums where the question becomes ‘Is this allegation true?’, an important and necessary cultural change is required.

In that different environment, which can, frequently does, and should result in life-changing decisions, a more balanced approach necessarily comes into play. In this forum, the only proper response is to fall back upon the tried and trusted principles such as ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and ‘he who asserts must prove’.

The Church of England patently lost sight of this, which resulted in the debacle by which the late Bishop George Bell failed to receive due process for the allegations posthumously made against him – a full half-century after his death. There has been quiet diplomacy going on behind the scenes at General Synod with those of a legal background imploring the National Safeguarding Team to align its approach with the law of the land. Initially this was to little avail, but that is now changing.

I believe we are witnessing a corrective sea change in how we approach these matters.

The Carlile Report was delivered on 7th October; by 13th October a new policy document was produced – ‘Promoting a Safer Church‘, issued by House of Bishops (but not debated by Synod). It declares on p6:

The Church in exercising its responsibilities to suspicions, concerns, knowledge or allegations of abuse will endeavour to respect the rights under criminal, civil and ecclesiastical law of an accused Church Officer including the clergy. A legal presumption of innocence will be maintained during the statutory and Church inquiry processes.’

Additionally, in a clarification which the NST did provide in answer to inquiries, we learn:

The key piece of guidance here is the ‘Responding to, assessing and managing safeguarding concerns or allegations against church officers’, which was published on 13 October 2017. There is guidance within this document in respect of responding to disclosures or allegations of abuse. For example, Section 2, First response (Page 25) states that a person receiving a safeguarding concern or allegation against a church officer should ‘respond well to the victim/survivor to ensure they feel heard and taken seriously.

An earlier flowchart that began with the words “Believe the victim” is no longer there. The latest practice guidance show that listening has occurred.

The language used for complainants and those complained against is always a sensitive issue. This guidance will usually be needed before there have been any findings in criminal, civil or disciplinary proceedings. At this stage there will be people who have made complaints (referred to as safeguarding concerns or allegations in this guidance) and people against whom complaints have been made. Both victims/survivors and respondents will at this stage be alleged victims/survivors and alleged respondents. For ease of reference this guidance will use the terms ‘victims/survivor’’ and ‘respondent’ without presupposing the accuracy of the complaint. These should be regarded as neutral terms that do not imply the innocence or guilt of either party.

So the angel is in the detail.

These statements demonstrate a highly significant – and immensely welcome – U-turn on the part of the church in how it handles allegations. Instead of institutional pre-judgement, the parties are to be treated equally and with seriousness.

The alignment of the Established Church’s approach in these vital matters with the ordinary standards of justice found in every court in the land is a major change and ought not to be hidden under a bushel. There is much rejoicing in heaven over a sinner that repents.

It is not simply that a long-dead bishop is likely to have due process (though complete exoneration is, in my view, impractical to expect so late in the day), what is much more important is that village priests and curates from Cornwall to Cumbria and beyond, whose causes the great and the good will not rally around, will now have a fair hearing within the disciplinary structures of the church.

I am sure there will be some embarrassment that after two years of resistance Lord Carlile has endorsed the wisdom of the church’s critics. Why it took so long to accept the change, when all the necessary materials were made available at the outset, is also a question for another time.

This is not to be unkind, but rather to ensure that the impetus that improved things for Bishop Bell takes the next step and assists victims who have different injustices outstanding.

The more important priority is to explain to the victim community why this development is actually very good news for them and an important victory in their battle to reform a Church Establishment that finds it very hard to acknowledge its errors in plain and unambiguous terms.

Talking to one of the experienced lawyers for church victims recently, I listened as he described ‘the victim must be believed’ narrative as a blind alley. Too often, in the criminal law context, he explained that cash-strapped police forces ticked their empathy boxes by bringing prosecutions without committing the necessary resources to doing the job properly. This has led to Crown Prosecutors determining not to proceed, but the police being content because they could not be blamed, for had they not ‘believed the victim’? Job done.

Reputation management came before outcome as a priority, and that is unkind and deeply disrespectful. If a task is worth doing, it is worth doing properly.

The ‘always believe the victim’ doctrine is one of cheap virtue. Even cases that passed the tests and were brought to court have sometimes failed through insufficiently robust intellectual rigour being applied to all available angles of the case. An uncritical advancement of a case leads one to walk into a ‘sucker punch’, which would have been seen and avoided if only the case had been properly prepared at the outset. Premature belief can result in sloppy practice. One ceases to take each individual piece of the jigsaw, examine it carefully and ask the simple question: ‘Now what does this mean?’

If the evidence is insufficiently robust, it is better not to bring a case at all rather than to betray a complainant’s trust and leave them angry and humiliated because due process had been skimped with resulting failure.

Yet the legal standard is not unhelpful: ‘taking seriously’ is actually much better than knee-jerk ‘belief’.

When I was a child I believed in Father Christmas. There was superficial evidence for that belief. It had its utility for a while, yet could not hold up to scrutiny once I began to apply my mind to ‘taking the proposition seriously’.

In contrast, I take Jesus Christ seriously.

That does not make things easy. There are things I don’t fully understand, issues I put to one side hoping to gain a fuller understanding later, and I accept there are some questions that I may never fully grasp, yet that seems to me to be a sign of mature engagement.

Jesus himself made just such a distinction.

Not everyone saying “Lord, Lord” is a true follower. He pointed that out. Easy belief must give way to the better way of ‘taking seriously’. Many of us respond better to a faith leader whose whole life demonstrates serious engagement than to one who encourages premature superficial verbal assent.

So when the Carlile Report comes out, and we see the important changes explained in detail, I hope that we will find our Bishops and Safeguarding Officers rejoicing that that have been corrected with sound judgment, and not simply offer a surly nod or terse lip-service.

Rend your hearts not your garments‘ comes to mind. The redrawn documents must be accompanied by the real and public embracing of a new and more healthy culture, as we educate insiders and outsiders alike to the virtues of applying the proper standards in the appropriate points of engagement with those bringing their grievances to the church.

Serious but sensitive listening at the outset; rigorous forensic detachment during the investigatory stage; justice, repentance and proper support and reparation if the complaint is upheld.

What we are seeing is an important curving of the arc of our procedures toward justice, and that is a cause for modest celebration even as we acknowledge that there is so very much more to be done.